Following my last post where I answered questions about work and finances in the UAE, today’s post will answer some questions about life in the UAE. This is written from the perspective of a single, Black American woman living and working in Abu Dhabi.
What’s it like being a single woman in the UAE?
For the most part, it’s just like being a single woman in the USA. I drive, work, take care of my errands, shop, party, travel, and more. I don’t require my father, husband, or brother to accompany me to do any of this. Interestingly enough, I find that I am treated better in the UAE as a woman than I am in the USA. For example, ladies have a separate processing area at the DMV where we don’t have to wait in the ridiculously long lines with the men. Many other government and private institutions have ladies only areas. If you choose to use them, you usually find that your errand is done much quicker. Ladies also have an advantage in social settings. Every night is Ladies’ Night! Every night of the week, ladies can enjoy free beverages at various nightclubs and lounges around Abu Dhabi. Ladies can also board first on certain airlines. There are even ladies only gyms where we don’t have to be subjected to the showboating and grunting of stinky guys who are slyly looking at our asses jiggle while we’re on the elliptical or treadmill. Ladies are educators, administrators, mothers, business owners, hold important government positions, and are very much held in high esteem. Most of the men I have encountered, whether expat or Emirati, have treated me with respect and kindness. Of course, there will always be a few jerks in the bunch who treat women like scum, but they are very much exceptions to the rule.
What’s it like being a Black person in the UAE?
I’m Black. It’s obvious looking at me. What is not so obvious, until I open my mouth to speak, is my nationality. From American to British, to Ethiopian, to Sudanese, to Nigerian, to Jamaican, there are many Black people here in the UAE. There are even Black Emiratis (and Omanis and Qataris and Yemenis, etc.)! They likely don’t identify as “Black”, but I’m going to go ahead and include them in the diaspora.In Abu Dhabi, most of the American teachers are Black women. The grocery store in my building sells fresh collard greens, Jiffy cornbread mix, and Just for Me relaxer box sets. There are several salons in Abu Dhabi city where Black women can get braids, twists, relaxers, Brazilian blow outs, sew-ins, wigs, and much more. Why does any of this matter? Black folks are not as big of an anomaly here as you might think. I’m not assumed to be a thug, or stopped and frisked, or lynched, or insulted just because I happen to have a bit more melanin than others. Me being Black is almost a non-issue. Here’s why. More salient than being Black, is nationality. Yes, I’m Black. But here, in these United Arab Emirates, I’m American first. As such, I’m afforded a lot of privilege. I do not take that for granted.
Now, I will backtrack and say that everything isn’t peachy keen here. There are small groups of Black women who are involved in a certain underground industry in the UAE. It is possible that you might be mistaken for one of these women by a minority of men who generalize all women with high melanin content as being for sale. It happened to me once. It has happened to others. The key is it rarely happens, so mostly I’m treated with respect. And if I’m honest, when the man interacted with me he was still very respectful. There are people who will interact with you based on their limited perception of whatever Black is. For instance, one of my college students who speaks broken English at best once greeted me very clearly with, “What’s up, my nigga?” Once I got over the shock and stifled my laughter at the absurdity. I had to shut that down and educate him on why using nigga (or any other variant) was inappropriate and can be deemed hurtful by Black Americans. This has also happened to my friends who teach in K-12 settings in UAE, Korea, Spain, etc. Being Black is cool, unless you’re actually Black in America but that’s another post. I suppose they’re emulating what they see and hear in one aspect of Black (American) culture. None of these negatives are, in my opinion, a reason to forgo living in the UAE or anywhere else abroad.
Do you have to cover yourself from head to toe?
I do not have to wear an abaya or cover my hair unless I go to a mosque. I wear professional attire to work and reserve my short, body hugging dresses for when I’m going out to dinner and nightclubs. I’m usually in a t-shirt, jeans or bermuda shorts, and flip flops when running around town. Ladies can wear short shorts and tank tops, but it’s not recommended in every setting. At the beach or an area where mostly expats will be, it’s fine. But some malls and other places where conservative Muslims are will have dress codes and will politely and discreetly ask you to cover your knees and shoulders if you’re not dressed appropriately. You’ll definitely feel uncomfortable by the stares you’ll get from men who find the sight of women’s thighs, knees, lower legs, shoulders, and bare arms attractive. If the stares don’t put you off, you’ll likely be deterred from dressing like that due to the AC that is on a permanent arctic blast setting in the buildings around town. Dressing modestly in public is how you show respect to the culture and the country.
I won’t know anyone there. Will I be able to make friends?
There are some amazing people here who will support you as you find your way. My 3rd week here I met an American lady in the grocery store with her family. Once she realized I was a newbie, she hugged me and they invited me over to their house for a BBQ. They remembered what it was like being new here and are but a few of the people who have made my transition more bearable. Abu Dhabi truly is a melting pot with people from different nationalities and cultures. There are organizations, such as Internations, Meetup.com, and even Facebook, that can help you to meet new people. If you have a hobby or interest, I assure you there are other people who share that interest and would love to meet you. While the culture means you may not have much interaction with Emiratis, I have found that the younger Emiratis who are less conservative are relatable and open to engaging with foreigners like me. It’s very rare that you find people who are snobbish and stuck up here. Most of us are making the best of our experience, and the miserable ones stick out like a sore thumb. Avoid the miserable ones like the plague.
Will I be able to travel?
Assuming that you have the financial ability and enough vacation time, the travel opportunities are amazing. The UAE is comprised of 7 emirates with all different flavors. I’ve only been to 3 of them, but can’t wait to explore the others once it cools down. Nearby countries like Qatar, Kuwait, Oman, and Bahrain are just a short (90 minute or less) flight away. Other places such as India, Jordan, Israel, Egypt, Lebanon, Cyprus, Greece, Turkey, and Ethiopia, Kenya, Seychelles, Maldives, and Sri Lanka can be reached in 3-6 hours. You may not get the amount of crazy glitch fares like we are currently seeing for flights departing from the USA, but when there are no sale fares, regular airfare to most places is usually affordable. My flight to Kenya was less than $300 USD. My original flight to Tanzania, with a stopover in the Seychelles, was on sale for around $200 USD. My upcoming flight to the Philippines was $1.68 before taxes and fees. No, that’s not a typo. Flights from Dubai to Manila were $0.84 on Cebu Pacific Air in January and I snapped them up. While the major players in this region are Etihad, Emirates, Qatar Airways, and Gulf Air, there are still smaller airlines, such as Cebu Pacific Air and Fly Dubai, who can safely get you to many destinations for a low cost. If traveling is one of your main priorities, you will have lots of affordable options.
Do you have any other questions about life as an expat in Abu Dhabi that weren’t answered in this post? Feel free to leave your question in the comment box or shoot me an email. I’ll answer as many as I can.