Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates looks like a gorgeous place to spend a few years. Maybe not as famous as its Emirati cousin Dubai, it still comes with beautiful gulf waters and a taste of the high life. Let me introduce you to Cécile. She is the wife of a Belgian diplomat posted in Abu Dhabi along with her diplo-babies. Cécile gives us a little peek into life in this Arabic, desert nation. I was shocked to learn there is no FaceTime or any video app to keep in touch with family and friends back home (a lifeline for any diplomatic family, especially during quarantine.)
Cécile is quite the photographer so please look for her on Instagram @desperatediplowife or follow her adventures on her blog www.desperatediplowife.com.
Grand Mosque. Of course, you have to visit Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque! It’s free, it’s partially Belgian build and there is an underground parking with a tiny mall! It doesn’t get any better that this! To get the perfect Instagram picture, I would recommend going to the infinity pool at the Wahat Al Karama on the other side of the street. Sunset is the best time but if you want to avoid the crowd, go at the opening, early morning.
Take an Arabic coffee at the corniche. Drive down the corniche and go to the marina. Over there, many little coffee places will offer you the perfect Arabic coffee, or karak (Arabic tea) with Shisha if you like it. The view of the city center and the presidential palace is gorgeous. If luxury is your thing, take your platinum MasterCard to the Emirate Palace for a Gold cappuccino.
Shop in Yas mall. This mall is one of the biggest of the capital and my all-time favorite. All white marble and windows, the sun can come inside and brighten your day. You’ll find anything you need and more. A lot of nice coffee places are also in there, and you have 50% chance of meeting me there!
An apéro in the desert. Never venture alone in the desert! Find friends with a 4x4 or go on an organized desert safari. Enjoy the silence, let run your kids while you’re having a drink, spot animal tracks and marvel to the incredible sunset light. Dune bashing is a fantastic option too, but you better not be car sick!
Visit the Louvre. If architecture or culture is your thing, go to The Louvre Abu Dhabi. The French architect did it good, I have to admit this dome is one of the craziest buildings I’ve seen in my life. Take a break at the restaurant, it’s a lovely place.
Take the sun at Saadiyaat beach. This beach is the most beautiful beach I’ve ever seen. The sand is white, the water is turquoise, you really think you’re in the Maldives. You can spot dolphins, turtles and stingrays. You can either visit the public part of Saadiyat beach (there is an entry fee, anyway, don’t be surprised) or take a day pass in one of the 5 star hotels on the beach.
Dates. In the desert, if there is one thing you can’t miss, it’s dates! My favorites are Medjool, but any sort here is very good. Be careful, there is an old saying here about dates “Eat only an odd number of dates: 1, 3, 5, maximum 7 a day, never more”. You’ll be warned.
Zaatar and cheese Manakeesh with a good Shawarma sandwich. I know, it’s more Lebanese, anyway in this country “Arabic” restaurants are everywhere, and they tend to share dishes from the whole MENA region so this menu is usually our easy lunch option (with a Fattoush salad).
Karak. It’s an Emirati milk tea with spices. The recipe is secret and differs a bit from place to place but there is usually saffron, cardamom and lots of sugar in it.
A lavish brunch. In every luxurious hotel in the country, Fridays at 12:30 starts weekly over-the-top brunch-time. Live-cooking, live music, tonnes of dishes and alcohols, it’s pretty much all you can dream for in a restaurant and even more! I recommend the Nahaam Brunch at the Jumeirah Etihad towers, the seafood is amazing.
Some Luqaimat. Those Arabic sweet dumplings are worth a try!
I took all my house’s content and then realized; you can find pretty much ANYTHING in the UAE. All American and European brands are here, plus you have all these gorgeous imports from Asia. Art galleries sell some amazing pieces from all over the world. We really live at a world crosswalk; I redecorated our interior with new things from here. Same with the wardrobe! You’ll find a huge choice of summer clothes and bathing suit. And if by big surprise you can’t find something, 90% of the population is expat here, so there is a big chance your neighbors will be able to bring it back to you after their next holiday.
Of course, I took all our souvenirs and some Belgian art, a piece of décor for every room to feel familiar, and I’m sure some pieces I bought here will become very important in the future. We bought a painting of a camel that is a part of the family already.
Get a phone contract with a lot of international minutes. The video and calling apps are banned here in the UAE. Unless hiding behind a VPN (which is illegal) you won’t be able to use FaceTime, WhatsApp call, Skype, … (Admin note 😱 WHAT?!)
Get used to living outdoors all winter and inside all summer. The summer is unbearable here, temperature is around 47 Celsius in the shade but don’t worry, there are plenty of things to do inside (we even have a ski slope).
Don’t stress! People are super friendly here and even if you encounter a problem (a car accident, a maintenance problem, an administrative problem, etc.) they will do everything to solve it quickly. The pace of life is different (I had to slow down a bit my walking speed to blend in) but they are very helpful and kind. If you have kids, it’s the perfect place to be. They love kids and will do everything for them!
The air quality. Living in a desert has a cost and it’s the quality of the air. Nobody will tell this to you before you come here, but air quality is very low in Abu Dhabi and Dubai. Although you’re at the sea, sandstorms and the constant dust in the air put these cities in the top of pollution levels 75% of the year. of course, because it comes from natural dust and sand particles, it’s not as bad for your health as chemical particles, but still, many people (children first) are having respiratory issues and pneumonia quite often. We live with an air purifier in every room.
The cost of living. In fact, living in the desert has a second cost pretty obvious, the cost of living. The UAE is a gorgeous country, but it doesn’t produce that much. It imports most of the things for a market of very rich expats. Everything, except gasoline, is more expensive here than in Europe. Electricity, water, food, restaurants, clothes, … your bills will be higher than home. Last year, the UAE became the most expensive country to fly out in the world. I pay twice the price to go to Brussels than a regular ticket from Brussels to Abu Dhabi. Taxes on income don’t exist here, so people who work here and get paid here, are rich and can afford that cost of living. Diplomats are paid back home… ;)
The safety! It’s the safest place in the world. You can leave you car opened, running, with your phone and wallet inside, go to the shop to buy something and everything is still there when you come back! As a woman, it is super nice to be able to go for a walk in any neighborhood of the city at any time of the day or night and feel super safe. I can let my kids play in the street, go alone to the local supermarket, it’s safe and it gives a feeling of Europe 50 years ago.
If you are interested in knowing more about our life or the diplomatic life in general, follow my Instagram (@desperatediplowife) or my blog www.desperatediplowife.com
Thanks Cécile for showing us what expat life is like in the United Arab Emirates.
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What is life like all over the globe? This area is a window into the lives of diplomats and their families. These interviews serve as mini crash courses in expat living worldwide. 7 salient notes about expat life in a given location. Enjoy!