In 2008, Rhiannon Downie-Hurst was at a low point in her young life. She had lost a lucrative job in ad sales, split up with her long-term partner and was heartbroken, living in a tiny bedsit in North West London. Today, she lives in The UAE, and is the founder of award winning website brideclubme.com. This is her incredible expat story.
Thanks so much for chatting to me Rhiannon. I can't wait to share your story. What made you make the move to Dubai?
In 2008, I had just lost a great job in ad sales (due to what I believe to be institutional racism and sexism) working for a government focused publishing house. I had also split up with my long-term partner of 8 years and was heartbroken, living in a tiny bedsit in North West London.
After weeks of hiding away under my duvet, in a haze of circumstantial depression, I decided to get up and crack on with life! I borrowed my brother's PC to search for jobs and it suddenly dawned on me, that I was free to do anything I wanted. I had no debt, no dependants, no real commitments. I started to search for jobs abroad and happened to send my CV off to a recruiter, who was looking for advertising sales execs in the Middle East. Within days, I was being interviewed via skype for a role for the biggest publishing house in Dubai.
Apparently, the Director wasn't convinced by me and my CV, but Paul (my soon to be direct line manager) fought for me and managed to convince his Director to give me a shot! Fast forward a few weeks, and I had sold my car, organized a leaving dinner and was on a plane, headed to a city, (let alone a COUNTRY) I had never set foot in, to relocate and start my role as 'Advertising Sales Manager' for a luxury travel magazine. The following night and day would be etched in my mind forever....
How did you feel when you landed in a new country, which was to become your new home?
I remember vividly being on the British Airways plane headed to Dubai, crying and laughing at the same time. I was terrified, but full of hope and excitement too. I befriended a crazy red-haired British guy called Chris, who I had previously seen hugging his teary girlfriend at the airport, who he was leaving behind temporarily.
Chris was to start work at the same publishing house as me, in another division and took me under his wing, he reminded me of Austin Powers! He had been to Dubai many times and knew all of the best hots spots. It also happened to be his birthday, so, as soon as we landed and settled into our accommodation, he whizzed me to his favourite burger bar ran by a friend of his, and then on to a nightclub, where we ended up partying until the early hours, making friends with people of all nationalities, religions and backgrounds. We ended up on the beach, watching the sun rise with several people – All lovely, until the reality kicked in, that we were both to start our new jobs in a few hours’ time!
Safe to say, I had a slightly fuzzy head in the morning, but the adrenalin kept me going. A more mature me, now, would have done things slightly differently and been more a little responsible.
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Tell me about the first few months. How did you settle in, and what lessons did you learn (culturally and personally)?
The first few months living in Dubai were a complete whirlwind, I was being pulled in a million directions. People here, in general, are very accommodating and hospitable, as well as generous. I’m quite a sociable person, so I took it upon myself to initiate conversations, and people often did the same with me. Working in the media, I attended a lot of events in the first few months, and in my first week, I found myself staying at the Emirates Palace with my own butler, hobnobbing with the likes of Pamela Anderson, Montel Jordan and royalty. It was honestly crazy when I think back.
I was the living embodiment of the saying ‘work hard, play hard’ and was out every night and working hard every day. After a few months, it all caught up on me and the home sickness really hit. It also coincided with the 2008 recession, and friendships that I had started forming, were falling apart, as people I knew were losing their jobs and leaving the country. I was devastated and worried daily, that I would be next. Within weeks, everyone, aside from a few, had left and I was one of the fortunate few still with a job.
To be honest, I was lonely, and although it felt totally geeky at the time, I joined a local social networking website called ‘social circles’ and plucked up the courage to attend some meet-ups. There, I met one of my dearest friends Alice, who is now my son’s Godmother and was a bridesmaid at my wedding. My friend Chris flew his then girlfriend Camilla (the teary one at the airport) over and we soon struck up a strong bond, and to this day, she is still here in Dubai with me, she was my maid of honour and is also my sons’ Godmother. These ladies will be in my life until the bitter end – The three of us have been tight friends for over 9 years now.
The following years, I really started to value genuine friendships, became very choosy with whom I gave my energy to and immersed myself in things other then partying and the good life – I volunteered, started up a few hobby’s, enjoyed road tripping and camping in the Hatta mountains, or watching dolphins swim freely in Musandam, and really discovered ‘the other side of Dubai life’, that you don’t often hear about. Dubai is so much more than just tall buildings and luxury malls!
Culturally, it wasn’t too much of a shock, as I am from a rainbow family of all races, religions and upbringing. I guess if I were someone who had lived in a bubble my whole life, it may have been a bit more difficult to adjust. I tried to befriend a few locals and learn about the Emirati culture when I moved here, and I’d advise anyone else to do the same.
You mentioned you were now married. Where did you meet your husband?
It was my first Christmas in Dubai as an expat, so a few colleagues and I decided to get together and host those celebrating alone too (I called us the expat orphans). My friend provided his flat, I cooked all the trimmings and we ordered in the Turkey. One of my work colleagues and friends, asked if she could bring her best mate along, who was on holiday in Dubai for a few weeks, I said “sure, the more, the merrier, as long as he helps with the washing up!"
In walked this cheery chappy, with the kindest eyes and sweetest smile. There was an instant gravitation to one another and we spent the night side by side, he was very tactile with me and huggy, which was a little overwhelming and if I'm honest, I thought he was gay. When one of my friends asked him directly, his answer was “No, but it works with the ladies”. At the time, I was sitting on his lap and leapt off, when I realised I had been wrong…It’s so funny, when I think back to it.
He then proceeded to pursue me relentlessly for the rest of his holiday, until I went on a date with him. I really wasn’t interested in a relationship at the time, but his persistence paid off. After a quick stint back home in the UK, he decided to move to Dubai a few months later and we have been together ever since, 9 years strong, with a little boy of our own called Kai. Contrary to popular belief, you can kind love in Dubai.
What made you set up your own business?
15 years working for others and refining my skill set, plus a few years of solidly saving 50% of my wages in Dubai, put me in good steed to feel ready to stop working for others and start working for myself. Initially, I wanted to set up an online platform for the performing arts industry in Dubai, but after becoming engaged to my now husband, I realised there was no dedicated website, directory or online platform for those planning weddings in the UAE. With my experience in media, advertising and communications, plus discovering a big gap in the market (and quite enjoying everything wedding related), I bit the bullet and launched www.brideclubme.com in partnership with a publishing house. A year later, I set up my own company Club Media FZE – We are set to launch our 2nd lifestyle website in 2019 and I now mentor and consult for other entrepreneurs too.
What are the best things about living in Dubai?
I feel the UK press has an agenda against Dubai, certain rags love to spout nonsense, when the journalists in question, haven’t even stepped foot in the city, perhaps had a layover at most. Dubai is safe, this is one of the things I love about living here! Coming from London, where crime rates are high, being able to leave my handbag on my table at a café, without fearing it being grabbed, is a big positive.
I relish the cultural diversity of Dubai, I have so many friends from different races and religions here. It’s also a city that fosters entrepreneurship and encourages creativity! In terms of travel, it is perfect to be based here, places like Srilanka, Kenya, Cyprus, The Maldives are only a few hours plane trip away and the UK is not too painful being 6.5/7 hours flight.
What have been the biggest challenges so far?
I’d say the summers in Dubai are tough, temperatures can reach over 50 degrees, with 100% humidity, which is horrible. I spend 4-5 months a year indoors, with aircon and as someone who is a nature lover and enjoys outdoor life, this is something I struggle with every year, especially now that I have a child. I don’t have the luxury of taking long summer holidays either, as many people here do.
It is not cheap to live here, especially now, inflation is high, new taxes have been introduced and as a small business owner, I have been hit hard over the past few years.
You do have to have the patience of a saint in Dubai when it comes to things like customer service and general common sense. Before I moved here, patience was a virtue I did not possess. I can safely say, that side of me has improved.
Of course, missing family is always something I battle with. I’ve missed funerals, birthdays, milestones and during traumatic personal life happenings, not being a car ride away from family has been extremely testing to say the least. People often think us expats are living the high life with no financial worries, burdens or issues – These people could not be further from the truth! For now, though, the positives outweigh the negatives, but should that change, we would start making an exit plan.
One thing I missed, that is a little different is the absence of Afro-Caribbean culture and food. Being a Londoner, this is something I missed terribly, but recently that has changed with several new Jamaican and Caribbean restaurants launching.
What advice would you give to anyone who is considering moving to another country?
Do your research and join some online forums for expats, ask questions! I can honestly say those little Facebook groups I joined before moving here, really helped me. Respect cultural differences, especially when moving to a Muslim country. Dubai/UAE may be a tolerant and diverse place, but things can go terribly wrong if you step out of line and disrespect the country’s rules and regulations. Have some savings or a money pot to start with, you never know what situation you may find yourself in and having a safety net is important.
Get all your certificates attested and seek advice in relation to tax obligations from your home country.
Huge thanks to Rhiannon. Rhiannon’s background in print and online media spans 15 years, and encompasses some of the largest and most respected publishing houses in both the UK and UAE. Check out Bride Club ME, which is now the region’s leading online wedding inspiration website and directory for brides and grooms in the UAE, also putting on fun and interactive events for readers and vendors alike.
Rhiannon is also a professional industry speaker, and Founder of The Engage Academy, the first consultancy of its kind in the UAE for wedding entrepreneurs and bloggers.
She has contributed to various articles published by global entrepreneur websites, newspapers and wedding magazines, including The National, khaleej Times, Time Out Dubai, Good magazine, Asian Bride and The Media Network and has been invited to speak at several high profile wedding industry events across the UAE. Rhiannon is the official wedding ambassador/columnist for AQuarius Magazine and a member of the Emirates Wedding Planning Academy advisory board.