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Why We Moved to New York from Dubai

One of the most common questions I get asked is why we moved to New York, especially as we had such a wonderful life in the United Arab Emirates.

For many people, it's the dream to move to the United States and New York City was certainly on my vision board for many years. So when the opportunity came for us to move, it was a no-brainer in many respects.

However during my eighteen years in the Middle East, I'd met and married my husband, (who was born in Dubai) and had two children. I also had a thriving business, a strong community of friends and family members around me, and we’d recently purchased property.

My novelist career also started in Dubai when I won the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature Novel Writing Prize. While I’d always had a work permit and residence visa, my contribution to the literature landscape in the UAE awarded me a Golden Visa which meant I didn’t need to be tied to any organization to live and work there.

In essence, I had built an amazing life there and enjoyed everything Dubai had to offer.

And if you've ever visited the UAE or read about it, you know it offers it’s expat residents a lot. Tax-free salaries, guaranteed sunshine, international schools, and one of the safest cities in the world to raise a family.

For most people, the appeal is in experiencing a new culture, a new country, while also enjoying (usually) a lower cost of living compared to their own home country thanks to no income tax.

For many, the Dubai lifestyle is one of sun-filled cosmopolitan luxury in stunning developments such as Dubai Marina, Palm Jumeirah, Downtown Dubai, and Burj Khalifa. Beautiful beaches, Michelin-starred restaurants, and good health insurances plans make it an attractive option for a new home and a new life.

And yet....

This post is not a how to move article nor is it a comparison between two cities. Instead, it's a personal dive into my experience of moving my family across the world. Emphasis on the word family. I've moved countries several times when I was single but when you have two children, there's a lot more to consider and the stakes felt a lot higher.

So, here are a few reasons we moved to New York:

For the change

I’ve always lived by the life motto: better to do something and regret it, than not do it, (which has got me into trouble a few times!) but we only get one life and these opportunities don’t come around often! While the city of Dubai is brilliantly positioned to explore the Middle East, the United Arab Emirates is still a small country and while Emirates such as Abu Dhabi are growing rapidly, moving to the US offered a whole new continent to explore.

For the future

As much as I love Dubai and raising our kids there, it offered a very pampered life and I didn’t want my children to have a culture shock when they left for further education. I also wanted to foster more independence and the concept of earning their own money when they become teenagers in a part-time job. We had to make the switch from the British Curriculum but overall, I’ve really seen my kids blossom in the New York education system which has a huge emphasis on inclusion and diversity.

For the opportunity

Dubai is one of the fastest growing cities in the world and there is no doubt a career in Dubai is an asset to any CV. However, because of the market size, there is a ceiling in some professions. For my husband, he needed international experience. If you work in tech and marketing, New York is the place to be and it just so happened that the global offices of his company were based there. That’s not to say our bank account didn’t take a hit - going from a tax-free salary to a job offer that involved paying a high percentage of tax and fewer vacation days wasn’t easy, but we worked the numbers and planned accordingly - it did help that we wouldn’t have to pay school fees like we did in Dubai.

For the security

The UAE is different to a lot of countries in that in order to live there, you have to have a job, therefore for many people, if you lose your job and can’t find another one, you have to leave. While Dubai now offers Golden Visas to people in certain professions (a 10 year visa not linked to any employment), it’s still a precarious way to live. While nothing is certain in life, moving to New York meant we wouldn’t be in such a position after a certain period of time. One of the most important things that factored into our decision was having the ability to build a life in a country which was less transitional.

For the seasons

I was also attracted to the outdoor activities of living in a city with four seasons - during the summer months, Dubai is very much an indoor place. But it goes beyond just witnessing the beauty of the changing colors of the leaves; there’s something grounding and comforting about experiencing each season. A daily reminder that it’s just one big circle of life and that nothing or no-one lives forever. Far from being depressing, I feel much more connected to the rhythms of daily life.

If you’re planning a family move, especially to the US, here are a few things I’ve learnt:

1. Research the state

Each state in the US is quite different with its own legal system so make sure you research the place you’re moving to. New York City is diverse and cosmopolitan so it wasn’t such a huge stretch from our environment in Dubai but that’s not the case everywhere. While we didn’t have the time to do a reconnaissance trip, if you get the opportunity, I would definitely advise doing so as even in a place as small as Manhattan, every block is different. One major difference is the school curriculum in public schools. New York City has it’s own curriculum but the rest of the state is different so if you’re looking for something specific you will need to research this in advance too. There is also a school system called Charter Schools which is something I hadn’t come across before. Private schools and schools using international and specific country curriculums are also available - the choice can be overwhelming so it pays to research and consider how long you plan to stay in the States.

2. Budget over what you think you will need

New York City is eye-wateringly expensive and after years of tax-free salaries, it takes a while to get used to all the different taxes in New York. On the plus side, we no longer pay for schooling so that was a welcome bonus. Also, in the City, the public transport system is cheap and we didn’t feel the need for a car in Manhattan. But pretty much everything else is way more expensive, especially rent - we paid triple what we paid in Dubai for a fraction of the space.

3. Move with an organization

The application process is long and quite complicated. There are many steps to get the residence permit and we were very lucky that my husband’s company arranged so much of the paperwork. A work visa where you're offered a transfer with your company is probably one of the easier ways to move to the USA.

While the UAE visa tends to have just a few types, there are many categories of American visas, all with different benefits and restrictions. I consider myself a good researcher but there’s no doubt it’s confusing! My husband’s organization managed all the legal requirements and government services to obtain the family visa. There’s so much paperwork involved, I would have found it impossible to understand without the support of the company lawyers.

For the most part, we’ve really enjoyed our life in New York so far - yes, there have been challenges and upheaval and days (usually the cold winter ones!) where we wonder what we’ve done when we could be on a beach in Dubai but so far no regrets!

  • Have you moved your family across the world? What was your experience?

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New York City

I'm Karen, a best-selling novelist who left her corporate life to pursue my dream of becoming a writer. Since then, I've written everything from travel articles to web copy before winning a novel writing competition which led to a 3-book deal. 


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