Hello! Welcome to “Location Independent, International Jobs,” the Wednesday series where I showcase stories from people who have become location independent, work internationally, and/or continuously travel.
- how to get an international job (hint: your network is important!)
- the benefits of an MBA
- how to become an international entrepreneur
- some cultural shocks from Dubai
- the financial benefits of fasting
I am an American from a small town in north Georgia. My wife and I have been living in Dubai since 2008. We have two boys named Jack (who’s six) and Zain (who’s three), or as we call them, Thing One and Thing Two. They were born in The Emirates.
I graduated from Furman University with a degree in Spanish. I earned an MBA at Georgia State University in Atlanta. I attended part time for a few years while working for DHL (the delivery company).
How did you make the decision to move internationally?
My wife and met while in graduate school for international business. Both of us wanted to live overseas – mostly for the adventure [Laurie: Andrew has traveled to over 80 countries!] . As a part of our graduate school program we had to intern overseas. I worked in China and she worked in Argentina. After we graduated we got jobs in Atlanta and then when an opportunity to work overseas just before the Great Recession. We never planned on living in the Middle East and we thought we would just stay for a year.
What was the process like for finding jobs?
For me I was a little lucky as I was recruited. A friend from college sent my CV (resume) to a company that was looking for people with skills that I have. The CEO of the company called me up one morning and asked if I’d ever considered working in Dubai. I said “Du what? Du where?”
When we got to Dubai my wife didn’t have a job but after three weeks of networking she landed a job she liked so much that she stayed with the company for nine years.
Initially I worked as an internal consultant for a conglomerate family business in Dubai. That job exposed me to several businesses that were owned by the family. For example I did marketing projects for a rental car company. Then I was asked to manage a chauffeur-driven limousine service (read more here). Later I directed large IT projects for an inland port and container company. I was asked to revitalize or sell off a fledgling swimming pool maintenance company. We were able to turn it around and make it profitable. I left the swimming pool company (and group of companies) to be a partner in an outdoor cooling (misting) company. I have been running that business for the past three years. I also have a business license for swimming pool and spa training and consulting. I do that on the side when I have time.
The first couple of years were tough. There was a lot of work that had to be done. We did all of the installation work ourselves as well as sales, maintenance, marketing and everything required to set up a business in the UAE. Eventually we won a few big projects. We hired staff and are doing more and more work. The challenges are not over. Current challenges include getting paid for work that we have completed and working through the seasonality of the business.
My wife Jamie worked for a UK marketing research company based in Dubai. Recently she and one of her colleagues started their own marketing research company. That was a challenge since her previous job was stable while my business was growing. Now were are dependent on not just our hard work but our ability to win work and collect funds for work completed. In both cases we have had to forgo paying ourselves to pay our staff and put money back into the business. Through it all we have grown in our faith that things will work out.
Favorite part about living overseas?
Being exposed to so many different places, cultures, things, and ways of thinking is a constant stimulation. Even after ten years in Dubai there are still new smells, sights, foods, and concepts that remind me that I am in a place that is different. Also not paying income taxes has been good for our disposable income [Laurie: American residents living in the UAE do not pay income tax].
Least favorite part?
Being away from family and friends from home is tough. We have had a few relatives pass away and we were not able to make it to their funerals. Nieces and nephews have grown up quickly and we only see them once every couple of years. We can continue friendships via social media but it is not the same as being there in person. My sons are growing up away from our family and regional culture. They are being socialized in a completely different way and even use different words than we do [Laurie: Mr. ThreeYear and I can relate to this for different reasons. Our kids have been acculturated in the New England region, and only speak English. So not only do they not really understand their mother’s southern culture, they don’t understand their father’s home culture of Chile. So it’s a bit like our family has three different cultures].
I also miss food from my region of the US, American Football and some aspects of American culture. And I miss rain, green and cold. There are a lot of things that I miss about America like the judicial system, “freedoms” and fully understanding both what is said and implied when someone says something.
Do you have any funny culture shock moments?
Everyday! Recently an Emirati government official saw my company’s misting fans. He liked the product and asked that we call him later to set up a meeting for installing mist cooling fans at the municipal parks he oversaw. A few weeks later we called him up and reminded him who we were: “You asked us to contact you about the misting fans.” He told us to go to a very large park to meet with one of his staff. We went to the park and met with the staff who were also Emiratis but they did not speak very much English and my Arabic is not great. They took us in their SUV along a
sandy road that ran along the outer boundary of this large park. After driving for some time they stopped at a desolate spot and pointed to a hole in border fence. They said some words in Arabic. Then we drove on. We again stopped at another gap in the fence. This one was larger and we go out to look at it. Again we drove for a long while until we came to a spot with an entire section of fence that had fallen down. We got out to look at this area. They kept pointing and speaking loudly in Arabic so that we would
understand. We were able to understand one of them said “This is the place,” in Arabic.
“You want to put misting fans here?” my business partner asked, quite puzzled. It was then that we realized that the person on the phone might have heard “missing fence” not “misting fans.”
I gave training to a group of South Asians (mostly Indian and Nepali Hindus). Only after the training did I learn that using the illustration about problem solving of “eating an elephant one bite at a time,” or saying “period” (as opposed to “full stop”) to emphasize a point was a little offensive. One British colleague kept talking about his partner so I asked him about how gays were treated in the Arab world [Brits commonly use the word “partner” to mean “significant other” whereas in the US we only say partner if we have a same-sex partner, or are talking about a business partner]. He was a little put off. Once someone told me they were from
Palestine, which lead me to ask,“is that in Israel?”I tried to shake several Muslim and Indian women’s hands before I learned that is not
their culture. And several Gulf Arabs (Khaleejis) just extend a limp hand shake rather than a bone crushing grip.
Other shocks include:
- Seeing people praying in an office.
- Seeing praying everywhere.
- Having people at work ask you what your religion is and talk openly about religion.
- People smoking in offices (in Kuwait and Saudi – not in the UAE anymore). Ramadan.
- Getting a haircut and having Indian gel and spices put in your hair.
Why would you recommend an international assignment to someone?
Most people enjoy traveling to new places. Working overseas is like traveling but staying longer. You can learn a lot. You can sometimes make more money than at home. You change your perspective and way of living. You can make new friendships and relationships. You can better appreciate your culture and background.
Why would you not recommend this to someone?
Some people like the security of being in an environment where everything is familiar to them. They couldn’t handle the change or deal with the differences. Dubai and the Middle East can be very stressful. There is a lot of change going on in this region. Not everyone has the capacity to deal with the uncertainty, the frustrations or the high summer temperatures which top 45*C (113*F) with humidity. People who can’t handle being a minority might struggle. Missing family and friends from home and feeling like you are not connected to your culture is hard.
How has working remotely positively (or negatively) impacted your finances? (since this is a personal finance blog!).
In 2010 we became debt free. There are no (direct) income taxes in the UAE
although there will be a VAT system is starting this year. Living overseas, Americans get a sizable tax exemption. Many people who move to Dubai get sucked into spending and end up overspending that additional income.
My wife was a big fan of Dave Ramsey and I had taken a couple of Crown Financial Ministry courses before I met her. Both tracks have helped us to give, save, and avoid unnecessary spending. Currently, at our little church that meets in warehouse in an industrial area we are watching a series from the US, called Crazyseries.org.
We have several pieces of advice that have helped us: To stay focused, have a plan and a budget. Think and pray about major purchases before making them. Avoid debt and credit cards.
One interesting method that I have found to cut down spending is fasting. [Laurie: I have become a huge proponent of intermittent fasting myself – eating 500 calories two days a week, and eating normally the rest of the time – and notice it definitely cuts down on the amount of groceries we need!].
I thought Muslims were crazy to fast during Ramadan until several months ago when a Jewish guy visiting Dubai convinced me to try a water fast. Part of fasting and going without are a focus on what we really need. Turns out most people can go for a month without food so do I have to buy the latest gadget at 11:50pm?
We are also spending a lot of time teaching our sons about money. In Dubai, a lot of families have high amounts of disposable income. You may have seen videos of expensive sports cars with pet tigers hanging out of the windows. Well that is true. But there is major income disparity here. Some forms of services and labor are cheaper in the UAE verses the USA. For example, here, at a typical fast food restaurant, someone take your tray for you to the trash (or the rubbish bin as my son calls it). So we are working hard to make sure that our children have similar work ethics to the ones we were raised with in the US.
What are your future plans?
We are going to continue on our current paths of growing our businesses and we take it as it comes – Inshalla – as God wills it.
I’m so grateful to Andrew for taking the time to share his story. It’s fascinating to hear what he and Jamie have been up to, and especially the businesses they’re both creating (sounds like we might need a follow up interview for my Entrepreneur of the Week series!). If you have questions for Andrew, ask them below, or reach out directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.