Why I don’t think Dubai (or anywhere) is the land of endless possibility anymore
Losing your job is never easy. Losing your job in a foreign country, when you haven’t done anything wrong while dealing with a personal crisis, is the stuff that you would never wish upon even your worst enemy.
In 2013, I was going through a difficult time personally, with a significant development occurring on Sept. 17. Then, on Oct. 1, almost as if by magic, I received an email from an editor in Dubai. Turns out, I had applied to the magazine that she managed during a random job search about a year and a half ago.
A position was available now and she was asking if I was still interested.
There is a huge Indian expat community scattered all over the Middle East. Higher salaries (which multiply when converted against the Indian currency’s exchange rate) and a better quality of life, while still only about a four-hour direct flight from home, has made the region wildly popular for many people for years.
Dubai, it’s newest, most glittering center, is often seen as the place where all dreams come true.
My Current Job
I had been at my job at the time for nearly three years and was open to considering something new. Given my personal circumstances, it almost seemed like a sign. So I wrote back quickly and said I was happy to discuss details. During the next few days, a few emails were exchanged. She told me briefly about the magazine and what my duties would be. She sent a preliminary writing and editing test, which she said I did had done well on and then she asked to schedule a phone interview.
A Phone Interview
The phone call seemed like a mere formality and the company agreed to pay the salary that I requested, without any negotiation. The company wanted me to join as soon as possible, which I said could take place one month later — the notice period I needed to serve to my current position.
I actually loved the job that I would have to leave. Saying goodbye wasn’t easy. I procrastinated to send the resignation letter until I no longer could wait, timing the end of the notice period only two days before I was scheduled to start the new job.
The offer letter was emailed to me, which I had to sign and send back.
I had been hired to manage a magazine that focused on the business community in Qatar and was told that I would be flown to Doha frequently on work. I tried learning more about the company, which had a website, but no Wikipedia page. This seemed a bit strange but I thought it wasn’t a big deal. Even before I got to Dubai, the company had booked me two-way flight tickets from Dubai to Doha, to cover a week-long annual conference in only my second week on the job.
Only My Second Job
This was only my second job so the prospect of going overseas to be the deputy editor of an international magazine, earning ten times (no exaggeration) what I had been making, in a tax-free country, suddenly started to seem very real — and intoxicatingly attractive. To make a sweet deal, sweeter still, the company was paying for my air ticket from India to Dubai as well as providing accommodation at a luxury serviced apartment close to the office for my first two weeks in the city.
When I got off the plane in Dubai, where I knew no one, a chauffeur who held a board with my name on it, greeted me at arrivals and drove me to the hotel in a shiny black Audi. Did I mention that I was 27 years old?
When a person is hired by a company in the UAE, they must be sent a work visa, sponsored by their employer, before they can begin any work, without which many applicants cannot even enter the country. Based on my nationality, I did not need a visa to enter the country and could stay for about one month as a tourist before requiring permission to work and stay longer.
For a work visa, I would have to submit my passport to the government for about a month, until the papers were processed and it was issued. If I did this, I wouldn’t be able to travel to Doha for the conference. So I was told by “HR” to enter the country as a tourist and go to Doha in the second week.
Once I returned to the UAE from Doha, I could submit my passport for the work visa. I did think this was a bit strange and wondered whether the company asked other employees to do this as well. But I had not been provided the name or number of anyone to whom I could ask questions and figured there was no point wasting time with silly questions.
I had reached Dubai in the morning. After sleeping off a little jet-lag, I took a short walk to find the office building and couldn’t wait until the next day to start work. I got there nearly an hour early and waited until I was shown to my desk and IT set me up with a work laptop and an iPhone.
The editor whom I had had the phone interview with, and would be reporting to, came in a little later and stopped by my desk to say hello.
The First Week
The first week was spent in meetings as she explained the role. But the information was basic at best. Her teaching style seemed to be to tell me as little as possible and see how best I would figure the rest out. Her lack of details and guidance meant that I took so much longer to learn.
She asked me to mark (cc her on EVERY SINGLE email that I sent so that she knew exactly what I was doing. Only, once I started working I was told that this was a contract publishing job and not journalism.
The workload was unreal.
I was responsible for reporting, writing, editing and commissioning stories, handling the website and social media channels. The publication followed their own bizarre copy style, which didn’t adhere to any of the mainstream ones. I was always on time but one of the last to leave the office on most days, working well past the required eight and a half hours. Another editor (let’s call him Bill), also often worked late, and would usually say goodbye to me on his way out.
Following The Conference
Following the conference, my editor started to get impatient with me because she didn’t think I was learning as fast as I should. Around this time, all employees were sent an email about discussing new KPIs (key performance indicators) with their line managers. We were all given forms, which specified what these were, which we were required to sign and submit to HR. In about one month, there would be a review meeting.
Instead of committing to a year-long rental agreement, I moved in with strangers (because this option was significantly cheaper) whom I found on a local equivalent of Craigslist. I was saving money but because I didn’t have a valid work visa, I couldn’t open a bank account and didn’t qualify for medical insurance.
My first salary (and the second, as well) was given to me as a physical cheque, although my contract mentioned that money would be credited to my bank account each month.
Between the time that I first arrived in Dubai and until my work visa finally came through, I had more than AED 30,000 (about USD 8000) in cash and cheques stashed in my suitcase, which I locked and stored under my bed.
This Arrangement Seemed Very Very Strange.
My sister’s wedding had been scheduled in mid-2013. But the date had been moved and at short notice, I was told by my family that the wedding date was set toward the end of February 2014. I applied for one week of leave, which I was eligible for, and traveled home for the ceremony. I returned to Dubai in the first week of March and was told that my KPI review meeting would be scheduled soon.
The office chatter was that the company was going through a major restructure and soon it was formally announced that Bill was part of senior management.
One Positive Note
On a more positive note, my passport had finally been submitted for a work visa to be issued.
By this time, I had been working for a little more than two months and although I was far from happy, I had settled into some sort of routine. I slowly started to make friends at work and with one of my roommates. Dubai became more familiar. Work was still difficult but at least it seemed more manageable.
Should I Quit?
I did think often about quitting, but according to a clause in my contract, if I resigned before completing at least six months of employment, all relocation expenses would be deducted in full. If I resigned within one year, I would be charged the cost of the work visa.
I worked regularly until March 12, frequently reminding Bill about the KPI review meeting, with whom I was supposed to schedule this meeting. He kept pushing the date, casually telling me that I should first close the magazine edition that I was working on.
Once I had finished the current magazine edition, and before starting work on the next edition, I met with Bill and two people from HR on the morning of March 12.
The Ten Minute Review
The meeting must have lasted less than ten minutes. Fully prepared to discuss my KPIs, I was told that funding for the magazine was being terminated. This meant that I no longer had a job. I was told that the company would be happy to give me a good reference but my employment and compensation ended with immediate effect.
I was allowed to hold on to the iPhone for a few days (because I didn’t have another phone and because I requested them to let me) but had to return the laptop the same day. I was told that I could come back to the office in a few days to pick up my final payment, which did not include any severance pay.
When I came out of the meeting, I went straight to the editor whom I reported to, to ask what was going on. Turns out, she had known about this for a few weeks, even before I traveled home for the wedding, but had been told not to say anything.
Several other people were laid-off as well and within a few days, this editor resigned too.
UAE Visa Rules
According to UAE rules, if you leave the country with a work visa that hasn’t been voided by the employer at the end of your employment, you can be reported as an absconder and be denied re-entry to the country in the future.
Soon after receiving a work visa, I had to wait for ten days until my passport was sent back to the authorities for the visa to be canceled and the passport returned before I could travel back to India. Many people suggested that I try looking for another job but I had had enough of “the great Dubai experience,” and just wanted to go back home. The company paid for the flight ticket.
I can’t understand how an organization can be so badly managed that they think it is okay to contact someone about a job a year and a half after they applied and lure them to give up a job that they love and move overseas for a role that can evaporate in less than four months and not feel the need to offer any compensation for their poor decisions.
I flew home and after a few months accepted a job offer to write for an international luxury travel magazine in Mumbai. So everything worked out exactly as it was meant to. And despite the drama, I don’t regret my time in Dubai because I learned so much, made friends and saw a new part of the world. I also did make some money. But I now know not to go towards anything new as starry-eyed and that plenty can go wrong even in the most seemingly perfect circumstances.
For every young person navigating the early stages of their career, which is every bit as confusing as it is exciting:
I Have This To Say:
· Stop doubting yourself. You are worthy and valuable. It’s worth being humble and open to feedback. And you can’t ever know what lies ahead. But if something feels wrong about a person or a situation, trust your instincts.
· If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is!
· Ultimately, it’s just a job. No matter how much you’re paid, the time you spend with loved ones and the things you do outside an office will always be worth so much more.
In the end, for a business career — I’m glad I learned these lessons at the age of 27.
Take this example and don’t get burned at a later age from which the repercussions could be much more difficult or even unrecoverable.
This piece was first published on www.startupgrind.com