'I thought I was social, until I arrived in the UAE': Five things you learn living in Abu Dhabi

From developing strong social skills to learning to be your own GPS

Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, November 10, 2019.  
People enjoying the view of the Corniche after the rains from the UAE fllag.
Victor Besa / The National
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The UAE turned 48 years old this week, and on National Day, I found myself wandering around the city at 1am.

What was I doing? Well, meeting someone for dinner, of course. Waiting for my friend to arrive, I smiled at my predicament.

It was not so much a grin at an absurd situation but a realisation of how my eight years living in this country has allowed me to make the most of my day, and get an early start on the next one, too.

It is one of the many unexpected life skills I have picked up from my stay here. Not only have they helped me socially and in some cases physically (I will get to that later), but they have given my life a newfound richness that was unexpected. While everyone has their own experiences from their time here, these are five things I have picked from my life in the capital.

Make the most of the entire day

I thought I was social, until I arrived in the UAE. This is perhaps the first thing you realise after living here for a few weeks. Each day presents an opportunity to meet up and hang out, whether is a catch-up over breakfast or the aforementioned late evening – or early hours – dinner. It can all be rather exhausting at first, but if you go with the flow you will pack more experiences into one week than others do in a month. I found this out when I returned to Australia for a little holiday a few months back. Needless to say, my enthusiasm for socialising wasn’t exactly reciprocated. “Go out for dinner?” my cousin said incredulously. “But it’s only Tuesday?”

The UAE values face time

Emailing here is useless. This is one of the first things I tell new arrivals. If you really want to get things done, you need to invest in your relationships; meaning, actually go out and talk to that person. The UAE is wonderfully old school in that regard. A good business relationship mostly stems from strong friendships. This means saying yes to the late dinner and attending that one extra event. I once went to a ludicrously late meal at a suhoor tent with an industry contact two years. It's a relationship that continues to pay off to this day.

Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, December 8, 2015:     Pedestrians walk through downtown near the interseciton of Hamdan Bin Mohammed street and Sultan Bin Zayed The First street
Sultan Bin Zayed The First street in the Al Danah area of Abu Dhabi on December 8, 2015. Christopher Pike / The National

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Become your own GPS system

It has now become instinctual. Whenever I visit an Abu Dhabi neighbourhood for the first time, I note the nearest landmark, name of the local baqala and restaurant for good measure. This is just in case I need to return in the future. You see, with many of us not paying heed to actual street names (which they do have, by the way), you need to develop your own acute navigation system and hope it translates well to the cab driver or friends paying you a visit.

Know your dialects

This is more for the Arabic speakers. Having a good general knowledge of the language is not enough. That may help you when you are talking with the authorities, but it won't help your social life. With much of the UAE population made up of various Arabic ­nationalities, learning their respective lingo is essential for surviving an epic meal session. It is fun, too. With many of us coming from different cultures, you will hear some amazing anecdotes and perhaps pick up some wisdom along the way. 

Be good to everyone

This brings me to the next lesson, which is that you need to be cool with everyone. One of things that surprised me about living here is how connected we all are, particularly in the work place. By that, I mean how you deal with your boss and the office staff can affect your career. Both may have different responsibilities, but I guarantee they know more than you. Your superior may set out the tasks, but the tea boys often have the local knowledge and contacts to get things done quicker. Be good to both of them.