How the UK became a second home for Emirati students

Hundreds of UAE citizens choose to study in Britain each year, forging friendships and memories that last a lifetime

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When Fuzeya Ahmad flew from Dubai to the UK four years ago, the first thing that struck her were the accents.

Everyone sounded "like Harry Potter", taking her back to her childhood days watching the much-loved film series.

And within weeks of moving into her accommodation at the University of Bristol, Ms Ahmad, 18, was soon settled in to that age-old British tradition; complaining about the weather.

I quickly settled in. Apart from complaining about the weather, I think my favourite pastimes were cycling, hiking trips and reading in the park
Fuzeya Ahmad, University of Bristol

“I had only visited the UK once before moving to university but during that first visit I fell in love with the country and I knew I wanted to pursue my studies there,” she told The National.

“I was 18 and had just graduated from high school. I think for a lot of students moving abroad can be daunting but I wasn’t nervous, I had this sense of excitement about living alone in a new place.

“I remember on the plane over I was a typical tourist. I got my photograph taken in the cockpit and when I look at that picture now, I see the excitement in my face.”

Although it was her first time living away from her family in Dubai, the Emirati graduate, now 23, said she instantly felt at home in Britain.

Studying for a LLB law degree in Bristol, Ms Ahmad, who graduated and moved back to the UAE this summer, is one of hundreds of Emirati students that choose to study in the UK each year.

For many international students it offers the chance to gain a world-class education, open the doors to a dream career path and the opportunity to perfect their English.

UK felt like a second home

In the four years she lived there, Ms Ahmad said the UK became her second home.

“I quickly settled in. Apart from complaining about the weather, I think my favourite pastimes were cycling, hiking trips and reading in the park," she said.

“I really loved the variation when it came to travel and all the historic sites to visit in London, Cumbria, Oxford and Bath.

“On the rare occasion I did feel homesick, I would take a day trip into London and meet friends and go for Emirati food.

“That was the thing with the UK, it was so diverse and had such a mix of nationalities all living together that it was easy to feel close to home.”

For Helal Ahmed Almheiri, 19, the UK dream is still a reality.

On Wednesday, the Abu Dhabi resident caught a flight to London to start his second year at the University of Bath.

Studying international management, he said it was his brother who inspired him to head to a university overseas.

“At first I wanted to keep my options open so I applied to courses in the US, Canada and Japan too, but when I went to my brother’s graduation in the UK I got this feeling that that was where I wanted to be,” he said.

“I think for Emiratis it’s a popular place to study because the UK is somewhat romanticised in the media.

“Since a young age I remember my mum loving the UK and we would visit for holidays. So many Arab mums loved Princess Diana, too.”

He was only 17 when he made the move to his private accommodation in Bath as a fresher and Mr Almheiri said it was a bit of a culture shock having to "fend for himself in a new country" but he soon found his feet.

Now, he has a great routine and often goes running in the park, spends time in the library and meets friends from all circles of life for social gatherings.

“I know it’s a cliche but it feels like a second home,” he said.

“I’m in a new country, enjoying new experiences, all while getting a quality education. It’s the perfect mix.

“The day I graduate and have to move back home will be bittersweet, but who knows, I might return again to do my postgraduate degree.”

First-rate education system makes UK attractive

Omar Aljaziri, a consultant at PricewaterhouseCoopers in Dubai, graduated from King’s College London early this summer.

After spending four years in the UK, he said he is still getting used to being back home.

“Oh, I miss it a lot, so, so much,” he said.

“I remember when I first got to London and moved into my dorm room, it’s an experience I won’t forget. It’s an experience every university student should have.

“I don’t know what it was about London, it was just this melting pot. While the place didn’t remind me of home, the people did.”

The goal to study abroad was always on Mr Aljaziri’s radar. Throughout high school his parents encouraged him to look at opportunities in the US and UK.

In 2017 he was accepted for a foundation programme in London and the following year he started a bachelor’s degree in law and international relations.

“The UK education system has a lot to offer and a lot of UAE leaders received their education there, so it’s like a seal of approval I guess,” he said.

“I think many Emiratis choose to study there because they treat foreigners with respect and with the UAE and UK as strong allies, it adds a sense of comfort for families sending children abroad.”

Like Mr Aljaziri, Eman Alseyabi, now 21, moved to the UK alone when she was just 17.

After graduating from Queen Mary University in London this summer, she said she remembers her time there fondly.

“What makes a country a second home is how comfortable you feel there,” she said.

“Having visited the UK before I moved there for university, I already felt familiar with the place. The food, the culture, the people, that was my comfort. I loved the diversity.”

After spending “hours crying on the plane” during that initial move, she said it only took a matter of days before the feeling of homesickness wore off.

Like many Emirati students, she became involved with the UAE embassy in the UK and quickly sought out spots in London that helped to remind her of home.

“Embassies play a huge role in helping international students integrate. I got involved in events for nationals days, Ramadan and Eid, which really made me feel welcome,” she said.

“When I first moved to university I didn’t know so many Khaleeji people existed in London but after a few months we started to meet each other and mix.

“And whenever I felt homesick I would go to my favourite spots for home-made Emirati food and music.”

Updated: September 17, 2021, 6:48 AM