Bursting the expat bubble: how an Emirati business is making everyone feel at home in the UAE

Meet the Locals, which launched in 2017, set for expansion after winning major award for connecting cultures

A Meet the Locals event, which see Emiratis, expats and tourists meet
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When she worked in higher education in the UAE, Khadija Behzad was alarmed to be repeatedly told by colleagues that she was the only Emirati they knew.

It is a common enough phenomenon in the UAE. A poll carried out in 2015 revealed that while an overwhelming majority of residents found Emiratis to be friendly and welcoming, fewer than four in ten - 38 per cent - said they it was easy to make friends with locals.

Ms Behzad and her business partner, Abdullah Al Matar, have made it their mission to break down the cultural barriers, promoting interaction between Emiratis and others. Their business, Meet the Locals, aims to expose expats and tourists to authentic Emirati culture, through dining experiences, cultural tours and corporate inductions run exclusively by UAE nationals.

It was one of four businesses recently named a winner of the Khalifa Fund for Enterprise Development and startAD’s Ibtikari program, designed to cultivate entrepreneurship among Emiratis by offering mentorship schemes and financial backing to homegrown businesses.

“I’m a person who loves travelling, my passion is travel and meeting people from different nationalities,” Ms Behzad, who co-founded the business in July 2017, said. “But for people coming to the UAE, it can be difficult to meet the locals.

“We want people to feel that this is their second home. We don’t want them feel isolated from the country or culture they are working in.”

The unique demographics of the UAE – with foreign nationals outnumbering Emiratis by almost ten to one – is one factor behind a lack of integration, she said. Meanwhile, a high number of immigrants also means residents from overseas are often drawn into silos, living with and socialising among those with similar cultural backgrounds.

“There are a a lot of people  who have lived here for several years, and when we interact with them at work they would say ‘you are the only local I know and we don’t know much about your culture’,” the 33-year-old, from Dubai, said.

“There are not many interaction opportunities outside the workplace and that made me feel sad. We also identified that tourists are coming to our country and are leaving without getting the chance to meet local people or be exposed to authentic cultural Emirati experiences. We wanted them to get them to know us and our culture.”

The group started by putting on breakfast events at local Emirati restaurants, where guests could sample traditional Emirati cuisine with a local host explaining the dishes, as well as telling them about history and culture of the UAE. Special lunch and dinner events, and sessions dealing with customs around Arabic coffee, have also proven successful.

Meet the Locals then began running tours, first in Dubai and now in Abu Dhabi and Sharjah, with trained Emirati tour guides. It is now branching out into the corporate sector, with businesses asking Meet the Locals to give new employees a crash course in the UAE, which includes lessons on how to behave towards women and what to do if invited to an Emirati’s home.

And at all of the events, participants are told nothing is off limits when it comes to asking questions.

“A lot of the time we can feel that they are hesitating to ask questions,” Ms Behzad said. “So we make them feel comfortable and tell them they can ask any questions they have.

“Even if they have questions about sensitive issues, we prefer to answer them ourselves, rather than them get information from a non-local or from Google, because not everything they search on the internet will be true.”

Meet the Locals is now searching for more Emiratis to join their team of around 20, with many working on a freelance basis alongside their day jobs. Another strand of the business – offering bespoke packages to foreign delegations visiting for conferences - is also proving developing. The business is hoping to expand soon into all seven Emirates.

“We have Emirati tour guides who can speak different languages, for example once we had a delegation from Korea and we have a lady in our team who can speak Korean,” she said. “It was interesting to see an Emirati talking in Korean to the delegates.

“We are open to all Emiratis to join our team, they just have to have passion.

“I believe in order to understand each other we have to interact. I believe that without interaction, we cannot break stereotypes.”