The UAE's cities can be lonely places, especially for the many expatriates trying to further their careers. Now, a burgeoning network of clubs, set up to help both expats and locals find like-minded pals, means there may be no more excuses for staying in. Tahira Yaqoob reports As the creator of WhyWasIDissed.com, a website that helped people to find out why their dates gave them the brush-off, Rachel Morton had to deal with some uncomfortable home truths.
Armed with contact details from those who had been spurned, she would confront the date and report back with straight answers. Those who wanted to know why he or she did not call suddenly had to face up to their faults: it could be bad dress sense, clinginess, repulsive eating habits or even, in one case, halitosis. Now, Miss Morton, who shut the site when she left the United States, where she was born, for Dubai 18 months ago, has turned her attention to social, rather than dating, circles.
She puts people in the UAE, who are without a network of friends, in contact with others who share common interests. With her friend Tamara Pitelen, Miss Morton launched Social Circles Dubai. The explosion in interest has taken them both by surprise, with more than 780 members signing up in the first five months. "We set up the group because we wanted to give people an opportunity to meet new faces," says Miss Morton. "Social Circles is purely about making new friends.
"I have been to networking events that had more of a business slant but I felt there was a need for a social group where people could get together and just see what happens. "It has really taken off so there was clearly a big need for it." Social Circles Dubai is one of a rash of groups that have sprung up in the last few months, aiming to bring together strangers and dispel some of the loneliness attached to being an expatriate living here without friends or family and trying to build a new life.
Among them is Rendezvous, a debating group for people to talk about their contribution to society, albeit from the comfort of a five-star hotel; Smart Minds, which combines socialising with personal development; Meet Up Dubai, for anyone who wants to gossip over a coffee; numerous book clubs and Wizards of the Gulf Coast, for those lacking a little magic in their lives. For those who despair of ever meeting like-minded souls, there is even the option of buying a friend. Exclusively Yours in Dubai promises to provide women with a female friend to go shopping with, bowling or just chatting over a coffee, although at a cost of Dh800 (US$218) a day, talk does not come cheap.
Justin Thomas, an associate professor in natural science and public health at Zayed University, thinks there is more to the phenomenon than simply seeking out new friends. "Our crowded cities paradoxically lead to social isolation," he says. "Psychologists investigating the effects of overcrowding have concluded that an increased population density tends to have a deleterious effect on social behaviour and health."
The more people who share the same space, the greater the sense of alienation, he believes. "It comes from a diminished sense of responsibility. People get 'bystander apathy' to the point where they no longer feel responsible for one another. That does not happen in smaller communities. "This can be a fairly lonely place if you are here without a family. You can get into a pattern of going from work to home and back to work again, with no opportunity for contact outside that equation."
Miss Morton agrees. "The UAE can be a lonely place as so many people come here to work from another part of the world," she says. "They are away from their families and friends and get into a routine of going to work, coming home, going to sleep and doing the same thing the next day. "That is a very boring, monotonous life but no one wants to go out by themselves. This can be a temporary place as so many stay for just a couple of years.
"We are simply facilitating the time they are here and giving people the tools to start a conversation. We get a whole mixture of nationalities who can guarantee they will meet a brand new group of people in a relaxed atmosphere." At a recent Social Circles Dubai gathering, there were plenty of people eager to make friends. Held at different locations around the city, the monthly get-togethers regularly attract 40-plus members.
Some had just arrived in the city in the past couple of weeks, others had lived in Dubai for years but recognised a need to expand their circle. Susan Downey, 32, a housewife, attended the function in the Metropolitan Hotel with her husband Rod, 36, an engineer. She moved to the UAE from Canada two years ago, but says: "It is extremely hard to make friends as we do not have children, who would be a natural icebreaker.
"We only have about five friends, who are all Rod's co-workers. He travels a lot so I am home by myself a lot of the time and it can be lonely. "We just want to meet people we can enjoy barbecues with at the weekend. Even if we go out for the night, we might sit there planning to talk to other people and never be brave enough to do it." Sudesh Shinde, 35, who works for an electrical engineering company, moved to Dubai from Mumbai more than three years ago. Most of his socialising is done with office colleagues.
"You see them all day in the office and then again at the weekend, and I thought it would be good to have a change of scene. "In Mumbai, I had a crowd of friends I grew up with and I missed that a lot to begin with. Groups like this are great though as you get the opportunity to meet strangers from different cultures, people you would not normally cross paths with." Bharat Gopalan, 29, also from India, only arrived in the UAE a fortnight ago to work for a hedge fund firm and immediately found the country compared unfavourably with his previous homes in Hong Kong and New York.
"People here are very reserved and cliquey. The Brits hang out with each other, so do the Americans and many other nationalities. It is very disappointing." During her eight months in Dubai, Lishan Chan, 25, from Singapore, has been something of a rarity, undaunted by the prospect of cutting a lonely path on nights out, she bravely ventures out alone. "I go out three or four nights a week on my own. I just want to meet people and I love to dance. I will happily go to a nightclub and dance on my own. I do not find it intimidating at all and am open to new experiences.
"I think it is a hard place to make new friends though. I am still looking for compatible friends and I will keep going out alone until I find ones with common interests." The Third Line art gallery in Dubai has one way of creating friendships that cross cultural barriers. Its Kutub book club, held monthly, invites readers to discuss novels by Arab authors, which are available in both English and Arabic. It has more than 1,000 members from as far as Al Ain and Ras al Khaimah.
"Our members come from very different backgrounds, from Arab nationals to western expats," says Katrina Weber, the book club manager. "The pace of Dubai in particular means it can be difficult to meet people and it can be difficult to get to know your neighbours if you live in an apartment building. "We provide an outlet for them to get together and talk in a way they would not be able to at a film screening or a party."
Having a common interest united the 60 members of the Wizards of the Gulf Coast, who get together twice a week to play a card game called Magic: The Gathering. Olivier Gheysen, the Belgian organiser, explains: "Sometimes we play Dungeons & Dragons too but we do not dress up. There are about four million players worldwide." The majority of players - from Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Sharjah - are Filipinos, with a smattering of Emiratis and European expats.
"This is not an easy place to meet people," says Mr Gheysen. "People do not invest their time and energy in friendships because they do not believe it is worth it if they are only here for a few years. "All society is divided into groups and this society in particular is very fragmented because of the different nationalities. You need to be part of a group like ours to find people like yourself." Moira Mackintosh and Matt Swift, British expatriates, launched Rendezvous this year in a bid to create more meaningful friendships, and have attracted 300 members.
At their regular meetings, in venues such as The Palace hotel and the Ritz-Carlton, they set discussion topics such as 'How can we make a positive difference?' and 'How do we achieve a balanced life?' The debates are designed to give the feeling of a "dinner party without the dinner". "It cuts out the usual meaningless chit-chat," says Miss Mackintosh. "If I went to a normal networking event and started talking about the meaning of life, people would think I was mad.
"There are a lot of social events based around eating, drinking and disposable conversation. We wanted to do something a bit deeper. "This is a very transient place and even people who have been here for years have lost friends because of the recession. We are just helping people find like-minded friends." With such a variety of clubs, gatherings and groups, those looking to avoid being lonely in Dubai can find a solution is closer to home than they thought.