Ask Ali: The work roles of Emirati women and can expats live in small UAE communities?

Women did hard jobs in the past. Until today, our women continue to work hard.

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Dear Ali: I heard that life was hard in Abu Dhabi in the past. Men used to work as fishermen, farmers, divers, etc, but what about women? Did they have jobs? MC, Abu Dhabi

Dear MC: You’re right, life in the past was very hard, but although it was difficult, that way of life is also missed a lot by our elders.

Back when Abu Dhabi was a small village that mainly occupied the north side of the island, people came here to get fresh water from the wells. These wells provided water to the dhows that sailed from Abu Dhabi for pearling, and many of these wells were dug by women.

Women worked in groups of 10 to 15, and were led by more experienced women. These women were the wives of low-income labourers, such as fishermen and sailors, along with widows and divorced women.

Even though men were known to dig for water, it was mostly women who dug the ground by hand, using metal scoops. Once water appeared, they would fill their wooden tanks, and carry them on their heads to the ships. Some ships required 100 wooden tanks; others up to 500. This job was hard and dangerous – these wells could collapse, and those women who entered deeper could lose their lives if the wells weren’t quickly re-dug.

So women played a very important role, and did hard jobs in the past. Until today, our women continue to work hard.

Dear Ali: I’m an expat living in the middle of Abu Dhabi, but I was wondering if I can live outside of the city in a small town near the desert, where mostly Emirati communities live, so I can learn your culture. Is it possible for an expat to find such a place, and how will the Emiratis react? LO, Abu Dhabi

Dear LO: I’m glad you’re interested in learning more about our culture in such a lovely, friendly way. I know a few expat friends and families who live in my city, Baniyas, where there’s an authentic and cultural local community.

First of all, call any real-estate agency in the emirate where you want to rent your house. Tell them what you are looking for, and they will give you some options. If you have some Arab friends, they can help you check in the local Arabic-language newspapers, where most of the real-estate companies target the Emirati community to advertise their services and contact details.

There are several small towns away from Abu Dhabi, such as Baniyas, Al Shamkha, Al Rahba, Al Bahiyah, and closer to Al Ain, such as Al Khatim, Al Khazna, Remah, Al Yahar and many others. Several generations of Emiratis have lived in these communities for many years. You will meet women, children and old men, while other family members will visit during the weekends when they can leave their jobs in the big cities for a day or two.

Indeed, many expats already live there, so there will be no problem for you to do so too. You will be surprised to see how local people are welcoming, and you will get to greet your neighbours every time you pass by their houses. You also will see children playing in the streets – the whole atmosphere is lively and kind.

The Arabic word for the place or area that you’re looking for is freej, which means “neighbourhood”. So you can tell whoever helps you to find a new home in an Emirati community that you’re looking for a freej, and they should understand.

Ali Al Saloom is a cultural adviser and public speaker from the UAE. Follow @AskAli on Twitter, and visit to ask him a question.

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