Dubai’s massive development credentials promise a golden career for ambitious Brits. But, as Roxane McMeeken reports, would-be economic migrants may find that all is not as it seems. Here are five points to bear in mind …

“Who at my age can say they’ve worked on a £130m project?” asks Robert Watson, a 29-year-old project manager for construction manager Mace. He has been in Dubai for two years and is leading a £130m residential development on Palm Jumeira Island.

Watson gets straight to the point of why many young people move to the Middle East with dreams of sun, sand and megabucks: they’ll be given an even warmer welcome from employers when they return to the UK. “Do two or three years out here, clock up a couple of big projects on your CV and you could go anywhere,” he says.

Richard Masters, project manager at consultancy Davis Langdon & Seah, agrees. He’s 27 and has been leading on several office developments for big-name investment banks in Dubai. At the moment, he is seconded to Deutsche Bank and reports daily to the financial giant’s chief operating officer. “Unlike some postings outside London, I feel that here your career can be accelerated or at least on a par,” he says.

But it’s not that simple. While there’s little doubt that working in Dubai offers great opportunities you wouldn’t find at home, there are also plenty of pitfalls. There’s no guarantee that hard-won experience will be relevant anywhere else. After all, there isn’t that much call for billion-dollar leisure developments back in the UK.

Masters admits that he is pleased to be building offices for international companies rather than the outlandish resorts typical of Dubai. “If you are working on these mega-projects, your experience may not translate well back in the UK,” he says.

Before you book your tickets, make sure you’re not on the fast track to a career desert. Here are five things to think about …

1 - Standards are lower than the UK

One expat, who is project managing the construction of 300 villas for an Egyptian contractor, describes the experience as “scary and confusing”. This is his first Middle Eastern assignment for a UK company in Dubai, and he says: “I was seconded to an Egyptian contractor and it was quite an eye-opener. The project was out of sequence, there was a severe lack of health and safety, and nothing on site was done quickly.

“Things are done very differently here. I had to educate them in what we in the UK would see as the basics: from respecting workers on site to telling them how to actually build. They didn’t know that

you never hang a door before you’ve done the tiling. Also, they would order finished doors way too early and then leave them out in the sun so they warped before they’d been hung.”

2 - Procurement is handled differently

Here’s another area in which your Dubai experience may be of scant use in the UK. The main contract used in Dubai is FIDIC, produced by the International Federation of Consulting Engineers. Although the document is similar to the ICE contract, there is little chance in Dubai of keeping up with other forms of contract used in the UK, such as JCT and NEC.

Masters says that although he can return to London for training in contracts, procurement and practices, there’s little available in Dubai. “It’s just not there,” he says. “I have not heard of serious training going on at any construction firms here.”

Antony Wells, project manager with Bovis Lend Lease, says work is not packaged out as it tends to be in the UK. Instead, a lump sum is normally agreed with the main contractor.

Competitive tenders are the norm, although negotiated contracts are becoming more common because of the high demand for contractors. Wells adds that procurement tends to happen much faster in Dubai. “Colossal jobs can go from conception to start on site in less than a year,” he says.

Credit: Simon Pemberton

3 - You may not make as much money as you think

“Dubai is not the honey pot it used to be,” says Gareth Broadrick, a senior manager at recruitment firm Hays Property and Construction. On the plus side, salaries are higher: an associate would earn about £45,000 a year in the UK and £48,000 in Dubai. Also, in Dubai there is no income tax, your employer is likely to contribute to your rent and it costs less than £10 to fill your petrol tank.

However, other living costs are rocketing. Rents have gone up about 10% in the past three years. The lowest rent you can expect to pay is Dh120,000 (£18,500) a year, according to Neil Morris, director of human resources consultancy Digby Morris. Employers tend to pay about Dh80,000-Dh100,000 a year towards your accommodation. Meanwhile, the price of a pint of beer can be an eye-watering £5. Bet you never thought you’d long for London prices …

4 - The social life isn’t great

Beer prices aside, Masters has no complaints about the expat bar scene. But as a single man, he says meeting women is hard. “There are simply fewer expat women here than men,” he says. Not that you’ll have much free time: six-day weeks and long working days are the norm in Dubai.

Moving there with a partner is not an easy option either. Mace’s Watson had to leave his girlfriend at home when he moved to Dubai and it was a year before she found a job and could join him. And then she encountered the hoops that would-be immigrants have to jump through. For instance, you need a visa before you can buy a flat or a car, but you can only get a visa once you’ve arrived and navigated tests ranging from degree certificate inspections to blood tests.

The biggest shock can be the attitude of Dubai nationals to foreigners. One 33-year-old senior consultant, who arrived nine months ago, says the “cultural hierarchy” is the worst aspect of life in the Middle East. “Arabs are at the top and they look down on everyone else. Below them you’ve got Brits and then people from the subcontinent, who get treated the worst. It takes some getting used to.”

5 - It could be hard to get a job when you get back home

If you’re away from your company’s UK headquarters, you could be overlooked for promotion. One project manager makes frequent trips home to guard against this.

Returning expats might also find they’re second best when job-seeking externally, says Hays’ Broadrick. “UK employers have the perception that if you have worked abroad, your experience is not relevant,” he warns. He adds that because of the large amount of infrastructure work in Dubai, you are likely to return to the UK with water, oil and road projects on your CV. “You’ll have a tough time because the infrastructure market in the UK is not that big,” he says.

He believes that if two QSs apply for a job and both have five years’ experience, one in the UK and one in Dubai, the UK applicant will get the job. The Dubai QS will be presumed to be out of touch with cost bases in the UK and to have a smaller network of contacts. As Broadrick concludes: “A chap who’s spent his time in London will do much better finding a job.”