Life in the UAE: Being A Black Woman in Abu Dhabi

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.

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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.

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49 thoughts on “Life in the UAE: Being A Black Woman in Abu Dhabi

  1. Wow, this is so informative.

    This sentence though – “Being Black is cool, unless you’re actually Black in America but that’s another post.” So much truth and it’s so painful.

    I’ve actually lost count of how many black American friends I’ve met who’re EFL teachers and say they would rather keep living abroad because they get more respect in other countries than back home.

  2. Hi, I currently teach ESL and English at a Community College in the U.S. I am interested in teaching at a Community College or University in the UAE. I know the k-12 classes are separated by gender. Is it the same for colleges? How has your experiences been as a college teacher working cross gender if you have done so?

  3. Hello. I currently teach English in Korea and was interested in teaching in Abu dabi or dubai. Do you happen to know of any trusted companies I could go through?

    • If you’re looking to go the K-12 route, most people I know have gone through Footprints or Teachaway. You could also look up private schools such as the ADNOC schools (Glenelg). In any case, you will likely need to be a licensed teacher in your home country with 2 years experience post licensure.

      If you’re looking to go the higher ed route, try a search on higheredjobs.com or look at seriousteachers.com.

      Good luck!

  4. Not all K-12 classes are separated by gender. This depends on the type of school. There are co-ed grade 4 schools in Abu Dhabi. Most schools will separate by grade 5 or 6, though. The higher ed level also depends on the school. Some colleges have a women’s campus and a men’s campus. Some are co-ed. Mine is co-ed, but the student population is merely 2-3% male. The male students used to be in a separate section, but there aren’t enough of them. Instead, we changed one cohort to a co-ed section halfway through the year. It was… interesting. Have a look at the post linked below for some more insight that I hope helps answer your question.

    http://livetravelmore.com/abu-dhabi-classroom-comedy-where-do-babies-come-from/

  5. What an awesome blog! My husband and I have been here for a week checking things out before our move to abu dhabi in November! We are both black American and are looking forward to connecting with the black community here! Would love to stay in contact with you 🙂

  6. Hi Timah, I really appreciate this blog. I plan to vacation in Abu Dhabi as a solo black female in March 2016 (and I was getting a little nervous about the black perception until I read your blog).

    I have no idea where to stay, but I really want to be near the beach, and other places within walking distance. Any tips, please? Also, would I want some adventure, can I find that on my own or would you suggest tours? You seem to really like it there…so intriguing. Other than Canada, I’ve never left the U.S., I am excited. I hope to hear back from you. Take care.

    • Hey, Queen Smalls! Thanks for checking out the blog. March is a great time to visit Abu Dhabi as it won’t be blazing hot yet. You can take advantage of this and enjoy many outdoor activities (desert safari, kayaking, boating, SUPing, jet skis, sky diving, etc.). I recommend staying somewhere along the Abu Dhabi Corniche area, such as the Hilton, Intercontinental, St. Regis, Jumeirah/Etihad Towers, or a host of AirBnB properties listed. There’s a hop on/hop off bus that will give you a good layout of the city. There are also several tour companies that you can find on groupon.ae. Getting around should be easy via taxi or Uber. I’ll email you some more information about the adventure stuff I mentioned above. Cheers!

      • Hey Timah, I’m am just reading your response, I can’t believe I didn’t bookmark this blog page.

        I will definitely look into many of the recommended activities. I must admit as
        I am getting closer to my visit, while I am very excited I am so nervous. Nonetheless, I decided to stay at the Trader’s Hotel-(how is this place?) in the Shangri-la complex, because I wanted to be a little secluded, and much of this trip is for reflection, but I still want some action. Is it safe for me to get a rental car to drive to Dubai? I reside in Charlotte, NC but a born and raised Upper West-sider.

        Anyway, I can’t tell you how much I appreciate your response. How are things going for you, and you plan to stay long-term?

        Take care,

        Queen

  7. This is amazing! You have made me even more interested in teaching in the UAE. A quick question: Do you know of any language academies/agencies that hire “teachers” without a license but with lots of experience? Personally, I have over 6 years EFL teaching experience in 3 different countries, but no U.S. teaching license.

    • Hi! Sorry I don’t know of any language academies or agencies, but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist. There are contracting companies that may be similar to what you are looking for. Try looking at Phoenixgulf.net for a few postings. Do you also have a Master’s degree?

  8. Hey there. As a black UAE national who lived in the US for many years, I tend to agree with you. I’m glad you are happy here. The info you put are excellent. I post it in twitter . good job 🙂

  9. Hi! I’m a teacher and really seriously considering teaching over there, I have some questions for you, can I email you?

  10. Hi! I’m finishing up my administration/supervision degree. I’ve taught for 10 years. After many hours of research, I’m considering making a major change and Abu Dhabi is at the top of the list! I’m a single parent. Have you met any single parent teachers and/or many expat families while living there? Thanks!

  11. Hi there

    I’m a neuroscientist in NYC and will be presenting at a conference at NYU in January. Can you direct me to any sites where I can make hotel/hostel arrangements?

  12. I’m interested in teaching in the UAE but I have children. Do you know families that come and how are they adjusting?

  13. Hi, I am a South African black male teacher, and have applied for many teaching jobs that were advertised in 2015, but still haven’t heard anything. This left me wondering if black African males are employable in the Emirates or not?

  14. Hello this was very informative for me.. I am currently in the process of trying to relocate and find employment in UAE. I am a hairstylist and natural hair educator and I want to come work in a salon and teach for about a year or 2 ..I’ve been looking over contracts and so forth but I don’t know if there is a website or a company I can go through or do I just have to keep trying and applying on my own? Please help me out if you can..
    Thanks in advance
    Deanna love

  15. Hi there,
    I know I’m a bit late to this thread, but I’m now considering Abu Dhabi as a destination for work. Quick question…you beautifully allayed a few questions I had re being a black, single female, but my question is: I have locs, are there any outlets where I can get my hair re-twisted/styled? Seems silly but kinda vital if I’m to maintain a neat & professional appearance. Blissings x

    • There are people here who can retwist and style locs. When my cousins came to visit I looked into having someone come to retwist and style their locs. Unfortunately, we couldn’t justify the exorbitant costs those people were charging for their services. Hoping that by the time you arrive they will have come to their senses and charge less.

      • So glad that Pauline Tomin asked that question about locs. I was wondering the same thing. Timah, thank you for your blog it was extremely informative. I was wondering how black women were treated in Abu Dhabi. Your blog has eased my concerns about possibly moving their to work as a teacher. I just recently applied and currently I am waiting for a response. Fingers crossed! I am from Brooklyn (currently live in NC) also and it’s nice to know that some people from home are over there as well. One question that I had was about the housing accommodations. Can you give me any ideas how the housing accommodations are/work? It is my understanding that housing will be provided. Thanks and keep blogging!

  16. I just decided to apply with a company to teach abroad in the UAE. I was wondering what life is like for Black people there and for women. This post was super informative and addressed some concerns I had. Thanks so much!

  17. Hi, I have the opportunity to move to Abu Dhabi with the financial services company that I work for. I’m nervous that it will be hard for me to get clients and be respected by locals as a black english woman.

    • I have no idea about the financial services side of the UAE. That being said, I doubt you’ll encounter any or much difficulty as a black english woman.

  18. WOW!! I’m blown away at your details about living there. I would love to have a more in depth conversation with you, if you were willing. I’m a business owner here in the states; and was concerned about being a black business woman in another country. I have a few other questions I’d like to ask you if you don’t mind.

  19. Thank you so much for this. I am very seriously considering teaching there. I will be having a face to face interview with UAE education council in a couple of weeks. I was really wondering what it was like for a black woman over there and your blog was VERY informative. Thanks for putting me at ease about some stuff that concerned me!

  20. My wife really wants to move there and continue her teaching career. Me, on the other hand not so sure. Can you email me and maybe i can get some answers from you that would make this decision easier. I promise not to ask for advice but just your personal experience and opinion.

  21. Hello! Your post was very infirmative! I especially love the way you were so open and honest. I am relocating to Abu Dhabi as a hairstylist. I will be visitng next month before me actual move. Can you tell me any upscale multicultural salons in the area? II’d like to visit them during my stay! Thanks In Advance for your help!

  22. Is it safe to work as a female security officer in Dubai? Considering the fact that this job is a contract for 2 years, are there no chances of being maltreated by the contracting company knowing fully well you can stop the job because your passport is with them? Please, I’ll appreciate your thoughts on this.
    Thanks.

  23. WOW! This was super informative and covered a variety of interesting topics. It also mirrored some comments I’ve heard from people I know who have lived in the UAE and/or have traveled there in the past. Enjoy your stay in the UAE!!! Oh By the way, did you have to try to learn any of the languages there? Is there a language barrier?

  24. Thank you for sharing! I am seriously thinking about moving there. I am a single mom. I need more information. I am in the research stage. If you are willing to be some sort of mentor and/or provide more information, please email me at imasayit@gmail.com. 🙂 Thanks in advance.

  25. Very insightful. I am currently interviewing for a teaching position there. How isbteaching there different from the usa? How are the schools ran? Do you enjoy it?

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