Having recently returned from living in Abu Dhabi, I have had many interesting questions fired at me regarding a range of issues from dress to dining. I have too often seen the surprised expressions on the faces of friends and family when assuring them the important elements of my life were not altered or removed by the move to the Middle East. Therefore, I’ve decided to flatten a few skewed ideas:
1) Women have to dress differently. No I do not have to wear an abaya or hijab.* I am eternally surprised, though not irritated, by the sheer number of questions I receive with regards to how I must dress as a woman in Abu Dhabi. The answer I always offer them is simply there is not a code for how I MUST dress that doesn’t apply in the UK.
When I go to a beach or pool, public or private, I wear a bikini just as I would on holiday anywhere else. When out and about in town or at the mall I need not wear a veil or cover every inch of bare flesh but choose my outfits with common decency and respect for myself and others. I would not wear high cut shorts and a crop top in a mall as I would not want to attract unwanted glances just as I wouldn’t in my local shopping centre right here in Blighty.
If you chose to wear something clearly inappropriate for the place you are visiting I would think it unlikely that anyone would comment, yet would advise against it out of respect for the local women who cover up in the name of their religion.
I would always suggest checking any dress requirements before visiting a venue as you would in England. The Emirates Palace demands a certain level of formality from both ladies AND gentlemen. The Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, one of the most beautiful feats of engineering and art I have ever had the opportunity to visit, asks for head scarves and full length clothing for religious purposes, however conveniently provides hooded gowns for no charge, which I think add to the experience and enjoyment helping you appreciate the culture even more.
Furthermore, for anyone interested in fashion, as I am, Arabic dress presents a whole new realm to explore. Dolce and Gabana clearly agree as they launch a new range this year to target Muslim women, featuring abayas and headscarves in iconic D&G prints. However they wouldn’t be the first fashion house to tap the market, as a favourite option for headwear has shown itself to be a carefully arranged Burberry headscarf which can be spotted piled up dramatically above a pair of Miu Miu sunglasses as a tall dark figure sashays off on Choo-clad feet.
There is a certain mystery and intrigue which surrounds the abaya, immediately awarding the wearer a strangely demure beauty. It is something I greatly admire and envy not for its ostentatious accessories but for immeasurable value of dignity and self respect it implies.
*Note: an abaya is the loose, cloak-like outer garment worn by some Muslim women. A hijab is the accompanying veil.
2) Women cannot drive. I must stress that I have yet to experience a situation which prevents me from doing anything which my brother would be allowed to do. Driving is no exception. I am learning to drive this year and would be allowed to drive with my UK licence once I turn 18. There has been some discussion that the age will be lowered to 17 in the future, matching the UK’s minimum age.
3) The local people are unfriendly. The local people of Abu Dhabi, referred to as Emirates, are a minority within the population accounting for only 20%. This is an unusual statistic, reflecting a vast expatriate population. The Emirates are, in my experience, gentle, respectful and welcoming, some may say greatly contrasting with the attitude towards immigrants in our own country. They value their culture and heritage deeply which is rooted in their religion (Islam). I have found them, therefore, to be delighted to hear any attempt at speaking their language. This resulted, rather hilariously, in an impromptu Arabic lesson with a local in the airport in Dubai as my mum and I greeted him with a rather feeble offering of an Arabic ‘hello’. From my experience, however, the rumours are true about the less than admirable driving in some cases.
4) The heat is unbearable. Many questions I receive centre around the weather, and, while the sandy beaches and sun tan are idyllic, it can be challenging living in the temperatures most would holiday in. If you are struggling to understand quite why I complain about the luxury of sunshine, I challenge you to walk a dog, load a car of shopping or go for a run in 30 degrees. Perfect for sunbathing but not so for some menial everyday tasks which require considerably more clothing. However there also seems to be a misconception that life in the UAE means 50 degrees and pouring sweat for a large part of the year; I can assure you this is not the case. While it may be hot for a summer month or two, most of the year the temperature rarely ventures above 30, residing predominantly around 20 (degrees Celsius). To put this in perspective, I probably spend more time inside at the mercy of the rain in England than I do in Abu Dhabi due to the heat. Furthermore, Abu Dhabi, like its native camels, seems adapted for the sun and sand. Imagine a journey to work or school, you leave your air-conditioned house getting into your air-conditioned car to arrive at your air-conditioned destination. If that destination were to be the cinema I would even go so far as to suggest the addition of a jumper (plus hat, scarf and gloves) to your outfit; they famously offer what feels to me like sub-zero temperatures all year round. My point is that the heat is rarely intense enough to ensue difficulty, and when it is that difficulty is removed by AC. Magic. You can read other articles by Lily at her blog