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The Middle East Report: Dubai dreams

The Middle East Report: Dubai dreams

Michelle Palmer, a 30-year-old publishing manager from Britain, recently offered one example of how the expat can, and can't, live it up in Dubai. Reports say Palmer was arrested by police and…

Michelle Palmer, a 30-year-old publishing manager from Britain, recently offered one example of how the expat can, and can't, live it up in Dubai. Reports say Palmer was arrested by police and charged with having sex outside marriage, indecent behaviour in public, being intoxicated in public and assaulting a police officer.

She faces between three months and six years in jail. Her experience would have those unfamiliar with the oil-rich state believe it was not possible to live a Western-style life there. But, meanwhile, the expat lives of a throng of Australian, British and American professionals might have us thinking differently.

Before her escapades and arrest, Palmer had been at one of Dubai's infamous Friday brunches, where Western expats take the morning to drink, eat and generally be merry. It is where professionals meet on the first morning of the weekend (Friday and Saturday are weekends in Dubai) to fully appreciate living abroad via all-you-can-eat, drink and socialise gatherings.

It is this scene, and tales of doubled-salaries, fast cars and some of the best places to spend your money in the world that has so many Australian lawyers cashing in their lives for a one-way ticket to Dubai.

The mix of high salaries and a lifestyle to match Hollywood's glitterati is a potent one for many Australians. The salaries driven by Dubai's exploding growth, as well as luxurious housing and transportation allowances, on top of the fact that there are no local taxes, lure an increasing number of corporate and private practice lawyers.

For lawyers, one big pull is that a lot of legal work in Dubai is considered "sexy", thanks to it being international in nature, says Maciek Motylinski, senior consultant at EA International. "The international nature of the work done in the corporate, projects and finance groups in the international firms is quite sexy. It's cross border in nature, the deals are complex and you're dealing with clients in various parts of the world ... so the work is interesting, dynamic and varied and lawyers can travel within the region consistently and to Europe and South America, where a lot of the deals are tied into," he says.

As well as things being attractive on the work front, Dubai's expat social life has an increasingly good reputation. "A lot of lawyers come over here at the mid-level and are buying themselves mustangs and fast cars, they're having a great time and a good social life. There are a lot of bars, clubs, and the night life is good," says Claire Walters, who lives in Dubai and is associate director at legal recruitment company Taylor Root.

Lawyers report back home with tales of barbecues in Dubai's back gardens, and about 8000 fellow Australians to keep them company. Zubair Mir, an Australian lawyer who left the Melbourne office of Corrs Chambers Westgarth to move to the Herbert Smith office in Dubai, via a stint in London, says the lifestyle is very similar to Australia's.

Those who do well in the land of sand and sun report buying boys' toys to play with in the desert, indoor ski fields, rugby and water-polo in the winter months, the chance to follow two local AFL teams, and a tight expat community of lawyers to keep them company.

"They spent about a billion US dollars producing indoor skiing in the Middle East. It's the third-largest indoor ski facility in the world, and the only one in the Middle East," says Mir.

We've all heard about the revolutionary architecture coming out of Dubai, with man-made islands in the shape of palm trees and seven star resorts. This gives Dubai a reputation for being forward-thinking and fun, but Motylinski at EA International says that while the things they have planned for Dubai are amazing, and that when it's complete it will be "something out of this world", at the moment the city is a "very, very large construction site".

"If you look at the night life and the cultural aspects of the place, they are still relatively underdeveloped. Most of the nightclubs are tied into international hotels for licensing reasons and there are still considerable restrictions on alcohol ... and not every establishment sells it," he says.

"It's absolutely amazing. We had one of our kid's birthday parties there and they literally create a kids area where they bring out a polar bear, clearly someone in an outfit ... You walk in from outside where it might be the high 40s [degrees], into this thing where you literally have to be wearing gloves and goggles and ear muffs," he recalls.

Expat social routines have also been a big bonus, with little in the form of Middle Eastern conservatism to get in the way - until Palmer's beach incident virtually kicked sand in the face of the now infamous Friday brunch. Palmer's experience is a potent reminder of the differences between the Western and Middle Eastern realities.

One lawyer says that expat professionals can live luxurious lifestyles as long as they are relatively tactful in their behaviour. "It's very discretionary here. The laws in this country; there is a heavy influence of Shariah," says Ravinder Bullah, who left the Melbourne office of Blake Dawson in 2004 to join the Dubai office of international law firm Denton Wilde Sapte.

"You should not be seen drinking in public. But people do go out to clubs here, there are nightclubs here, which are very good. But if you do get [drunk] you can't run amok," he says.

But even if you are prepared to keep your alcohol and beach romps to a minimum, there has been some confusion around what sort of lifestyle Dubai and its local business cousin, Abu Dhabi, will really afford you.

Walters warns that life in Dubai is not all sunshine. Finding a job can be challenging and lawyers work hard. "You can't just rock up and say 'OK I want to be a corporate lawyer, give me a tax-free salary'. I mean, they're not that desperate," she says.

Dubai has been a magnet for ambitious young people who want an environment where they can make a lot of money and have a lot of fun. While it's clear the "fun" element needs to be tempered, reports of getting double your Australian salary and having a better work-life balance also need to be called into account.

The typical picture is of a young hot-shot who is headhunted by a top firm in Dubai, now makes $250,000 a year and drives a Mercedes-Benz provided by his company. But Walters, for one, says this is a "bit of a myth".

"I think those who are making the most money are already in the market and are at private equity companies or similar. But as an Australian lawyer moving into the market I would be very cautious of anyone who [said] you could double your salary," says Walters.

The exorbitant price of rent, as well as living costs generally, also needs to be factored into your salary. Petrol is cheap, however, as are cars. Many lawyers buy two BMWs, for example, which they can fill up for about $20.

Those looking for the dollars - or the United Arab Emirates Dirhams - should choose one of the larger US or London magic circle firms over working in-house. Or private equity firms and sovereign welfare funds in both Abu Dhabi and Dubai will often guarantee a certain bonus when you sign up.

As the Dubai economy expands, firms and companies are increasing their search for experienced professionals with at least four years' experience. In order to attract those professionals, they pay compensation packages of more than $100,000 and some offer housing allowances of up to $10,000 per month for executives. But, as Walters notes, they are not desperate, and will only pay the price if the person is right.

"There is a candidate shortage, but clients are very specific about what they want. Most general counsel are English, American and Australian and they've all come from excellent backgrounds," says Walters.

Most popular are candidates with some connection to the United Emirates, be it that they speak Arabic, have worked there before or have a family tie-in with the Middle East, she says.

Structured finance lawyers, or lawyers with a lot of securitisation experience, will not necessarily find it easy to find work in the Abu Dhabi and Dubai. Walters says for this sort of work it is a relatively immature market. Instead, corporates and firms are looking for corporate equity lawyers, and those in energy, property andconstruction.

"So you may want to escape Sydney," she says, "but you may not find an option here."

In-house, as with their law firms counterparts, work very, very hard, says Walters. "They are seen as fixtures and have to be on their game. It can be very challenging."

Walters debunks the idea that moving to Dubai is a lifestyle choice, arguing that while there is a perception of Dubai as a place "where you can make hay while the sun shines", firms and in-house teams are looking for specific and often rigid skill sets.

Despite tales of glamorous lifestyles, more ways to spend your money than you could hope for, warm weather and a fabulous social life (even when it does get the odd person into trouble), Dubai also puts forward challenges to the Western lawyer.

Walters warns against thinking the grass is greener, and the sand and sun more appealing in this new, quickly developing world.

"People call us up and say they want to move to the Middle East for the lifestyle and we have to put them right. You work very hard here. There are lots of things you can do with your money but you have to work very hard. I still think Australia is the best place for work/life balance."

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The Middle East Report: Dubai dreams
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