Expat Life in the UAE
Experiences of Roseapple Global's Founder - 12+ years ago (2007-2009)
Facts About UAE
A beautiful country in the Middle East is the United Arab Emirates or #UAE. Its geographical location is southwestern Asia, locally referred to as the Arabian Gulf. Countries bordering the UAE are the Persian Gulf, Saudi Arabia, and Oman. The UAE also shares maritime borders with Qatar and Iran.
The UAE comprises seven Emirates: Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Sharjah, Ras al-Khaimah, Ajman, Umm al-Quwain, and Fujairah. Its capital is Adu Dhabi, and its most well-known City-Emirate is Dubai. The UAE has a population of approximately 9.5 million. Expats from roughly nine predominantly Asian nationalities make up around 89% of this population. The currency is Emirati Dirhams (Dhs or AED).
The government in the UAE is a Monarchy. The absolute leader, President, and Head of State is the Emir of Abu Dhabi. In contrast, the Prime Minister is the Emir of Dubai. Additionally, each Emirate has its own ruling family and unique culture.
How long did it take you to settle in?
I lived in Al Ain, UAE, for 2 years (2007-2009). Settling in as an #expat in UAE was relatively easy. I lived in a hotel for 3 months while the designated house was under construction. I got a car and an opportunity to drive around and explore. Overall, it took roughly 4 months, mostly because I was not in a permanent living situation.
What was the hardest aspect of your adjustment, and how did you overcome it?
Working overseas was the hardest part of adjusting. I was unsure about how to manage my schedule. As an expat, woman, and US citizen, it was also challenging to navigate.
I was soon able to adjust because my supervisor was also from the US and a woman. Two other western colleagues were helpful. They gave me some insights and knowledge about language, cuisine, and culture.
The work-week is Sunday to Thursday, and the weekends are Friday to Saturday. The UAE holds most religious services on Friday mornings. I had to change my mindset about this new arrangement. Fridays and Saturdays became the days to do laundry, shopping, and salon appointments.
My biggest challenge as an expat in the UAE was learning the native language, Arabic. I started some classes to learn the native tongue, but because of my work schedule, I could not continue.
What would you say is a 'must-see/must-do'?
Most people think about Dubai or Abu Dhabi, but I'll recommend Al Ain. The city is a green oasis and is the only mountain in the UAE that exists here. There are also lush parks, hot springs, and some historical sights that you can visit.
Another must-see is the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, which is the world's tallest building. You can also go to the shopping malls like the Dubai Mall, Global Village, Mall of Emirates, and Souk Madinat Jumeirah. If you fancy great restaurants to dine then the Emirates Palace, Burj Al Arab, and Atlantis on Palm Jumeirah are some of your spots.
You should also try the local dates, and Umm Ali, a dessert made with filo dough, raisins, and pistachio.
How did you adjust to the cultural differences having a 'western' point of view?
Living abroad and having to adjust to the culture in the UAE was no big hassle. Having to adapt to the new dress code was not a hindrance.
You should know that international living is different around the world. There are some things that women can and cannot do in the UAE. For women, the dress code is very conservative. You must be mindful of the length of your dresses and skirts. You can wear pants, but they must be modest, and you cannot wear low cut tops and dresses. Depending on where you are going, your dress code must be appropriate.
Things are gender-separated. I attended an Emirati wedding, and the men were in one tent and the women in another. The women mingled freely without head coverings, etc. The event was glamorous to the point that I felt underdressed in a typical long western evening dress. At one point, the men (groom and male family members) came over to visit the women (bride and her guests). But before the men came over, the majority of women covered up.
I spent some time reading about the culture and history, so the change was a breeze. The heat in Al Ain was manageable; the temperature was not as hot as other cities.
The food was excellent. There were a lot of western restaurants. I had to learn and practice to not eat with my left hand, though. In Islam, the left hand is considered unclean, thus eating with your left hand would be inappropriate.
During Ramadan, when I lived there, many restaurants and stores closed. Things are slightly different now as more of the restaurants and stores remain open. I was conscious of the fact that most staff members were fasting during that month. The first year, I ate in the office, but I closed my office door. In my second year, I fasted for two weeks, eating before and after work. I enjoyed the opportunity to break the fast with my colleagues. We gathered for Iftar at a buffet or at someone’s home.
Day became night for the lack of activities, and night became day in Al Ain. During the hours after sunset, roughly 6 pm until 2 am, the malls and local stores were bustling.
Did you learn Arabic while in the UAE? If not, how did you navigate without the language?
I learned very little Arabic. I became familiar with some everyday phrases and keywords, which was basic vocabulary. I also had a dictionary at my disposal. I was working at a bilingual university, and my office assistant did all the translations.
Because of the number of expats in the service industry, navigating was easy. In the service industries, like hotels and restaurants, most people spoke conversational English.
Photos (Left to Right): Global Village (2008), Date Tree (2009), Abu Dhabi Corniche (2008)
Where were you before arriving in the UAE?
I went to the UAE from the United States of America. The UAE was my first international higher education job. So, it was my first time working abroad.
What was an unexpected challenge or the delight of this country?
I miss my expat lifestyle in the UAE. I would love to live and work there again. There have been so many changes in that country over the past 12 years. While I was there, the world's tallest building was still under construction. There are a lot more expats and Caribbean people living in the UAE now. So living there will be different.
Is there any advice you'd like to share with someone who's interested in the UAE?
My advice for those planning on moving abroad to the UAE, do your homework! First, get to know the culture. As a couple, public displays of affection can be an offense. There are lots of changes taking place. It is an Islamic nation; some things are appropriate and some are not. The country is faith-based and conservative. But know what you are walking into and be ready to adapt. You should keep an open mind about food, traditions, and culture.
Know that the freedom and liberties that you have in your country may not apply such as freedom of speech, ability to protest or criticize the government openly. So refrain from political and religious arguments or commentary.
I recommend that you learn the basics of the language. “Hello, thank you, good day” - those simple phrases. Some people may correct you, but they appreciate the fact that you're trying. Learning the Arabic language can be beneficial because you can use it in a few other nations. If you plan on visiting countries like Qatar, Oman, and Egypt, they are Arabic-speaking. So learn the basics, it will help to get you around.
All photos were taken from Founder, Karla Fraser's Collections. / Title Updated July 2020
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— Interviewed and written by Caribbean Virtual Assistants, Expat Life in the UAE for Roseapple Global, LLC
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