The JGM BitBlog: Expatriate Bubbles in Dubai - Global Inequalities Magnified

Journal of Global Mobility

Henriett Primecz, Johannes Kepler Universitat Linz, Linz, Austria

Due to their temporary presence in a new social context, expatriates tend to attach to each other instead of integrating into local communities. They form expatriate bubbles in which a wide variety of nationals might participate, especially when their social status is similar. They are part of the growing global class of mobile experts. Big cities attract expatriates, and expatriate bubbles are formed there. Dubai is a uniquely positioned cosmopolitan city. Not only does it provide an exceptional site for expatriates from the West and East but also from the semi-periphery, namely from Eastern Europe.
This study focuses on lived experiences and testimonies of expatriates from Eastern Europe and their network. The opportunity to work in Dubai attracted expatriates from all over the world. The homogeneity of the expatriate community was refuted by the interviewees when they gave a more detailed account about their everyday life and their social networks. British passport holders with a genuine British accent are on the top of the hierarchy, accompanied by other native English speakers and Western expatriates in general. This is not independent from the fact that United Arab Emirates is a former British colony, and their withdrawal from this imperial power was not the result of a violent war of independence but a quiet divorce.
Expatriates from East (and South), however, are devalued, and they fill the worst paid jobs, including services and physical work. Indeed, it is a clear replication of centre – periphery duality in the world. Emirati people hardly mingle with the two distinct expatriate communities. Work is the only exception. The empirical results of this study in Dubai were in contrast with previous studies on Eastern-European employees in the West, for example in the UK where they were clearly underemployed, while research here has proven that they gain a certain status, as people are often evaluated by their looks, and Caucasian people, especially when they work for a renowned Western company, are automatically considered privileged, and they receive the same respect and advantages as their Western counterparts.
Western expatriates pursue sports and free-time activities, which are unaffordable for expatriates from the East, while Emirati people socialise more with locals due to their family relationships, and even Muslim religious rules, such as the prohibition on drinking alcohol. The boundaries among expatriate bubbles are reinforced by law, as citizenship is unachievable for non-Emirati family members. People are constantly evaluated based on their looks, English accent, place of their education, and the issuer of their passports; consequently, the geopolitical inequalities between East and West magnifies social inequalities between the badly paid expatriates from the East and well-remunerated Westerners. Eastern European professionals from the semi-periphery could join the well-respected Westerners silently and invisibly, due to their whiteness and companionship with other Western experts. Consequently, they gained slightly from this situation.
The practical implication of the study builds on the fact that Dubai is a cosmopolitan city with a large proportion of expatriates, and cultural diversity clearly characterizes the context. It is, indeed, a welcoming place for experts who have the drive to work hard and who are ready to accept strict rules. Anyone who is willing to fit in to this work-centred ideal with self-discipline might pursue a successful career and might gain a lot during their stay. While whiteness and fluency in English, preferably with a genuine British accent, is appreciated, it is not an ideal place for everyone. Gender plays a role, but skin colour and country of origin are more important. Consequently, white men and women are welcome, even from the semi-periphery, namely from Eastern-Europe. At the same time, sexual minorities, people with disabilities, and elderly are not welcome.

To read the full article, please see the Journal of Global Mobility publication:
Primecz, H. (2023), "Expatriate bubbles in Dubai: expatriates from West and East cohabitating with locals", Journal of Global Mobility, Vol. 11 No. 1, pp. 6-20.