x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

After midnight, the only thing to do is meander in the mall

They are too young to go to clubs or shisha cafes at night so malls are the only places for them to go

At 12am on a Friday night at one of the main Abu Dhabi malls, a boy of about 15 years of age lets out a loud growl. "AGGHHH, I am so bored!" he groans in Arabic. His friends, dressed up in skater-type outfits and "walking the walk" appear just as bored as they roam around the mall. All the shops are shut, but there are still a few cafes open here and there, but they are serving their last orders and getting ready to close.

It isn't just boys who are hanging around. There are teenage girls too, dressed in the latest fashions; some wearing fancy abayas, others wearing designer jeans and tops. Boys and girls, though, are all carrying "pimped up" mobile phones along with the top of the scale portable entertainment gadgets. You could clearly see the constant contest between the teenagers, with each one trying either to copy or upstage the others by having more of the "in" stuff, whether it be clothes or accessories. I doubt whether they all have the same allowance, so it must be quite stressful for those from poorer families who can't afford to live up to the perceived norm.

Up and down, left and right, the little mobs of teenagers keep up their wanderings around the mall into the late hours of the night. "Hey!" one shouts across the hall to another group. "Hala!" ("Hi" in Arabic) someone calls back. They didn't know each other but I guess they were trying to make new friends that way. One small group tries a spot of break-dancing to lift their spirits, and a boy wearing an Armani cap attempts to recreate Michael Jackson's classic moonwalk routine of the 1980s. After a few misses, he nails a smooth slide across the floor. He was good! Of course his friends tease him about it, but I am sure I detect a few envious glances at his dexterity.

None of these gaggles of teenagers are causing any real trouble; they're just being loud and a little obnoxious, in typical frustrated teenager fashion. There are security guards around, and some of the youth quietly chat to them; others have settled themselves in a corner and are sitting in a circle on the floor nibbling snacks. Watching from a distance on a metallic uncomfortable cold bench, I actually feel sorry for these youngsters. There is no place for them to go. They are too young to go to clubs or shisha cafes or bars, the only places that are open late at night. It is a problem I have encountered here myself, where I find that there is nothing to do at night beyond watching a movie, eating or drinking, or - inevitably - going shopping.

And I don't think I felt the same kind of social pressures when I was a teenager in Saudi. I don't recall my group of girlfriends worrying about owning a Louis Vuitton purse or what kind of clothes or jewellery we bought. Our main concern was whether or not we had a driver, or if our fathers had the time to pick us up and drop us here or there. As I remember, I was extremely dependent on my father, who already had enough on his plate.

That certainly seems to be true here. If you are a teenager below the legal driving age, and you don't have a driver, you don't get around much. Rarely do teenagers use public transport here - or anywhere in the Middle East. I suppose I must be staring as I muse on how tough it must be for them, because one of the boys suddenly calls out to me: "Hey, what are you doing here?" His friends eye me suspiciously. I don't blame them, what was I, not a teenager, doing after midnight on their turf?

"I'm just hanging out," I reply. "Oh yeah?" he says. He doesn't look impressed. I start to get some hard looks from the other boys. For a minute or two I feel like I am in a scene from West Side Story, and that any second now we will all break into a dance, just like the Sharks and the Jets. Fortunately, I see that one of the younger boys, who looks as though he must be about 12, is holding a Nintendo DS. I am saved.

"Hey, which games do you have?" I ask as I pull my own Nintendo DS out from my bag. Mine is pink, his is white. But the colour is irrelevant; just the fact that I have a Nintendo breaks the tension that has arisen, and we chat for the next hour about video games. The teenagers tell me about their lives. It's pretty much as I guessed. "There is nothing to do. I hate shopping malls during the day, but I love them at night," one of my newly acquired young friends explains.

I join them as they meander around the mall. We have a lovely time until around 1.30am when cars start to arrive to pick them up. Their parents had dropped them off earlier in the night, and I guess felt it was safe enough in the mall to leave them with their friends. What else can they really do anyway? I am glad I am not a teenager any more. @email:rghazal@thenational.ae