11 things I've learnt from 11 years living in the UAE

These are the tips and life hacks I've picked up in more than a decade

United Arab Emirates - Abu Dhabi - July 1st, 2010:  Joggers and bicyclists use the Corniche for exercising before the sun rises over the cities skyline.  (Galen Clarke/The National) for istabsir
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Time flies, even in a pandemic.

This year marks 11 years of my second stint living in the UAE – the previous was the first nine years of my life – I still recall landing in Abu Dhabi airport at the crack of dawn in 2011 excited yet uncertain of what this new adventure would hold.

I remember rationalising that if my job and colleagues were relatively decent, then everything else would be a bonus.

I got more than I bargained for. Friends and colleagues became family and I built a career allowing me to document the various developments of this most exciting and innovative of countries.

If I could change one thing, I would have told my younger self to relax more and enjoy the ride.

And so, let me pay it forward to the next generation of arrivals wondering how to make sense of and get more value from their big move, and offer some advice.

Here are 11 tips and useful life hacks to living and thriving in the UAE:

1. It takes time to settle

Living abroad can be both thrilling and terrifying.

The reason is that it affords the rare opportunity to start afresh.

Upon reflection, I was a blank canvas when arriving in the UAE in the winter of 2011.

Lacking a large circle of friends to immediately draw upon, it took effort to forge new connections, whether it’s going out for that post-work dinner after a particularly gruelling day or signing up to that social activity on a weekend morning.

While I didn’t meet “my people” immediately, I gradually built a network of those I love and rely on and, as a result, my canvas took on a colour and shape I couldn’t have dreamt of 11 years ago.

2. Practise your signature

Whether you are renting or buying property, chances are it needs to be paid in a series of cheques.

This means signing these documents in identical fashion.

This sounds simple enough, but then a good number of us – well, those under the age of 40 at least – didn’t have cheque books before arriving in the UAE and may have only signed the odd official document sporadically.

I've wasted countless cheques because my scrawling was deemed inconsistent by the bank.

I eventually retired that suspect signature (first devised as a teenager) and came up with something memorable.

I still practise it occasionally on notepads, because, as I learnt, unless you use it, you will lose it.

3. Be friends with the ‘natoor’

Meaning “concierge” in Arabic, the natoor in the Gulf is an institution and one of the most important people you will ever come across.

With most residing within the apartment buildings to which they are assigned, the natoor (or watchman as they are most commonly referred to) offers a broad range of services, from security and maintenance to resolving disputes with the landlord.

Treat them well and with understanding and you will find some of the major challenges of apartment living melt away.

4. Tell the launderette ‘you are travelling’

Once you build a genuine relationship with your local laundry master, you can access the best deal of all: them essentially packing your clothes before travelling.

For a negotiated fee of Dh20 ($5.45) extra, my independently owned laundry service folded my dry-cleaned shirts and trousers tightly before placing them in separate bundles wrapped in plastic.

Upon delivery, I place them neatly in my suitcase and my holiday packing is completed in less than two minutes.

5. Understand barber terminology

This one is aimed at the fellas looking for a haircut at establishments run by my dear South-east Asian brothers.

If you are not an Arabic speaker, you need to learn a few words to get your point across.

While a full glossary is provided here, one of the most important terms to remember is "tarteeb", meaning "order?"

This is simply the barber asking if you want your unkempt beard tidied.

Your response will probably be affirmative, otherwise you wouldn’t be sitting in that chair in the first place.

6. Always remember the landmarks

As someone who lived in nondescript apartments in dense neighbourhoods for five years, I realised Google Maps and official street signs mean nothing to delivery and taxi drivers.

Hence, one of the first tasks when moving in was finding out the nearest landmark to act as guide, such as the popular shawarma shop next door or pharmacy across the road.

Another tip is to find out the unofficial name attributed to your building by the neighbourhood retailers.

My previous Abu Dhabi residence was nicknamed the “silver building” because of its shiny exterior, a handy description when making local orders.

How did I know it was called that? Well, the trusty natoor told me, of course.

7. Learn the A, B and Cs of buffet eating

Hotel buffets are a social fact of life in the UAE, even if they went on hiatus during a portion of the pandemic.

The chances are you will undergo this culinary gauntlet frequently over the years either as part of personal and business functions, hotel getaways or the weekend brunch.

But to enjoy the lavish offerings sensibly requires focus and finesse.

As someone who mastered the art of the big meal, here are my A, B and Cs of what I like to describe as “buffet-ology”.

A: Check out the offerings before digging in and unless, respectfully, you are a vegetarian, pass over the salad and breads and head straight to the good stuff: the meats, chickens and the ouzi.

B: In the first round, begin by sampling as many dishes as you can through very small portions. While the plate may resemble a messy glug when returning to the table, such an approach is useful in determining what to aim for and avoid next time.

C: If you have a sweet tooth, check out the desserts immediately upon arrival. If appealing, pace yourself throughout the savoury dishes so you can arrive at the dessert stations with room to spare.

8. Embrace the morning

This is not an invitation to join the 5am club but more a gentle cajole to dial back the alarm clock by a couple of hours when possible.

Not only will you exercise in relatively cool temperatures, even during the summer, but the morning offers the chance to achieve thankless tasks, such as grocery shopping or banking, with minimal stress.

Frustrated UAE film buffs such as myself value the mornings.

Tired of sitting through films with talkative crowds, I have resorted to catching my films at 10am sessions on Saturday and Sunday and enjoying them the way they're meant to be enjoyed.

9. Accept iftar invitations

Ramadan is a deeply spiritual month for Muslims with many families opening their doors and hearts to break bread with friends and strangers.

Unless there is a justifiable reason, not accepting such an invitation is considered ill-mannered.

Not only do you run the risk of offending the host family but you deny yourself the opportunity of experiencing the kindness and generosity synonymous with the holy month.

So say ‘yes’ and enjoy the soulful atmosphere, even if you risk staying up past your bedtime.

10. The summers are not so bad

I am not going to lie: the first summer is always the worst.

The relentless heat and insufferable humidity is not for the faint-hearted and it will initially see you being cooped up at home for four months of the year.

However, with time, I learnt to appreciate some of the opportunities that come with the mercury rising.

For one thing, the school holidays and summer holidays have made the roads calmer with many families away on holiday (pandemic permitting).

That temporary exodus also results in many lavish resorts dropping their prices dramatically due to low occupancy, presenting an opportunity I have taken repeatedly throughout the decade.

Foodies can also look forward to the summer, with many restaurants using the quiet time for soft launches with friendly discounts.

While these features may not necessarily make the weather cooler, it proves that the summer months retain a charm and calmness of their own.

11. Goodbye is the hardest word

The last tip is the hardest and admittedly a work in progress.

No matter how long I have lived in the UAE, I still haven't mastered the art of saying goodbye.

This is despite having had ample practice of seeing off much-loved friends and families who have left for the next stages of their lives and careers.

I wish I can tell you it gets better over the years but it doesn't.

However, I have found the best way to steel myself for that future farewell is to enjoy those connections in the present because an authentic friendship knows no borders.

That means picking up the phone when you are tired to check up on those we hold dear and calling others to apologise for the late reply instead of allowing those relationships to wilt unnecessarily.


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