It seems like everybody is coming to Abu Dhabi. People I haven't heard from in ages - for 10 years or more in a couple of cases - have recently dropped me a line after finding out that I am here. "Guess who!" said a friend of mine who has just arrived from Lebanon and is looking for a job as a translator here. I don't blame her for leaving Lebanon, given its constant instability and unreliable future marred by the ongoing political bickering and sporadic bombings. But the attraction of the UAE is more than just as a haven of safety. The Emirates are one of the last "lands of opportunities" here in the region, with other Gulf countries reaching a near saturation stage, and the rest of the region struggling with instability and unemployment.
I love living in Abu Dhabi, as it combines some of the traditional ways - and the serenity that comes with them - that I grew up with in Saudi Arabia with the freedom and dynamism of Lebanon, minus the danger of course. The only thing that I am struggling with here, along with every other relative newcomer, is accommodation. It is absolutely crazy. I found a lovely place, with high ceilings, Arabesque decorations, big windows, and just 10 minutes away from work: accommodation problem solved. But then the owner had some issue with the municipality and all 10 sets of tenants - including three families - got an eviction notice.
So I have become one of the hundreds of casualties in the UAE of the clampdown on villas that have been divided into separate apartments. The law is the law and has to be upheld, so I have no complaints I just wish there were affordable alternatives available to house the huge influx of people that are coming in. Accommodation - finding it, and then paying for it - has become a strain on everyone, including Emirati nationals. "I can't believe this is the same Abu Dhabi, where we could buy and rent apartments for half the prices just a year ago," said Khalifa, an Emirati friend of mine from Abu Dhabi.
With shoebox-size studios going for a minimum of Dh90,000, and one-bedroom apartments for at least Dh120,000 (I didn't even bother looking at anything with two bedrooms), it has become close to impossible for a single woman like me, with no family assistance, to find somewhere that is both an affordable and pleasant place to live. A friend of mine suggested moving to the outskirts of Abu Dhabi, but my Emirati friends instantly discouraged me from doing that, as a woman living alone in the desert is not the norm.
"It is not just about safety, but comfort and convenience," said Khalifa. "You shouldn't have to live in a place where you are not happy. We spend most of the time working, so you want your home, when you return to it, to be comfortable," he said. My married cousin is one of the many recent arrivals who I know, but she has been keeping an uncharacteristically low profile for almost two months. I found why when she suddenly got in touch again to let me know that she had found a place. "Sorry Rym, I couldn't tell anyone anything before as it has become so competitive and people are putting claims on places the minute they become available. I didn't want to inform anyone of what places were free," she told me.
My cousin admitted that she was lucky that her husband could put a hefty deposit right away on a villa and beat the others who were also interested - and were sitting in an adjoining room - but couldn't match her husband's offer. "It is not exactly my dream house, but I am so relieved to have found something, and to move out of the hotel," she said. She has two small children, which added to the strain of living in a hotel room.
Hotels are filled now with newcomers who have nowhere else to stay as they search for somewhere to live. All of this reminds me of scenes from old cowboy movies depicting the "wild wild west" and people racing on horses and carriages to claim the more fertile bits of land by sticking a self made flag of colourful cloth into the dirt. The scramble for land at times became extremely violent, with some people shot and others trampled by horses and waggons. It was, the survival of the fittest and the fastest.
Now here in Abu Dhabi, it seems to have become the survival of the well connected and the wealthy. If you don't have the money and you don't know the right people tough luck. But even amid these gloomy clouds of uncertainty, there are silver linings. In my search for a new place to call home, I have visited corners of this city that I probably would never have the chance to discover and learn about otherwise.
Until I find a place, I will keep my fingers crossed, and my eyes as keenly focussed as a vulture's for moving vans parked in front of buildings. email@example.com