Now that my plates are up for renewal and I just made the final payment on my car loan, it seems like a good time to talk about the car buying process in the UAE. It is amazing that it has already been a year since I bought my car, and yet, at the same time, it feels like forever ago.
For the first couple of weeks that we were in Al Ain, we took taxis everywhere. Taxis are cheap and fairly convenient, but at the same time a hassle to use to go grocery shopping or run multiple errands in one trip. Then once my visa was processed, I was able to get a driver’s license. For an American (and various other countries on the approved list: click here for a link to the website: Abu Dhabi Driving Licence), it is a fairly easy process to get a license. First you need to have your license translated into Arabic at a typing center.
Then you go to the department of transportation. The traffic and licensing department is off of Khalid Bin Sultan (School street). If you are coming from the Tawam side, you will see brown signs directing you where to turn right. If you are coming from the Town Center side, you should turn left at the roundabout after the Al Dhafra Private School.
There are two main buildings when you enter the licensing area. The building on your left is where you go for licenses and renewals. The building on the right is where you pay tickets and get insurance if you want to buy it on site (and probably other things). Once inside, there is a ladies’ area in the back left corner. If you don’t see it, ask the information desk on your right and they will point you in that direction (this is also where men should take a ticket number – women don’t take ticket numbers for the ladies’ area). The couple of times that I have been to the licensing area, there have been very few women in line. It is one of the few times that being a woman in Al Ain saves me time.
For your license, they will ask you for your license from your home country, your passport/visa, the translation, and a letter from your employer (these letters are common place and needed when opening bank accounts, getting an alcohol license, and various other things). Then you get a quick eye check (similar to what you do in the US) and pay a fee ~200AED (~$50US). Then they issue you your license on the spot. If you don’t come from one of the countries on the approved list, it is a bit more difficult to get the license as you will be required to take driving classes and/or pass a test. I have heard that can be a bit expensive, but I really don’t know all of the details.
Once I had my driver’s license, I was able to rent (hire) a car. I remember the first day that I got my rental car. I had been so scared that navigating the roundabouts would be frightening. What I should have been worried about was finding my way home. Apparently I had not been paying enough attention during all my taxis rides because as soon as I sat behind the wheel of the rental car, I knew all to well that I had no idea how to get home from Saniya (industrial area – and a bit shady feeling). I aimlessly drove in circles around Saniya and the Town Centre (downtown) before I reached Al Ain mall. At the mall, I was able to buy a GPS. Since we don’t have addresses in Al Ain, really the only way to use a GPS around here is to enter in a nearby landmark. This would have been find except that the GPS was set to Arabic. I had to go back into the mall and ask help from some nice guys wearing kanduras (traditional clothing) at the Gloria Jean’s (coffee shop) as I assumed they spoke Arabic. They were gracious and helped me change the settings of the GPS to English. Noticing my distress, they offered to buy me a coffee and told me that I should sit and relax for awhile. I explained that my daughter was waiting in the car, thanked them for their help, and dashed off in search of home. About three hours after renting the car, we finally found our apartment.
Everyone has their own opinion of what is the best option for transportation while living here. Some people just continue taking taxis instead of getting a car. Some people rent a car during their whole time here (this is by far the most expensive option). Some people buy a used car and some people buy a new car. I considered buying a used car. But, for me, the safety and peace of mind of having a new car in an unfamiliar country was the deciding factor on purchasing new.
Once that decision was made, I started car shopping in Saniya. My friend, Geraint, was also looking to buy a car, so we went to the various dealerships together. One thing I had picked up on before even going to look at cars was that the opinion of the different makes of cars is different here than in the U.S.; for example, you don’t see Honda very much around here, but you see a lot of Toyota and Nissan. In fact, for example, Honda will probably not hold its resale value as well in the UAE because the opinion of its value just isn’t as good here as in the U.S. After going to the dealerships, I realized that some of the models are different here than in the U.S. or at least if they are sold in the U.S., they must not be very popular in my area because I had never seen them before; for example, here they have a Honda Jazz, Honda City, Nissan Tiida, Nissan Sunny, Nissan Qashqai, Ford Edge, Hyundai i30, and Kia Picanto. This is not even including makes that are apparently common in other countries that I had never really seen like Renault and Peugeot (Geraint teased me endlessly about not knowing these specifically).
The next difference I noticed about dealerships in the UAE versus in the U.S. is that the salespeople don’t try to sell here. In the U.S., you expect to be helped in less than a few minutes of arriving on the lot. Here, I felt like I had to convince the salesperson that he want to help me. He didn’t try to sell the car. In fact, at one point I asked him what makes his car better than another car with the hopes this would encourage him to sell me on the car. Basically his response was either I like it or I don’t. Never thought I would say I missed the pushy car salespeople in the U.S., but by the end of my shopping experience, I was starting to.
Since Geraint and I were car shopping together, most of the salespeople assumed we were husband and wife. Ok – yes, we hammed it up a bit But honey, do you think this is big enough for the children? Where will your mother sit when she comes to visit? As the dealerships are clearly accustomed to dealing with men more than woman, having Geraint with me made the experience less stressful and more fun. I think we made a good team. He would ask about price and size, and I focused on color options and quantity of control panel buttons (What do you mean I have to actually push a button on the radio to change the channel? Where are the steering wheel buttons?). Plus he was good at translating the names of parts of the car from British English to American English for me.
After about 8 dealerships and several test drives later, we ended up deciding on a Hyundai Tuscon. Yep, that’s right. We bought the same car. I got mine a couple of days after Geraint got his. You might be wondering if we at least got different colors. Nope. Oh wait that’s right because the only color available without specially ordering it was white. It was fun seeing the salesperson’s expression when on my paperwork I marked not married since he had just got done asking me if my ‘husband’ was enjoying the new car.
Fun fact about the actual purchase of the car. You pay in cash. This seemed crazy to me, but really it was the only viable option. Debit cards only give you a maximum of 5000AED a day limit and the bank didn’t want to issue me any checks. Although I got a loan from the bank for half of the purchase price of the car, the bank gave me cash rather than paying the dealership directly. So, I had to pay for my whole car in cash. This is still a very cash driven society. A nice bonus is that the dealership processes the first year of insurance for you when you buy the car. Although you still have to pay for the insurance, it was once less thing to worry about while trying to figure out how to do everything else.
Another fun fact, inside the car, everything was wrapped in plastic. EVERYTHING. Imagine how Dexter would prepare a car for a kill room. This is how much plastic wrap was inside the car. In fact, a year later and I am still finding random pieces of plastic stuck in various places. Some people like to keep the seats covered in plastic to protect them. I personally think that is ridiculous. When I ride in Geraint’s car, I like to secretly pull off the plastic that he has left as protection. I am sure he hates me for it.
So for the past year, I have gotten used to driving on the streets of Al Ain and rarely need my GPS any more (unless I am going to Dubai or Abu Dhabi – then it is still a must). I have also gotten much better at finding my car in a parking lot among the endless sea of white cars that all look the same.Then this past week it was time to renew my plate tags and insurance as each are good for one year at a time. First I contacted the insurance company and then went to their office to pay for the year. Insurance cost is based on the value of your car. It has nothing to do with your driving record. I paid 1985AED (~$540US) for the year which includes AAA (roadside assistance) and coverage in Oman. Each year this amount will decrease a little as the value of my car depreciates. If you don’t want to go to the insurance office, there are some companies that sell directly to you at the licensing department for just a slightly higher rate. If your car is older than three years, your next step is to go through the vehicle inspection (located around the corner from the licensing department). You also need to pay for any outstanding traffic tickets (I paid mine off before the summer holiday).
As I was waiting in the ladies’ area in the licensing building, it hit me. I am no longer a ‘newbie’ in Al Ain. There were two other women sitting near me asking each other things like; if they were supposed to take a ticket, if they had brought their passport or just a copy, if they knew where to rent a car. You could hear the anxiety in their voices. When I got called up to the counter by the licensing clerk, I handed her my paperwork, showed her my yellow registration card, rattled off my mobile phone number, paid 105AED, and waited patiently while the clerk had a nearly ten minute (clearly non-work related) conversation in Arabic with another employee. Then she handed me the new stickers for my plates and my new registration card. As I walked out, back past the women who are obviously new in town, I contemplated stopping and telling them not to worry so much. Things have their own way of working here -maybe not always (in my opinion) the most organized or efficient, but in the end it all comes together. Instead I just smiled kindly because I know that, just like me, they are going to figure things out step by step, and in a very short time, they will get to experience their own moment of satisfaction as the realization hits that they aren’t newbies anymore.