Tag Archives: Australia

Business in Arabia: Risking it all to pursue a dream

Bounce: The jumping revolution comes to the Middle East

Bounce: The jumping revolution comes to the Middle East

Australian businessman Ross Milton gave up a high-flying job to pursue a dream. MyArabia.me recently caught up with the Managing Director of Bounce to find out more about the jumping revolution in Dubai.  

Anyone who has lived in the United Arab Emirates long enough will tell you that Dubai is built on entrepreneurship.

There are two types of entrepreneurs, says Ross Milton, former global chief financial officer of Mars Food Group. The first, he says, are young and usually unrestrained by family commitments. They can tolerate risk better, because if something doesn’t pay off, they have plenty of time before retirement in which to rebound. Milton points out that these young entrepreneurs are usually unable to self-fund their ventures, and need to attract the right investors.

The second type gets to Milton’s age, (41), have saved up a reasonable amount of money and then have a crack at funding something. This is riskier, concedes Milton, who has put his life savings into creating Bounce, one of the most popular indoor sporting venues in Dubai. “I still have two young children who are at school and university is still to come.”

Ross Milton, Managing Director of Bounce Middle East

Ross Milton, Managing Director of Bounce Middle East

We meet at Bounce headquarters in Al Quoz, where we are surrounded by 80 interconnected trampolines and 500 square metres of circus-grade padding and air bags. It’s hard to believe that a year ago this was the home of dozens of offices, marble floors and slabs of concrete.

“It was extraordinary! We had big cranes tearing this place apart, cutting through the concrete, until we dropped out a whole floor,” he recalls.

It was during these times, Milton says, that he would lie awake, questioning his decision to give up a high-flying executive role to pursue a 20-year dream to start his own business.

Before moving to the United Arab Emirates in 2012, Milton was based in Los Angeles, where he was the global chief financial officer for Mars Food Group, and the company recorded $3 billion in sales. It was where he honed his entrepreneurial skills.

“As a CFO, you are the right-hand man of the CEO and you end up doing a bit of everything,” he says of his 14-year-career at Mars. Milton transferred with Mars to Dubai as the Senior Vice President of Human Resources, where he guided, trained and developed 8000 employees across Africa, India, Middle East, Commonwealth of Independent States and Central Asia. Mars, he notes, had recorded $7 billion in sales in this part of the world.

Over 150,000 people have bounced since the sporting venue opened in June 2014.

Over 150,000 people have bounced since the sporting venue opened in June 2014.

He was barely into his new role in Dubai when he decided to take the leap ‒ contrary to his long-held belief that he would start his first business back in Australia, where he has a strong personal network and a familiarity with the laws and regulations.

But in August 2013, on a visit home with his family, Milton had his first encounter with Bounce, the indoor trampoline park. Within two months, he had signed a franchise agreement, acquiring the Middle East rights.

“The United Arab Emirates, like Australia, is an entrepreneurial country. Everyone can have a crack at anything,” says Milton. “I looked at this market [Dubai], and thought, ’Oh my gosh!’ You’ve got obesity issues, kids sitting in their rooms playing games on their computers, and the climate isn’t helpful for getting outside and playing sports. As I thought more and more about it, this was the place.”

Bounce Middle East was no ordinary venture. Milton was still employed at Mars, and he says he wasn’t about to leave his job unless he could find a building and acquire the licenses.

Finding the right location was a challenge. He ruled out Jebel Ali and Dubai Investment Park as too far out for patrons. And, unlike other parts of the world where the commercial real estate market is developed, Milton discovered that none of the 30 agents he contacted had a comprehensive overview of what commercial properties were available.

“I was driving up and down the streets hoping to see a For Sale or For Rent sign,” he says, shaking his head.

The search led him to the streets of Al Quoz, a commercial area located just minutes from Mall of the Emirates. Having found the right area, his next challenge was securing a building large enough to house the space-hungry concept. Once he’d found the building, he had to get the area rezoned and obtain a sports license.

In April 2014, Milton resigned from his post at Mars, and, in June 2014, Bounce Middle East opened its doors. Since then, it has welcomed over 150,000 visitors and inspired numerous copycat businesses across Dubai.

“I learnt a lot of lessons along the way,” he says. “I think next time I would put additional clauses in contracts to give myself a little breathing space. It was a big leap. There were nights when I stared at the ceiling and wondered what I had done.”

Looking around at what he has created, Milton says, “I get to work with, train and develop young people; the average age of my team is 20 years old. I get to help develop their experience and skills.

“There is nothing better than when you have three parties running at the same time, with 60 kids running around screaming, carrying on and having a blast.”

Can you slam dunk while you're bouncing?

Can you slam dunk while you’re bouncing?

Tips

If you’re starting your first business, Milton strongly recommends you start with a franchise. Why start from scratch when there is a good concept? “You have support in branding and marketing, and assistance with execution. You just have to adapt the idea to the market.”

Milton adds, whether you’re a general manager or a business owner you’ll never be an expert in all fields. There are several key areas to understand:

  • Architecture and construction: Whether you’re starting a coffee shop or a sporting venue, you will need to think about design and layout.
  • Law: You will be dealing with contracts and tenders for construction companies.
  • Finance: Identify where the money is coming from and what the tax regulations are.
  • Personnel: If you’re planning to hire staff, what are their job descriptions? Where do you recruit them from? What benefits will they receive? And is it all in accordance with the country’s labour laws?
  • Training and development: What courses (such as first aid) will your employees need?
  • Public relations and marketing: Do you have the right digital strategy? What do you know about digital? How will you engage with, and sell into, the community? How will you stage a launch, making sure that everyone in Dubai knows about you?

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Majestic Lebanon

Lebanon remains a hidden treasure in the Middle East

Lebanon remains a hidden treasure in the Middle East

‘Would you like to come with me to Lebanon?’ my father would often ask me when I was a teenager, as he planned his annual trip to his home country.

“No!” I’d reply arrogantly, shutting down any idea of travelling to that place so far away.

I’d heard the stories of girls returning home to be married off to a cousin who was only ever interested in getting an Australian visa – his ticket to freedom. As the years passed, my father stopped asking and I never broached the subject.

Shamefully, my youth was spent distancing myself from my Lebanese heritage. Lebanon was a tiny nation far away from Australia, where I was born and raised. It reminded me of my father’s strict Middle Eastern culture, one which shaped my lonely teenage years ‒ not to mention the poor reputation the Lebanese community had in Australia. Why on earth would I want to be connected to the country?

My father is from a small village in Syr el dannieh, in North Lebanon, 22 km from the country’s second largest city, Tripoli, and several hours from cosmopolitan Beirut. Throughout my childhood I’d heard tales of gun battles and family feuds – my uncle was once shot in the crossfire between two quarrelling neighbours.

With my husband and children admiring the breathtaking view of the Qadisha Valley

With my husband and children admiring the breathtaking view of the Qadisha Valley

The image of Lebanon in my mind was a far cry from the real beauty of this small country, bordered by Syria to the north and Israel to the south, and situated at the crossroads of the Mediterranean Basin and the Arabian hinterland. Its rich history and cultural and religious diversity is a result of all these influences.

Like the millions of Lebanese expats scattered around the world, my father and mother left Lebanon at the beginning of the Lebanese Civil War in 1975. Before that, my mother says, Lebanon was compared with Switzerland, and Beirut was the ‘Paris of the Middle East’. They, like many other Lebanese, had planned to return, but 40 years on they are still in Sydney, Australia. Fifteen years of civil war created great divisions among religious and political groups that still stand today, making life difficult and even dangerous.

As I grew older and became more fascinated with Middle East politics, the need to travel to my parents’ birthplace grew stronger. My first visit in 2011 with my husband and three daughters was brief – four days to be precise ‒ hardly any time in which to explore this majestic country. Two days were spent dashing through a rainstorm; a quick photo on the Corniche (Raouche’) was the only proof that I had visited Beirut that year. Finally, I had made it to Syr, where I met my aunt and cousins for the first time. Their faces and voices were familiar; the years we’d spent talking on the phone made the introduction easier. I’m not sure I would have made the journey so far north had my father not been staying in his hometown that year. The pride on his face made the visit worth it; he was clearly happy to see me explore his part of the world.
Although it was difficult to do or see anything with my three small children, we still managed one important trip to my father’s property in the mountains. As snow fell, dad and my cousin Fadi guided us further north, stopping along the way to take photos of the mountainous terrain, and for my daughters to stretch their legs and play in the snow. But as the sun set over the snow-covered mountains, I knew I was exactly where I needed to be. In that moment, I promised myself that I would return to explore Lebanon fully.

Pigeon's Rock from the Beirut Corniche

Pigeon’s Rock from the Beirut Corniche

Living in Dubai made it easier to travel to Lebanon. From Sydney, Australia, it takes up to 19 hours, which is an effective discouragement. Several months after my first visit, the Syrian uprising began, and the hundreds of thousands of refugees spilling into the country had a profound impact on Lebanon. The United Nations estimates that today there are over one million Syrian refugees in Lebanon. My mother’s extended family, including my aunty and her family, escaped Homs in Syria and now live in Tripoli.

Lebanon is deeply divided over the Syrian war, creating further problems for the country. In August 2013, a car bomb ripped through a busy shopping street in Hezbollah’s stronghold in the southern suburbs of Beirut, killing 21 people and injuring hundreds. It was the deadliest attack in the Lebanese capital since the 2005 assassination of the former Prime Minister, Rafic Hariri. December 27, 2014 marked the first anniversary of the assassination in Beirut of former Lebanese finance minister Mohamed Chatah.

With so much unrest in Lebanon, I had put off my return until now. If the Lebanese people could bravely live through this tumultuous unrest, there was no reason why I shouldn’t return and explore Lebanon.

Exploring Lebanon
Giving in to fear would mean giving in to the militants and political factions happily spreading hate and tearing a nation apart for personal gain.

A family wedding in Beirut was the perfect excuse for us to visit Lebanon in December 2014. We put our fate in God’s hands and booked five return tickets. We were tourists, desperate to explore every corner of this splendid country.

As we arrived in the capital, I was taken aback by the strong presence of Lebanese soldiers posted on almost every street corner. Amid the Christmas decorations, colourful lights and Coco-Cola-influenced Christmas tree, it wasn’t uncommon to see tanks and armed soldiers posted in densely populated areas such as Beirut Souks, a major commercial district in the Beirut Central District, with over 200 shops and department stores. Visiting the Beirut Souks is a must if you travel to Lebanon. It is home to the finest designer labels, from Hermes to Carolina Herrera and high-street labels such as Zara. If you’re looking for a place to dine, the Met (Metropolitan Café) is perfect for a light meal or traditional Lebanese coffee.

The civil war left visible scars on the tattered, bullet-pocked apartment blocks. Narrow streets make it difficult for cars to pass, so locals usually get around on scooters, and it’s not uncommon to see three people on one at any time. Bed sheets replace windows in poorer areas where Palestinian and Syrian refugees are housed. Beggars line the streets. Hussein, our tour guide, says Palestinians and Syrians are too proud to beg and the women carrying babies as a way of seeking sympathy are Gypsies who make a living scamming tourists. Anyone who has ever been stuck on the border between Tijuana, Mexico and the United States will understand how it feels to have small children and women approach the car, bang against the window and demand money. I was confronted with this again when a mother with a small child pleaded for money as we drove through the popular streets of Hamra in West Beirut.

Where else in the world you see a mosque and church side by side?  Mohamed Al Amin Mosque in Beirut

Where else in the world would you see a mosque and church side by side?
Mohamed Al Amin Mosque in Beirut

Once we’d left the heart of Beirut, our first trip was north to The Cedars (Arz Libnan). Our private tour of Lebanon took us on a scenic drive through Becharre – the poet Khalil Gibran’s birthplace – to the Qadisha Valley. Despite the cool temperatures, we insisted on stopping to admire this deep gorge carved by the Qadisha River. Located at the foot of Mount al-Makmal in northern Lebanon, the Qadisha Valley is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site because some of the earliest Christian monastic settlements were situated here. I couldn’t believe this hidden treasure was in Lebanon and that I had shunned such beauty throughout my youth.
With a few more stops along the way, we managed to climb the windy, slippery road leading to The Cedars. During the heavy snowfall period, The Cedars, perhaps one of the most beautiful spots in the country, is populated with locals and tourists who enjoy skiing. At the entrance to The Grove stands a cedar tree believed to be hundreds of years old.

The Cedars of Lebanon

The Cedars of Lebanon

Baalbek, a town in the Beqqa Valley, contains some of the best preserved Roman ruins in Lebanon. Despite my pleas, we were strongly advised by our family in Beirut and in Sydney not to visit another UNESCO Heritage Site. According to our relatives, I was at great risk. Militants have been known to target westerners travelling through the Beqqa Valley. ‘Your wife looks American,’ one relative told my husband. ‘She’s an easy target for kidnappers,’ another added. When you travel to a country where there are strong political and religious divisions, your best source of guidance is the locals and tour guides.
The next part of our journey took us to the city of Tripoli, where my mother grew up and where my aunts and uncle live. We stopped briefly at one of the most famous restaurants, Abdul Rahman Hallab & Sons, for lunch. For years, I’d heard about their knefa and baklava, and had to try some of these traditional Lebanese desserts.

At nightfall the call to prayer echoed out from Al-Salam Mosque, where just 18 months previously a car laden with 100 kg of explosives had ripped through the mosque, leaving a huge crater and the floors covered with blood. It was the second bomb to explode that afternoon; minutes earlier, the Taqwa mosque had been targeted. Dozens were killed in the blast and hundreds more injured. Now, however, the mosque was packed with worshippers who had arrived for prayers.

Soldiers guard Lebanese Streets

Soldiers guard Lebanese streets

Today, no one takes any chances. Armed Lebanese soldiers and tanks heavily guard Tripoli’s streets. Cars left unattended with the engines still running are always a great concern. Unlike Beirut, which has been partially rebuilt since the war to attract tourists, Tripoli is rundown and dirty. Old buildings destroyed during the civil war remain standing, a stark reminder of the city’s harsh history.
Knowing I was just metres away from where one of the deadliest car bombings had taken place since the war, it was hard not to feel anxious. Even in Beirut’s city streets, you need to be alert. The country is still stricken with problems, and car bombs can go off unexpectedly at any time.

We’d situated ourselves in a suburb east of Beirut, Sin el-Fil, literally translated as the ‘tooth of an elephant’, staying at the Hilton Grand Habtoor. After living in a Muslim country for seven years and listening to the call to prayer five times a day, it was odd waking up to church bells ringing on Sunday. There are 18 recognised religious sects in Lebanon, and Christians and Muslims form the majority. The most recent study conducted by Statistics Lebanon found that approximately 54 per cent of the population is Muslim, divided equally between Sunni and Shiite. Christians make up 34 per cent of the population, which explains why many parts of Lebanon are richly decorated with Christmas trimmings.

Jeita Grotto cave

Jeita Grotto cave

Between family gatherings, we managed to sneak in another impressive tour. On this day our journey began in the valley, Nahr El-Kalb, 18 km north of Beirut, and continued to Jeita Grotto, followed by Harissa, a small mountain village 650 metres above sea level, and ancient Byblos.

On the way to the grotto, we took a small diversion to a war memorial commemorating the Australian diggers who fought in World War Ⅱ. I knew little of the involvement of Australians in Lebanon during the war. Australian troops, part of the 7th Division, fought as part of an Allied force in Syria and Lebanon against the Vichy French. According to the Australian Lebanese Historical Society, the first Australian casualty was Nicolas Koorey, a 26-year-old Australian of Lebanese descent. Four hundred and sixteen Australian troops were killed in the battle and over a thousand were wounded. It’s certainly a history lesson which needs to be more widely taught back home in Australia. It would help to heal the widening gap between white Anglo-Saxon Australians and Australian-born Lebanese youths.

Australian Memorial in Lebanon

Australian Memorial in Lebanon

As we left the memorial, I felt moved and excited at the same time. Our next stop: Jeita Grotto.

Breathtaking. Captivating. Mesmerising.

There are not enough adjectives to describe this natural wonder located in the valley of Nahr El-Kalb. Millions of years are frozen in drops of water. A very frequent drop-by-drop water flow forms stalactites on the ceilings and stalagmites on the floor of the galleries and halls.
Recipient of the 2013 World Tourism Organisation’s award for best tourist site in the Arab world, the Jieta Grotto houses one of the world’s longest stalactites. It measures 8.2 metres and is located in the upper grotto. This is a must if you’re travelling with children! My daughters, aged nine, eight and six, would not stop talking about their ‘cave’ experience, where they took turns to steer a small vessel in the lower grotto. The girls have travelled to many parts of the globe, including France and Italy, but nothing captured their imagination the same way their trip to Lebanon did.

Once we’d completed our 90-minute tour of the grotto – pictures were not allowed inside – we moved on to Harissa, the home of Our Lady of Lebanon. The village is located 20 km north of Beirut and is accessible from the coastal city of Jounieh by road, or by a nine-minute cable car ride. The best view of this picturesque country is from the cable car to Harissa, from where the city and the Mediterranean Sea look breathtaking. Because of its religious significance, Harissa is often visited by Roman Catholic popes.
On my first trip to Lebanon, I was told that I had to visit Jbeil (Byblos) during the Christmas holiday period. One of the oldest cities in the world to have been inhabited without interruption, Jbeil is situated 40 km north of Beirut. The history lesson continued as our tour guide, Bernadette, recounted the influence of the Phoenicians, Crusaders and Romans on the 8000-year-old city. After their tour of the Byblos Castle, the highlight for my children was putting on a performance in the Roman Amphitheatre. Jbeil is now a tourist hub for its ancient port, fish restaurants and shopping at the traditional Lebanese souk.

Jbeil (Byblos) Port

Jbeil (Byblos) Port

There is no doubt that this was one of the most emotional journeys I’ve taken. I rediscovered myself and reconnected with my Lebanese heritage. When this tiny nation attracts so many negative mentions in the media, few could believe how deeply enriched Lebanon is by history and beauty.

I wish I’d known it earlier.

Head to my instagram account @arabianmum to see all the images from my trip to Lebanon
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Back after a long break

With Mickey Mouse at the launch of Disney On Ice in Dubai.

With Mickey Mouse at the launch of Disney On Ice in Dubai.


It has been many months since my last blog post, but here I am ready to get back to sharing with you my Arabian journey.

As you’re aware life and work can take you in many different directions. My current job involves working as a PR and Marketing Director at an events company, and our most recent project was Disney On Ice. Between travelling and trying to raise three little girls, there has been little time for me to contribute to my blog.

My girls returning to school after a long summer vacation

My girls returning to school after a long summer vacation

Here are some images of what I’ve been up to over the last few months:

Working on such a well known family entertainment brand has its demands. In June I hosted the launch of Disney On Ice at the Dubai Mall Ice Rink

Working on such a well known family entertainment brand has its demands. In June I hosted the launch of Disney On Ice at the Dubai Mall Ice Rink

The official Disney On Ice selfie

The official Disney On Ice selfie

A selfie with Merida from Brave

A selfie with Merida from Brave

Over the summer I went home to see my family in Sydney, Australia.

Over the summer I went home to see my family in Sydney, Australia.

One of the most inspiring young people I have met in a long time. Emily suffers from Leukaemia, and I was so happy to help grant her wish to see Disney On Ice in Doha.

One of the most inspiring young people I have met in a long time. Emily suffers from Leukaemia, and I was so happy to help grant her wish to see Disney On Ice in Doha.

For those football fans, Raul is a name many have heard over the years.

For those football fans, Raul is a name many have heard over the years.

I had the pleasure of reading to these young children at Al Safa Library, Dubai.

I had the pleasure of reading to these young children at Al Safa Library, Dubai.

As you can see, Mickey Mouse and I are quite the pals. Here we are in Doha.

As you can see, Mickey Mouse and I are quite the pals. Here we are in Doha.

I look forward to sharing with you my Arabian journey. I will pickup where I left off very soon.

Maid in Arabia

 

“I had a dream last night that all your family was dead,” said Cherry. My jaw dropped; I tried not to show too much emotion, but deep inside, I was petrified.

I looked at my three little girls who were ages five, four and two at the time.

How on earth could I leave them in this woman’s care?

I was now living in Dubai and working on the 2010 FIFA Club World Cup. I was schedule to travel to Abu Dhabi to prepare for the opening match. I rang my colleague and told him I was ill and could not attend.

I called Tarek, who was in Saudi Arabia, and told him what Cherry had said. “Get her out of the house,” he responded. He was right. We had heard far too many frightening stories over the few years we had lived in the United Arab Emirates, such as children being abused by maids as a form of revenge against their employer. I wasn’t going to risk it.

Cherry lasted a month. After she left, I vowed never to hire another live-in nanny.I had employed Cherry through an agency in Dubai. She seemed lovely during the interview—very energetic and excited about her first job in the UAE. Cherry was from the Philippines, in her early 20s, and had just completed a nursing degree in her home country. It’s what had attracted me to her in the first place. We talked more on the way home about how she was in the country to save enough money to continue her studies. Her dream was to become a midwife.

Throughout the drive, she had appeared to be normal until I needed to reach out to stop her from falling out of the car. I had asked her whether she could shut her window, as I wanted to turn on the air conditioning—she reached for the door handle and opened the door. Whether it was a complete misunderstanding or words lost in translation, I was alarmed. Cherry apologised, and the incident was forgotten.

On the way home, Cherry and I picked up the children from the nursery and school. Moments after we had arrived home, Serene came to me and told me she didn’t like Cherry. Serene was just four, but at such a young age, she had good intuition. For the first week, I sat back and observed Cherry’s behaviour with the children. She was playful and seemed to genuinely enjoy being around the girls. Janah and Alisar appeared to like her, but something continued to bother Serene. She was unsettled, and that bothered me.Cherry’s personality changed after her second week with us. She would start work late, and on many occasions, she was rude and verbally aggressive. Hygiene was a huge problem; she would never wash her face in the morning, and if she had a runny nose, she would just wipe it on her sleeve. On numerous occasions, I had to ask her to shower. I was repulsed. It was the third week into her stay when she awoke in the morning and proceeded to tell me about her dream. I couldn’t sleep that night. The next morning, I called the agency to explain the situation. I asked Cherry to pack her bags, gave her taxi fare and sent her back to the agency.

Cherry was my second live-in nanny. She had replaced Rose who had been with me for 18 months. I didn’t realise how good I had it with Rose until Cherry walked into our life.

Rose was also from the Philippines. She was a mother of three looking to improve her family’s lifestyle back home, build a house and pay for her children’s education. Apart from being extremely emotional, crying all the time, upset at the slightest criticism, she was great with the children and adored the girls. I’d hired Rose through the same agency I used to hire Cherry.

This was my first ever experience with employing a live-in housemaid. I’d given in to pressure. I had three children under the age of three, my husband was commuting to Saudi Arabia and I was waking up six times a night attending to the girls. I had reached the point where I could no longer function on my own. I needed a break. Even if it was 30 minutes alone at Café Macchiato, just some time to gather my thoughts, it was enough.I was completely against having a stranger move into my house. At first, it was just hiring a part-time helper a few days a week. Diane worked for a cleaning company during the day and was looking for some extra work in the afternoon. Tracey had recommended I give her a go. Di was sweet and loved playing with the children. Having her with me a few days a week was a relief. She made it easy to explore the idea of finding a permanent helper. “Madam,” she would call me. I never felt comfortable with it. Unlike many of my friends, I didn’t treat Di as a servant. She was a blessing in my life, and she gave me the break and peace of mind to leave my kids alone with her if needed. We used her a great deal for babysitting in the evening when Tarek and I wanted to see a movie or have dinner nearby.As time passed and Tarek’s work situation changed after the financial crisis (more on the impact of the crisis later), I had no choice but to begin the search for a permanent housemaid. It was unusual for me considering that I had grown up in a country where servants only worked for the rich and famous.

Stay Tuned for the next instalment of “Maid in Arabia.”
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Lifelong mates formed over an Arabian coffee

Arabian Coffee 1

When I arrived in the UAE in 2008, its population was around 6.7 million. Today, the World Bank estimates the Gulf nation’s population to be 9.2 million. In 2011, a study by a Kuwait-based diplomatic centre revealed that 84 per cent of the United Arab Emirates’ population were expats – at the time 8.5 million people were living in the country and over 7 million were foreigners.

You’d think these statistics would help ease the burden of making friends. Expats outnumbered the Emiratis, meeting people was easy but forming friendships was challenging. As I said in my previous post, everyone seemed to have their own circle of friends and many women weren’t interested in making new friends or welcoming new arrivals.

“When the girls start school, you’ll find friends,” one mother told me. Very comforting, considering my children were three, 18 months and I had a newborn. I remembered her words when Janah began attending the local Abu Dhabi Montessori Nursery. It’s there I met Anna and Octavia. Their sons attended the nursery with Janah during our first year in Abu Dhabi. Anna was a fellow Aussie from Melbourne, while Octavia was American.

Café Macchiato became a meeting point for friends and the place I’d go to have coffee with my new group of friends. It was here, in this little coffee shop tucked away in a small community shopping centre, that I met Tracey and Stan. There was something comforting about saying ‘hello’ to a complete stranger in the United Arab Emirates. I spent a lot of time in cafes back home in Sydney, but I’d never have thought to turn to a complete stranger and start a conversation.

Here in the UAE, it happened everywhere I went. Even in the bathrooms, while washing hands at the basin, conversations would begin and numbers would be exchanged. I imagine that it’s because all expats are in the same situation – everyone is trying to settle in, make friends and have as much of a normal life in an unfamiliar environment.

Being an Aussie I knew about Stan and Tracey’s popularity, and although I was a little star-struck in the beginning, as time passed our friendship grew. We’d have family outings; Tracey and I even co-hosted a radio sports show. When Janah had an allergic reaction and I had to rush her to the nearby medical centre, it was Tracey who dropped everything and raced to my house to watch Serene and Alisar. On numerous occasions, Stan even recommended I apply to work at CNN in Abu Dhabi.

Months after meeting Tracey and Stan, Suzie, a beautiful American woman, entered my life. Suzie had moved to Abu Dhabi with her husband and two daughters, Aaliyah and Thalia. Our friendship blossomed and when she and her family moved to Dubai we weren’t far behind. Today Suzie lives in Canada where she says making friends hasn’t been as easy as in Abu Dhabi and Dubai. Unlike the UAE, Canada is home to millions of Canadian residents and citizens, whilst the driving force behind the UAE is its expat populations. Although we live in a foreign country, we’re not made to feel like outcasts.

I had also met Jodie and her family at Macchiato – her daughters were the same age as Serene and Janah. The girls connected at the café, playing together while Jodie and I learned more about our Australian connection. Playdates for the children were just as important as the adult conversation for their mothers. It’s how we managed to stay sane in a city where there was little to do despite the rapid development.

They’ve all left now, but we continue to stay in touch on social media. I’ve made new friends since moving to Dubai but it’s these women who I met early on that continue to stay with me. We’ll always have the memories we shared in Abu Dhabi!

Enjoying their first Halloween in Dubai

Enjoying their first Halloween in Dubai

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Friends in Arabia

I met Shaima and Shorouk years after I moved from Abu Dhabi to Dubai

I met Shaima and Shorouk years after I moved from Abu Dhabi to Dubai

I do apologies for not posting much sooner. Juggling three children and working on a popular international family entertainment brand here in the Middle East have really taken their toll on me and have left me with very little time to write. Janah and Serene have also started swim squad training, which is taking up four afternoons a week. Janah even competed in her first swimming competition.

I found myself gravitating towards the back of my local café; I could hear a familiar Australian accent over the Arabian music playing in the background. In the distance I could see a couple sitting at my regular table with their children; their accent reminded me of home. As I lifted the pram over the step, I looked over at the female and then turned and glanced at the male sitting opposite her. My jaw dropped.

“What are you doing here?” I uttered, as though I had known them my entire life.

They were not just any ordinary Australians – I had just taken my seat beside two iconic Australian television personalities who I had admired throughout my career as a journalist.

Over the few months that I had lived in Al Muroor, I had become a regular at Café Macchiato. Each morning, after dropping Janah off at nursery, not far from our home, I would push the ‘train’ – the double-pram – Serene sitting in the front while Alisar lay quietly in the back, to the small shopping centre opposite my apartment block.

For the first six months I found it difficult meeting people or going anywhere with three small children. My morning walk to the coffee shop was the highlight of my day. I was living in an area predominantly made up of Emiratis. Occasionally I would see expats but everyone seemed to be doing their own thing, living their life, with no interest in making new friends. I was okay with that, I was fairly comfortable in my own skin and had never relied heavily on friends in the past. But living away from family was different; in this part of the world your friends become your family. It was during the religious holidays when Tarek and I really began to feel our family’s absence. In Tarek’s situation, he was working and instantly forming friendships through his job but for me it was much harder.

Before we moved into our apartment in Al Muroor, I had attended a local mother’s group in Abu Dhabi. When I arrived at the British Club, I was surrounded by women who had been in the country for many years and had formed their clique – they were mainly British women who were regulars at the club. I thought many of them were pretentious, caring more about replacing chandeliers in their oversized water front villas in Al Raha than engaging in conversation with new arrivals.

Celebrating Janah's 3rd birthday in Abu Dhabi

Celebrating Janah’s 3rd birthday in Abu Dhabi

I stood around with my oversized tummy, playing and laughing with the girls. I wasn’t there to make friends, I told myself. I was there to give my daughters an opportunity to stretch their legs, run around in the large ballroom, which had been made into a makeshift playground. I attended the Abu Dhabi Mums group for several weeks until I gave birth to Alisar. There were the occasional conversations, which usually started with ‘How long have you been here? Where are you from? Are they twins?’ (Referring to Janah and Serene). But within minutes the exchange would end when we looked over and realised our children had taken advantage of their mums being distracted; rushing to the confectionary stand and often turning on the water dispenser, flooding part of the room.

I'll never forget the first time I met Lisa

I’ll never forget the first time I met Lisa

The women who were interested in making new friends were, like myself, new arrivals who had children approximately the same age. I remember running around after Serene, when I looked over at a young blonde woman talking to her son – he was roughly the same age as Serene. We laughed together.

Lisa and I were drawn to one another – the Australian accent was impossible to miss and there was the simple fact that neither of our children looked like us. Our kids had Arabian traits while we were both blonde and fair. Although I have a Middle Eastern background, my children had inherited their father’s dark features. Lisa, who grew up in an Italian household, in Sydney, was married to a young man from a Lebanese background, and her son Isaac had inherited Joe’s skin tone and hair colour.

Our friendship blossomed away from Abu Dhabi Mums. We attended Isaac’s birthday party at their home and we would often have them around to our house for lunch. Joe and Tarek even offered to babysit the kids together while Lisa and I attended the first Capitala Tennis Championship in Abu Dhabi and later the George Michael and Alicia Keys concerts.

I attended my first concert in Abu Dhabi with Lisa

I attended my first concert in Abu Dhabi with Lisa

I was devastated when Lisa and Joe left Abu Dhabi, shortly after she gave birth to her second son – they were unexpected victims of the global financial crisis (more on that later). Lisa and I stayed in touch over the years through Facebook, where I’ve watched her and her family settle back into life in Sydney.

Looking back now, every friend I had made during my first year in Abu Dhabi has now left the United Arab Emirates.

Coming up (Lifelong friends formed over Arabian coffee)

Lifelong friends in Arabia

Lifelong friends in Arabia

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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