Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 25 May 2020

Why being stuck in London amid the pandemic has made me appreciate Dubai more than ever

We're now in our seventh week of living at my parents' house in the UK

Kate Hazell walking in the rain in the UK, where she's been stuck during the coronavirus pandemic. Courtesy Kate Hazell
Kate Hazell walking in the rain in the UK, where she's been stuck during the coronavirus pandemic. Courtesy Kate Hazell

For my husband and I, living in Dubai has always been a temporary situation, much like the nose piercing I’m still sporting at the age of 38.

While we've now been based in the UAE for close to 15 years, which I guess does give the impression we’re in it for the long haul, we’ve always given a unanimous firm shake of the head whenever asked if we’d settle here forever.

To me, admitting to forever staying away from family and friends who shaped the formidable years of my youth seems rather ruthless. It would be like Toy Story’s Woody callously running to a big new shiny forever home without so much as a tip-of-the-hat howdy goodbye.

So when the coronavirus pandemic first brought the globe to a grinding halt, finding ourselves locked out of Dubai seemed like an opportunity to road test life outside the Emirates. We’d flown to London, where I was born and raised, in March to visit my parents, when the UAE announced it would be shutting its borders and grounding all flights.

But we were lucky. My husband and I both have jobs that could continue remotely, and we were able to hole up with my mum and dad in their cosy semi-detached house while we waited for real life to resume. Maybe this could be a little taster of what’s to come, we thought, much a little like relearning to ride an old bicycle, but with the stabilisers still firmly in place.

We figured a few extra weeks in the UK would be a chance to indulge in whoddunit BBC dramas, Sundays to consist of little more than a roast followed by a nap, and entertain idle chit-chat about the weather.

Because at first, the unpredictable weather was rather exciting. Having to gamble between a feather-loaded gilet or a sweat-resistance tee seemed like a titillating risk for our daily walk around the block. So was rambling through the thickset woods in the charming drizzle. And, yes, cash spent on a grocery haul in Waitrose did stretch a lot further than at my Al Thanya local.

But, after the initial excitement of being stranded like an urbanised version of Castaways, the buzz quickly wore off.

I’m longing for a sun-drenched dip in the Gulf, a cool wander around Mall of the Emirates and our light-filled apartment

While my Dubai friends were stoically staying at home 24 hours a day, highlighting how serious the UAE was taking the risk of spreading Covid-19, my parents' neighbours were brazenly inviting friends over for a backyard sizzle.

In south-west London, finding a carton of eggs was becoming rarer than seeing an urban fox in the Hajar mountains, yet the UAE population seemed to be whipping up omelettes and batch-baking banana breads like they were going out of fashion.

While the UAE was ranking third in the world in terms of testing residents, the advice for anyone in the UK feeling the tickle of the virus at the back of their throats was to stay well away from the hospitals. Terrifyingly, the country's bare-boned healthcare system was buckling under the weight.

Every Thursday at 8pm, we’d step out on to our doorstep and clap for our heroic health workers, yet the motivational applause fell flat as it echoed around suburbia when compared with the raucous supernova coming from Dubai Marina. The boisterous yet beautiful racket seemed to be representative of a country that has so many different nationalities living together harmoniously in close quarters; a miscellany of humans all seeking their own domestic utopias.

As we approach week seven, I’m longing for a sun-drenched dip in the Gulf, a cool wander around Mall of the Emirates, where I can bag both a new salad spinner and a pair of salopettes in one haul, and the light-filled apartment we share with our reclusive cat Rainbeau. (This has nothing to do with the fact that cohabiting with my parents feels a little like we’re party guests who have overstayed their welcome, of course.)

Kate Hazell, front, with her friends in Dubai
Kate Hazell, front, with her friends in Dubai. Courtesy Kate Hazell

We’re both looking forward to eventually flying back and regrouping with the idiosyncratic acquaintances who have grown to become part of our adopted family over the past decade and a half; the ones who have seen us through saying goodbye to our twenties, migrating into our thirties and mutually refusing to admit we’re around the corner from 40.

These are the people with whom we’ve swapped messy all-day brunches for voracious all-evening dinner parties. Over the years we’ve helped each other renovate more rented properties than I can count, and we’ve accumulated pets, or little humans, or both, along the way.

And while their childhoods aren’t intertwined with mine – in fact, some are vastly poles apart – we all share the ferocious bravado that it requires to leave your home country for unfamiliar shores.

I know these aren’t exactly startling revelations, but being forced to spend time out of Dubai has made me realise how, rather than deny we have a future in the UAE, we're here for the long haul. Maybe it’s time to accept the future is now.

Updated: May 3, 2020 12:26 PM

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