Is Dubai a good place to bring up children? Ah yes, the million-dollar question. I’m sure every Dubai expat is asked this at least five times per trip home.
But there is no simple answer : it depends on the age of the children, what your long-term plans are and your own attitude to being in Dubai.
This is a fantastic place to bring up small children, especially if they’re born here or move here before they have a strong friendship base elsewhere. It’s safe. It’s warm and sunny, and there are activities readily available to suit every interest and budget, from sunny beach picnics and stunning public parks to themed play areas and sailing lessons.
From the day they enter primary school, children start learning Arabic and, with 200 nationalities living here, they play with friends from all over the world.
Ask a Dubai expat child to define “foreign” and they’ll have no idea what you’re talking about. The speech of many English five-year-olds is peppered with words in Hindi and Arabic, and sometimes Tagalog, too.
The only obvious downsides at this stage are the fact that you’re living away from grandparents, aunts and uncles, and the cost of schooling. A British curriculum primary school, for example, can cost up to AED 85,000 (£16,200) per year. The handful of well-established not-for-profit schools do charge a little less but are, predictably, over-subscribed.
So where does the “no” come in? Well, the HSBC Expat Explorer survey rates the UAE 18th out of 39 countries for raising a family: 11thfor quality of life but 36th for the cost.
Children here apparently spend more time watching television than they do in their home countries: this has been blamed on their “low social integration”, though I would also blame those months when it’s simply too hot to be outside.
Once children reach senior school age, things become more complicated, and it’s at this point that many expat families up and leave or send their children to boarding school back home. Unless the expat teen has a sport or hobby they’re passionate about, it becomes more difficult to find wholesome and affordable activities to amuse them beyond malls, malls and more malls and, without a fully comprehensive public transport system, the possibility for true independence of movement is somewhat limited.
Furthermore, the type of trouble teens may get into with small consequence back home can lead to serious punishment here: specifically, I’m talking about underage drinking, which does happen, is a jailable offence, and can lead to massive problems for the parents.
And then there’s the issue of growing up in such a sheltered and rather privileged bubble. At some point around the start of senior school this stops being a blessing and starts to become a worry. How will your teen cope when thrown into “the real world”?
At worst I’ve heard it said that Dubai kids won’t be able to “function” outside the UAE. Harsh, but perhaps therein lies a nugget of truth: not only are Dubai’s expat kids not as streetwise as their stay-at-home cousins, but they’ve often known a cushier life: we’ve all heard the story of the student from Dubai turning up at university and waiting for the porter to bring his bags to his room. The onus here, of course, is on the parent to educate – but what can I say? Unfortunately, the term “expat brat” was coined for good reason.
There are children of course, who make it happily through the teenage years here and turn out to be terrific, well-adjusted young adults. And the majority of families I know who kept their children in Dubai until university age haven’t regretted it. Dubai’s geographical location gives easy access both to Europe and to Asia so many of Dubai’s expat children have travelled extensively by the time they reach 18. They tend, too, to develop the expat characteristics of capability, resourcefulness and adventurousness – a mature, open-minded and global outlook, if you like.
But, ultimately, you have to ask: where is home for these kids? Even if they’re born in the UAE, current laws mean they won’t be UAE citizens. They’ll hold the passport of a country in which they’ve never lived and to which they perhaps feel little connection. So, to go back to the original question, is Dubai a good place to raise children? As I said: it depends.