Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates, is located along the beautiful waters of the Arabian Gulf. It is one of the richest cities in the world, is home to one of the world’s largest expat communities, and has become a place where people of various nationalities and religions live peacefully alongside each other. But even in light of its international clout and diverse population, the humdrum of a Monday to Friday of expat life in Abu Dhabi can be startlingly different than your stock-standard routine.
A week in the life of an expat in Abu Dhabi
7h15am - A test of stress on a former day of rest
Oh no, I realise I’ve pushed snooze on the alarm one too many times, and I promised my husband I would take the kids to school today. No, I’m not crazy or confused, in Abu Dhabi Sunday is a work and school day. I tell myself I can still make it out the door by 7h30am, and I do by the skin of my teeth.
I’m not lazy, it’s just that the blackout curtains can make you feel like you should still be sleeping. The temperatures here in the summer can be horribly hot, so tinted home and car windows, as well as blackouts, are almost a requirement.
As we step out the front door, I realise I can’t see my car or the garage. Fog so thick you can barely see three feet in front of you has managed to swallow both my vehicle and my villa.
I think to myself, “Why me?”
I can drive and had never been scared to do so in the past, but getting behind the wheel in Abu Dhabi feels like playing bumper cars on a racetrack; and even with the fog you’re lucky if the wannabe Formula One drivers drop from 160km to 120km. Today, I am at least thankful that I don’t have to travel on a freeway to get to the school, foggy days are notorious here for causing 15+ car pile-ups.
7h59am - Luxury truck rally
We finally pull into the school parking lot, an area separated from the road by a sand divide. The scene reminds me of a monster truck rally, but instead of jacked up cars with knobby tires, moms and chauffeurs driving BMWs, Porsche SUVs, and luxury sedans fit for off-roading abound. That’s right, a BMW 535i can go off-road, I have seen it with my own two eyes, and I’ll likely see it momentarily when all cars unload their precious cargo and try and jump the queue and make a dash over the sand and onto the road at the same time.
3h00pm - Grocery shopping headaches
Off to LuLu’s to buy a few groceries. Grocery shopping here can be a real pain, and I find myself going to a market almost daily. Unlike the states or the UK, there isn’t one store that carries everything. Furthermore, many meat items have large tags that advise against refreezing, so this means I have to shop for meat quite often. We are also constantly buying milk, because in Abu Dhabi it usually expires within four days. Large cases of water are also a necessity that it seems like we are always running out of. Our water is held in a large holding tank, imagine an underground swimming pool, under our front yard. The water comes out of the tap clear, but the inside of the tank gets full of sand and debris. Some people may drink it, but it isn’t recommended.
11h00am - The good life
A friend and I sink into beach chairs behind the Al Raha Beach Hotel and Resort, a definite luxury of life in Abu Dhabi. For a small fee, you can pay to enjoy the amenities at many of the hotels, including their pools and soft, white sand private beaches, and you also get access to servers who bring you drinks while you sunbathe. Looking out onto the turquoise waters of the Arabian Gulf, I just can’t help but think how lucky I am to be living in Abu Dhabi.
1pm - An unexpected perk
Tuesdays are early dismissal days for my kids, so we meet my husband for our usual family lunch. One of the best things about living here has been the amount of family time that we have together now.
2pm - Out of stock, all the time
I drop by the Al Safa grocery store to pick up hamburger to make for dinner. I never bought hamburger in the states, but ground turkey is not an option here. Turkey is actually hard to find except around Thanksgiving and Christmas times. Hamburger is another item that can’t be frozen and that has a brief life expectancy, lasting only 24 hours. There are only a few places that sell hamburger that doesn’t taste as though it is mixed with lamb.
5h47am - An eerie alarm clock
I wake up startled, there sounds like there is man chanting in my bedroom. It takes me a few seconds to recognise the Arabic words Allahu Akbar, and to realise that there isn’t a strange man singing in my room, but that it’s rather the first of the five daily prayers calls. I made the mistake of not turning on our rather loud air conditioning unit, so the muezzin from the mosque around the corner is my alarm clock today.
8h10am - Sumptuous pampering
I pull up in front of one of my favourite places, the spa. Since moving here, I have had more spa dates than I ever had in all the years I lived in the US. I’m not sure if it’s just the fact that I have more free time, the fact that the prices are relatively affordable or the fact that it seems like there is a spa on every corner. Regardless, the pampering you get here goes above and beyond what you would normally expect.
1pm - Looking for the whole hog
I stop by Spinneys to shop for pork, including bacon for our weekend family breakfast. Pork, products containing pork products or products bearing a name that suggests it contains pork are sold in a special room that usually has a warning for Muslims to stay out. Spinneys and Abelas are grocery chains that have a pork room. If you can’t find something, it’s always a good idea to check the pork section just in case it has been labelled as being haram, the opposite of halal.
9h30pm - A gift from above
After enjoying a relaxing dinner of Arabic and Lebanese mezze platters at the outdoor café, Le Boulanger, we decide to walk along the water at Breakwater. Breakwater is a stretch of land that is man-made and accessible from the western end of the Corniche near The Emirates Palace. Breakwater is home to Marina Mall, Heritage Village, Abu Dhabi Sailing and Yacht Club, Marina Village and Le Boulanger. From Breakwater, there is a spectacular view of Abu Dhabi’s skyline as well as a pretty full view of Emirates Palace, with its constantly changing colours lighting up the night. There’s something magical about a walk here, but today it is made even more special. I feel drops of rain starting to fall on my skin. At first they come slowly, then it actually starts to really rain. What a treat - rain here is like the first snow of the season when you’re a kid, all you want to do is go outside and play in it!
I moved from the south-eastern coast of Virginia, and after seeing nor’easters, tropical storms, and hurricanes that left our yard a giant swimming pool, I never thought I could miss rain so much until I lived a few months of life in Abu Dhabi.
10h15am - Community building
We join a large group of fellow expats for church services at the Evangelical Community Church of Abu Dhabi, or ECC as it is known to most people here. The ECC Center where services are held is home to 18 different congregations that serve different language and ethnic groups. The UAE is a Muslim country, but they are very tolerant of other religions and most of the churches here are built on land donated by the rulers. ECC also holds several Bible studies during the week that serve as a great way to meet other expats.
1pm - A taste of home
As Friday is the first day of the weekend, it’s off to Dubai for a little snowboarding, shopping, and dinner. Yes, we snowboard at the mall here in the desert. Abu Dhabi has some great shopping centres, but Dubai takes malls one step further by adding things like ski slopes, zoos, aquariums, mini amusement parks, bowling alleys, and indoor skydiving. Dubai’s malls also host several American chain restaurants. It’s funny, because in Dubai we have our choice of thousands of different places to eat, yet we still normally choose places that remind us of America and allow us to pretend we’re back home for a couple of hours; places like Texas Roadhouse, P.F. Chang’s, California Pizza Kitchen, Johnny Rockets, and The Shake Shack.
11am - Formula One fun
Our family heads to Yas Island, home to the Yas Marina F1 race track and Ferrari World, for a little kart racing and roller coaster riding to end the week.
Abu Dhabi isn’t Virginia, but I have embraced its differences. While it can be challenging, life in Abu Dhabi can be very rewarding. I feel lucky to be one of the many expats that call Abu Dhabi home.