From debt collector to English tutor, an expat looks back on 43 years in Dubai

Arabic-speaking Rita Bufton leaves after she witnessed transformation of UAE - and helped young Emirati pupils gain confidence along the way

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When Rita Bufton responded to a job advertisement in 1979 for work in an unfamiliar Middle Eastern city, she never imagined the four-decade adventure that lay ahead.

The 28-year-old, then working in a bank in Paris, quickly settled in as personal assistant to the head of a UAE company in the food service and sports equipment business.

Since then, there are few sectors she has not explored during four decades of working in Dubai.

“If you think you can do it, go for it, this country has taught me that,” said Ms Bufton, 71, whose diary is filled with farewell lunches and dinners after years of service come to an end this month.

If you think you can do it, go for it, this country has taught me that
Rita Bufton

“If you believe in yourself and you want it badly enough, you can do it. The freedom this country affords allows you to follow your dream.”

Fluent in French and Arabic, she worked in engineering and ship repair companies as a secretary and PRO — a role in the UAE that handles employment sponsorship and visa applications.

The British expatriate once worked as a debt collector, spent years with a local television station, translated, edited and wrote for magazines, and worked in the publishing industry until she landed her current job as office manager and researcher in a risk assessment company.

“I would just go and sit and wait,” she said about a job recovering unpaid maintenance dues for a marine company.

“Some people would try to get away with not paying. Talking on the phone met with no success so I would go to offices and wait until they paid up.”

On work siestas and no street lights

Ms Bufton has seen the country transform, remembers a city without paved roads and tells of unnerving experiences driving on the Dubai-Sharjah road without street lights.

The main landmarks then were Al Mulla Plaza in Sharjah and the Trade Centre in Dubai.

She also recalls a tightly knit community and a relaxed working environment with a siesta break.

“It was two lanes up and two lanes down on the Dubai Sharjah road. It was so scary driving without street lights,” she said.

Rita Bufton with her friends and pupils, as photos are taken at her farewell party.  Ruel Pableo for The National

One of her most enjoyable memories was the early 1980s when Dubai residents could visit the royal palaces during Eid.

“It was acceptable then on the second day of Eid to go to the palace to the big majlis,” she said.

“To me that was such a privilege to wish the sheikhas ‘Eid Mubarak’ and then go to the dining room with huge tables full of food.

“It was special to be allowed into the palace, the sheikha's home. I couldn’t go and visit the queen, god rest her soul. For me it was equivalent to visiting the queen.”

How Ms Rita touched lives

The job that gave her the most satisfaction was tutoring children, including many Emiratis, and watching their confidence soar with their scores in English, French, maths and science.

“It opened my eyes to how important it is to teach,” she said.

Ms Rita, as she was known, tutored after work hours and took in mainly Emirati pupils, studying in government and private schools. She helped several generations of UAE families get comfortable with written and spoken English.

Rita Bufton with Reem Ali at her farewell party after more than 40 years in the UAE.  Ruel Pableo for The National

Emirati Reem Ali learnt English and French from Ms Bufton from the age of eight.

Then her mother, aunts, cousins and now her four-year-old son followed.

“She touched all our lives,” said Ms Ali, a human resources professional.

“She is really close to my heart. She was part of my education growing up.”

For friends such as Paula Cox, Ms Bufton was the source of a wealth of information about early days in the UAE.

“Rita is a story teller and people are instantly drawn to her,” said Ms Cox, who runs a business coaching company.

“She has such amazing stories to share and is that special person who means so much to so many people.”

Set aside a nest egg

In the early days, her accommodation and car were paid for by the companies she worked for. This helped her save and she bought a flat in France.

“It’s important to save because you don’t have a pension and life here is not cheap,” she said.

“I managed to buy a flat in France in the very early days.

“I don’t know whether now I would have been able to save enough because salaries went down and benefits are not the same.

It’s important to save because you don’t have a pension and life here is not cheap

“It’s not the land of milk and honey that I came to in 1979 but it’s still better than a lot of places on this Earth and I’m still sad to leave.”

Ms Bufton enjoyed being accepted in Emirati society.

“I stayed because I liked the place, it was comfortable and safe and as a single woman I really, really enjoyed it,” she said.

“It was very important to integrate and I fit in. I tell people, ‘Don’t try and buck the system'.

“We are guests in this county and I don’t think anybody should ever forget that.”

Sad to leave

Ms Bufton grew up in Bedford and plans to retire in Tewkesbury, a riverside town in the UK.

She feels like she belongs in the UAE more than in Britain that she wants to visit once every couple of years.

“I feel like a foreigner when I go there [the UK],” she said.

“This was more home than UK. I have forgotten how things work there.”

Ms Bufton leaves Dubai next month for the UK but has no plans to retire. She may continue with credit research work, translation or write a memoir.

“I actually thought this was my retirement but who knows when I get back to the UK, will I be bored?” she said.

“Maybe write a book about my stay here, there are people asking about it.”

Updated: September 28, 2022, 2:52 AM