Monthly Archives: April 2014

Battling the Arabian heat

Cooling off in Arabia

Cooling off in Arabia

As I write this piece, I’m sitting poolside watching Janah – my eldest – taking part in another intense swim-squad training session. Recalling the Abu Dhabi heat when I arrived, I’m now tempted to jump in and cool off alongside her . . .


“Call me when the driver arrives,” I told Tarek, grabbing my little girls by the hand and walking back in through the doors of Abu Dhabi International Airport.

I could hear Tarek laughing, the sweat dripping from his forehead and his T-shirt soaking wet.

“I warned you about the heat,” he replied, standing on the sidewalk and flagging the company driver who was parked some distance away.
“You warned me?” I snapped as I continued to walk back inside.

What he should’ve told me was to spend the day at the spa, shifting back and forth between the steam room and sauna, catching the cool blast from the air-conditioned room separating them.

No one can really prepare you for the sizzling summer temperatures when you move to the desert. In Arabia we spend three to four months of the year indoors. Spring is usually from March to May but temperatures really begin to soar in early May, jumping from 33°C and often reaching highs of 47°C – it’s at this time you see families rushing indoors, back into air-conditioned rooms, desperately looking to find new ways to entertain their children. Swimming in the sea is not an option as the water temperature also begins to rise.

Desert sun....hot summer days force families indoors between May - September in Arabia

Desert sun….hot summer days force families indoors between May – September in Arabia

We begin to see the weather cooling slightly in late September as we head into autumn. From October to December the temperatures drop significantly; it is a little cooler in the winter months but there is no blizzard. However we often have to deal with the harsh sandstorms; breathing dust while the sandy grains exfoliate our skin. For my friends who live in a villa, the most common complaint is the amount of sand blowing under their doors and through their window seals into their homes. I don’t see any reason why they complain; they all have maids to clean up the mess.

Looking back on my first summer in Abu Dhabi, I think I handled it well considering I was 32 weeks pregnant with two small children demanding to be picked up and carried.

There were times when I opened the fridge, reaching for a bottle of chilled water or lemonade. Without pouring it into a glass, I placed the bottle to my mouth and just guzzled it, desperately trying to quench my thirst. “I can survive this,” I told myself. “Get a grip.”

In Sydney, we often experienced heat waves – air-conditioners stopped working and as a child I remember my father turning on the garden hose so we could play with the water. At lunch mum often placed a large bowl of watermelon on the table and told us to cool down.

A few weeks after I arrived in Abu Dhabi, I had a sudden burst of energy and the need to go outside and take the girls for a walk. I could no longer sit, cooped-up in a small hotel apartment with two little girls bouncing off the walls.

I bundled them into a stroller, we put on sunscreen and hats, and I began pushing them around the city. Men and women stared, looking back at me as though I was mad. While everyone else was seeking shelter in air-conditioned apartments and offices, I was heavily pregnant and pushing two little girls around the city.

As I walked further and further into the city, I realised that Abu Dhabi streets were not pedestrian friendly. Motorists refused to stop for anyone at a pedestrian crossing and the street curb was high, which meant I needed to use all of my strength to lift the pram off the road and onto the footpath. Perhaps it wasn’t such a good idea. Janah and Serene were fairly quiet during the walks, Serene would fall asleep while Janah sat still observing the people and the stores. When I felt tired, I’d seek refuge in an air-conditioned pharmacy or supermarket, catch my breath and continue on my way.

Back at the hotel, when I turned on the cold water tap and ran the water for the girls’ bath, the water was so warm – on most days I would pour cold bottled water into the bath to cool it down.

Serene (L) & Janah (R) during our earlier years in the UAE

Serene (L) & Janah (R) during our earlier years in the UAE

I’ve been in the United Arab Emirates now for six years – no one ever really gets used to living in these conditions but over time you learn to adapt. Those who can, leave for most of the summer while schools are on break and families that stay behind find themselves trawling malls, in play centres or cooling off in Ski Dubai.

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Beggars come knocking

UAE police continue to crackdown on beggars taking advantage of residents and tourist throughout the country

UAE police continue to crackdown on beggars taking advantage of residents and tourist throughout the country

A woman dressed in black, her face covered revealing only her eyes, stands at the front door holding a small document. As she extends her arm and opens her hand, she begins asking for money to support her family. Tarek and I look at one another, we are in shock. We have heard about street beggars but never door-to-door.
The last time I encountered a beggar was when I was in a cab trying to cross into the United States from Tijuana, Mexico. It was a frightening experience as they circled the taxi, young children banging on our window. But this was different. It was happening at my front door.
I was thankful Tarek was home that day. He turned her away politely and gave her the name of nearby charities where she could get support. As he closed the door, the doorbell rang again. We didn’t answer it but she persisted until Tarek threatened to call the police.
Begging is now outlawed in the United Arab Emirates but in 2008 it was a growing problem in Abu Dhabi. Our doorbell would ring often – mostly during the day when Tarek was at work – but I never answered. I would look through the peephole, and if I saw a woman in black, I wouldn’t open. It’s sad – there were many friendly women who wore the burqa that lived in my building, but I never risked opening the door just in case the woman on my doorstep was a beggar.
Despite the many police campaigns in the major cities in the Emirates, begging remains a multi-million dollar industry. Often, during the holy month of Ramadan, professional beggars from India and Pakistan pay agency fees to come to the country to take advantage of residents’ generosity.
Local media reports say that during a police campaign in 2012, nearly 650 beggars were arrested in Dubai, one third of them during Ramadan. Among them was a man who asked passersby to contribute Dh10 for his bus fare. By the time he was arrested he had made Dh19,000. His counterpart in Sharjah did even better, collecting Dh30,000 in a matter of days.
A beggar was caught faking a disability with a prosthetic leg and another was arrested feigning illness using an IV bag taped to his abdomen. When police checked the bag’s contents it turned out to be an ordinary yellow liquid and not the result of some terrible disease. Yet there were many who got away. In 2011 a vengeful beggar super-glued an Indian woman’s car doors after she turned him away.
Recently, during a morning walk, a man with what appeared to be a bandage on his arm approached me, revealing an infected wound. He produced a doctor’s prescription for an antibiotic. “Pharmacist. I need money,” he said, revealing a hideous open wound the length of his forearm. I didn’t know whether to believe him or not, but being a generous person, I gave him whatever change I had in my pocket. I continued on my way but I remained wary for the rest of my walk. I could see him avoid certain people, mostly men, and then approach those who appeared to be softer targets. His next victims were an elderly couple.
I knew I had been scammed. He would disappear for a few minutes, plot his approach and seek out his next victim. He would just pounce. I alerted the local security team – simply telling them that a man needed urgent medical assistance. He had shown me a wound on his arm and needed help. I never told them he took money from me – I didn’t know his full story. I felt like I had been scammed but it could’ve been a genuine cry for help and telling the security men that I thought he was a con artist could have caused him harm that he didn’t deserve.
Back in Abu Dhabi, the knocks on our door eventually ended when our neighbours called police.
Next – Giving birth in the Arab world

Tenants at the mercy of Abu Dhabi landlords

Celebrating Janah's 3rd  birthday in our new Abu Dhabi apartment

Celebrating Janah’s 3rd birthday in our new Abu Dhabi apartment


I do apologise for not blogging sooner – I had a very busy weekend celebrating my birthday.

Just to recap: The real-estate agent called my husband, asking him to come and pick up our deposit – the partitioned villa apartment was no longer available because the greedy landlord had accepted more money from someone else. Although Tarek and I were annoyed, it was a blessing in disguise – the Abu Dhabi Municipality later announced a crackdown on these illegal villas.

In the same breath, the agent tried to rectify the problem by giving Tarek the contact number of a man who we were led to believe was a representative of an Emirati landlord looking to lease his three-bedroom apartment.

Al Muroor was a little further from where we had planned to settle – 20 minutes from the Abu Dhabi CBD and the Corniche. Tarek made the call and agreed to meet him in a car park outside a Yemeni restaurant situated at the corner of Al Muroor Rd and 31st Street.

When we arrived, three men approached the car. Tarek had a brief conversation in Arabic with the landlord’s representative, and while I was sitting inside our car I made a note of their car registration. We were led to an old building within walking distance of where we had parked, below was a tiny general store. The watchman, a short Asian man, took down our details, before we were ushered to the lifts. An Emirati man, who I assumed was the landlord, greeted us at the front door.

“Asalamu Alaikom,” he said.
“Wa alaikom wa salam,” we responded.

For anyone who has been house-hunting, getting a positive vibe about an apartment, location and neighbourhood is important.

The Arabian décor consisted of gold wallpaper, maroon and gold drapes hanging from a large window, and a large crystal chandelier lighting up the large family room. Once the tour ended, the girls and I walked back to the car while Tarek stayed behind with the landlord and his representatives to discuss the lease terms and conditions.

“He wants 200,000 dirhams (USD55,000),” said Tarek, as he turned on the car’s ignition. Before I could respond, Tarek painfully revealed: “He wants one cheque.”

It looked like we were just about to finance this young man’s new car, I thought. Our housing allowance covered 90 per cent of the rent and we would have to borrow the balance from the bank. To add insult to injury, Tarek was told his employer would not pay the large sum in one cheque – the company’s policy was two instalments.

Part of the reason why we had moved to the United Arab Emirates was to get ahead financially; instead we found ourselves having to finance half of our rent as well as an additional 10% agent’s fee. Tarek was asked to return later that night with a USD5000 deposit. The previous day he had picked up the deposit from the other real-estate agent but he was short a few thousand dollars.

We returned to the same car park many hours later. Tarek gripped the brown paper bag tightly as he walked towards the men. They had no qualifications, no receipt book and no proof of who they were. Many questions and scenarios rushed through my mind. Was this a scam? Had we trusted them too much? I drew comfort from knowing this was the Muslim world and if this was a scam and the men were caught, they would be facing many years in an Arabian prison.

I looked over at Tarek, and after what appeared like a brief conversation, he handed over the money. I waited anxiously for him to get a receipt and the key. Nothing. No receipt and no key. We had no record this transaction ever took place.

Tarek was asked to return in a few days to pick up the key from the landlord. Neither of us spoke on the drive home. The next 48 hours were stressful. Either way, we needed to get our finances in order and find a way to fund this astronomical rental fee.

In 2008, there were no laws protecting tenants who had made a lump sum payment on their apartment or villa. If a tenant lost his or her job and were forced to leave the country, they could not recoup the balance of their rental payment.

True to his word, the landlord called. He asked Tarek to meet with him at a nearby café to pick up the key and sign the lease. We moved into the apartment a week before I was due to give birth.

Tarek maintained a great relationship with the landlord, whose wife’s family owned the building we had just moved into. Al Muroor was a lovely traditional neighbourhood. While we didn’t have the luxuries of other expats living in compounds with access to a swimming pool and gymnasium, I was just happy that we were part of the Arabian experience.

Janah & Serene had enough space to bike ride in the hallway of our new apartment

Janah and Serene had enough space to bike ride in the hallway of our new apartment

Next: Beggars come knocking

Take it or leave it. Renters forced to pay a year’s rent up front

Abu Dhabi housing prices increased dramatically during 2008

Abu Dhabi housing prices increased dramatically during 2008


I know I’ve kept many of you waiting for the second instalment of our housing nightmare. Here it is: As I wrote previously, Dubai’s boom was beginning to filter into the UAE capital, driving housing prices through the roof, creating a goldmine for landlords while many expats arriving in Abu Dhabi in 2008 were left at the mercy of hordes of greedy homeowners determined to make a quick buck. And there were no laws to govern the ridiculous increase in rental prices. Apartment and villa rents had increased dramatically over a decade. I had met many people during my time in the capital who can recall having paid about USD10,000 at the beginning of the millennium for an apartment overlooking the stunning Abu Dhabi Corniche. As the demand for housing increased, unsurprisingly, so did prices. During Tarek’s apartment hunting days before we arrived, he was shown many two- or three-bedroom apartments in run-down buildings within walking distance to the beach that were fetching about USD80,000 in annual rent. And, wait for it, if he wanted to secure it, Tarek was asked to pay an immediate cash deposit and write one cheque covering the entire year’s rent. Of course, everyone has $80,000 lying around! Finally the call I had been hoping for came just a week before Tarek was due to fly back to Sydney to attend his brother’s wedding. He had put a deposit on an apartment. It was still under construction, but it was due to be completed in mid-July. Problem solved. OK. Not exactly. One month after arriving in Abu Dhabi, we went to have a look at the apartment. The owner had illegally partitioned a two-storey six-bedroom villa and planned to rent it to desperate expats, such as ourselves, seeking accommodation. Three families or six single people would share a common area and listen to each other’s personal conversations through the thin walls, like some graduate dorm facilities in the United States. Even if we had agreed to move in, there was absolutely no way it would be ready in July or even by October. The foundation was set, and the structure was complete but very little thought had gone into adding kitchens and additional bathrooms into these ‘apartments’. ‘Just let me know where you want me to put the kitchen’, said the real estate agent, pointing at a small area lacking any windows. ‘What do you mean, tell you’? I asked. ‘It’s your job to show us how this is going to work.’ This wasn’t an apartment; it was more like an attempt to put a Band-Aid on the housing problem in Abu Dhabi. Tarek and I looked at each other. We knew we had no choice—we just had to sit tight until it was completed. We had now exceeded our four-week stay at the Hilton Hotel Residency, and it didn’t look like we were moving into this villa anytime soon. After three months of being crammed into a one-bedroom apartment, sitting idly and at the mercy of the construction workers and landlord, Tarek received a call from the agent. ‘Come and collect your deposit’, he said. What the hell! The landlord had received a better rental offer for the apartment. We had been shafted—caught up in a web in which unethical and greedy homeowners would do just about anything to make a quick buck. I was two weeks’ away from giving birth, and my mother and brother were also arriving to care for the girls while I was in hospital. The absolute last thing Tarek and I needed was to head out in 45-degree temperatures to search for another place to live. Not long after receiving the call, news spread throughout the emirate that the Abu Dhabi Municipality was planning to crack down on families sharing partitioned villas. It was a blessing in disguise. Alhumdillah (Praise be to God.)
(Coming soon – the desperate search for housing takes us to a dodgy car park in Al Muroor)

A battle for survival in Abu Dhabi’s brutal housing market

Construction in Abu Dhabi to meet housing supply shortage
As I stood beside the car with my two little girls sound asleep in the back seat, I could feel my unborn child kicking furiously. In the distance, my husband Tarek stood with three men. What felt like a lifetime was just minutes as the conversation ended with my husband handing over a brown paper bag containing USD5,500 – our rental deposit for an apartment we had seen a few hours earlier. The kicks got stronger as I waited for one of the men, who we were led to believe was a representative for the Emirati landlord, to hand Tarek the key to the apartment. Nothing. No key. My heart sank as he walked towards me empty handed.
Had we just walked into a housing scam?
It was hot and very humid – mid-July is perhaps one of the warmest summer months in the UAE. As Tarek walked back to the car, I could feel a contraction coming on. I was just two weeks away from giving birth to our third child.
“Where is the key?” I asked Tarek.
“We’ll get it tomorrow,” he replied.
I wasn’t convinced.
The drive back to our hotel apartment was intensely quiet. We didn’t say a word, neither wanting to spark a fight. And I was ready to argue. We both knew that everything could go horribly wrong, and we probably wouldn’t see that money again.
Before we packed up and left Sydney for Abu Dhabi, Tarek and I had spoken extensively about moving into a beautiful apartment overlooking the stunning Abu Dhabi Corniche – this was part of the excitement and the journey. We had both grown tired of living in western Sydney and this was the closest thing to an adventure I had ever experienced. Financially we were struggling to keep up with our mortgage – we had two little girls under the age of three and there was another baby on the way. We just wanted to catch up financially. To get ahead and to stop chasing our tails.
Tarek was asked to start work immediately after signing a two-year deal with the project management company handling the construction of the multi-million dollar hotel developments on Yas Island. He was there to help the Abu Dhabi government get ready for the first ever day/night Formula One Grand Prix. It was an incredible career move he couldn’t pass up.
In March he left and we were due to follow him in May, shortly after his brother’s wedding. With our furniture now packed and in a shipping container, I was forced to live with the bare minimum: a mattress, portable cot, bar fridge, a few pots and pans, a small coffee table and a television. It was all the girls and I had for six weeks. I slept on the mattress, five months pregnant, beside me lay Janah, my two-and-a-half-year-old daughter, and in the cot was Serene – she was just 16 months at the time. Ideally I would’ve liked to have moved to Abu Dhabi with Tarek but it wasn’t feasible with the wedding just weeks away.
Part of his expat package included what we believed at the time to be a substantial housing allowance. For the first month, however, the company would cover our hotel apartment rental until we found a permanent residence. During our daily conversations, Tarek explained the difficulty of finding an apartment – what was on offer was run down and located in a very old part of the city.
His nightly search continued after work. Tarek made endless calls to real estate agents but no one seemed to have anything suitable. In 2008, Abu Dhabi was facing a housing shortage, unable to cope with the influx of expats arriving in the emirate. The success of Dubai’s boom had filtered into the capital, driving housing prices through the roof.
Stay tuned for the next instalment of our housing nightmare.

Welcome to My Arabia.

The stunning Dubai skyline has become iconic in the Middle East

The stunning Dubai skyline has become iconic in the Middle East

With millions of people around the world blogging about their experiences, it’s time I joined the chorus of writers that has made a success out of blogging.
After having lived in the UAE for six years, I think it’s now time to share my unique journey with the world.

My early years were challenging. I arrived in Abu Dhabi pregnant with my third daughter, scared and unaware of how the health system operated. I would often question my obstetrician’s decisions—and rightly so. Moving from Australia meant I had to learn to drive on the other side of the road without killing my children, any unsuspecting drivers or myself.

What makes my Arabian journey different from that of any other expat?

I was born and raised in Sydney, Australia, and am the daughter of Lebanese migrant parents. Until I moved to the UAE in 2008, I had never travelled to the Middle East. My view of the Arab world was limited to what I had seen on the evening news and to what my parents had told me about their native country. In Australia, we have a strong Middle Eastern community predominantly composed of Lebanese. But with so many issues surrounding this minority group, I’d distanced myself from my culture. As a Muslim growing up in Australia, I felt that everything in my father’s eyes was forbidden. While I looked the part of an Aussie kid, I never felt it.

The opportunity to move to the UAE was a blessing. Like many expats, we set a two-year deadline on our experience. We were lured here by the tax-free dollars and incredible expat-package, where housing, health insurance and education were all covered. I moved from suburban Sydney to Palm Jumeriah, which offered a lifestyle I knew I could not afford back home.

It has been a roller-coaster ride.

This blog will cover my personal journey, I’ve met many strange and wonderful people along the way. I became fascinated with polygamy, and I discovered during my second year here that a friend of mine was part of what I call a ‘second wives’ club. More on that later.

I had no choice but to hire help after my husband was forced to relocate to Saudi Arabia due to the global financial crisis. My daughters and I chose to stay behind until we knew his job was stable. The treatment of these domestic workers would make anyone shudder. I have plenty of stories to share on this topic.

Education, I believe, is a right and not a privilege, but tell that to the businessmen and women who take advantage of parents, charging up to USD10,000 a year for a five-year-old to start kindergarten. I often joke that I have spent my girls’ university tuition on nursery school fees. It’s true.

I reinvented my career in the Middle East. I followed my passion in sport and worked with FIFA on a number of football events—from the 2010 Club World Cup and the FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup. I was even invited to join the Beach Soccer Worldwide team in Barcelona, Spain, to travel the world promoting this fabulous sport.

Today, I work with brands such as Disney Live and Disney on Ice, building the campaigns and promoting these events in the Middle East. Mickey Mouse is my BFF.

This is both my personal and professional journey. Welcome aboard.