UAE expats who grew up here liked it so much that they chose to return as adults to raise their own children here. We talk to a cross-section of families about their experience of living in the Emirates.
Expats drawn back to the UAE by fond childhood memories
Newcomers who agonise over whether their children will form happy memories of growing up in the UAE can take comfort from people who enjoyed it so much, they chose to return as adults to raise their own families here – pulled to a place they feel a stronger bond with than their own countries.
Rebecca Booth and Laith Rahmatallah were both raised in Abu Dhabi as children, but never knew each other until they were introduced when Booth was 18 and Rahmatallah was 24. They now live in Abu Dhabi with their two children, Laila, 15, and Gemma, 11, in a house that Rahmatallah’s father designed in 1981, when Laith was 15. They are the first Al Khubairat parents to have both attended the school and who’re sending their children there, too.
Booth’s earliest memory of Abu Dhabi is arriving at Bateen Airport in 1976 when she was 4. “When we got off the plane, there were all these Emiratis clapping and I thought they were clapping for us. It was actually for the football team who were behind us.
“When I went to primary school, the classrooms were portacabins in the hard sand on the Corniche. When the school moved to the new site in Al Mushrif, it would take us half an hour to get to school from Electra because of the roads – the6 car would go over these big sand pipes. My dad knew where all the hard bits of sand were to drive on, to try to cut corners and make it to school on time. Our cars didn’t have AC, so we girls would fight to be near the fan. The biggest danger on the roads was running into the camels, and you could only drive when it was light. Instead of playing ‘I spy’ in the car, we used to play ‘count the dead camels’.
“I remember my mum not being able to bake, because there were weevils in the flour and her being obsessed with buying Tampax because it was hardly ever available in the UAE then. The water and electricity used to go off all the time. We used to fill big plastic bins full of water from neighbours’ homes when the water went, until it came back on.
“Kids are a lot more sophisticated these days and there’s a lot more for them to do now. When I was here, there was the boat, pool and beach, that was it. Me and my sisters had each other for entertainment. My parents would go out a lot and just leave us – we didn’t have a babysitter, we were just left at home alone.
“The only cinema was an open-air one by where the Sheraton is now, but it only showed Indian and Pakistani films. These guys had never seen white people before – there was a lot of staring if we went, so we felt uncomfortable.
“When my sisters went to boarding school, I was bored – school finished every day at 12.30 and I hated being without my sisters. So I was glad when it was time for me to join them at boarding school when I was 8.”
Laith Rahmatallah, Booth’s husband, moved to Abu Dhabi with his Iraqi dad and British mum in 1971, when he was 5. The family were forced to live in his father’s office when they first arrived, as there was nowhere else for them to stay.
“It was quite traumatic. Whenever my dad’s clients turned up, me, my mum and brother were taken into a side office to hide away, while my dad had his meetings. My earliest memory is hunting cockroaches at night with one of the office boys – there was no pest control back then. We then moved to a deserted labour camp. At that time, Sheikh Zayed built villas for local families and he said if they didn’t live in them they would lose them. So, we finally moved to a villa. But one day a local family turned up with all their belongings, wanting to move in with us. The family said we could have one half of the house and they would have the other, they were very nice about it, but my parents weren’t keen on the idea. So we then moved to a penthouse flat on Hamdan Street.
“All the construction sites used sacks of cement, before the days of ready-made concrete, so there were big piles of empty sacks everywhere. There were huge fires when someone dropped a cigarette.
“There was this beautiful coral at the Corniche, before the breakwater was built. The waves came straight over and would soak your car. My dad would have to get out and spray fresh water onto the car or it would rust.
“When it rained, the water would stay until you got a manual pump from the municipality to pump it away. I remember that to clean windows back then, a man would hold another man’s ankles, who was upside down, so he could reach the windows.
“There were lots of donkeys on the roundabouts – and goats, camels, and packs of wild dogs roaming around. One day there was a cull of the wild dogs. Poisoned meat was thrown everywhere and that’s how my pet black Labrador, Jake, died.
“When you went to Dubai, you had to pass a customs point and show your passport – they [Abu Dhabi and Dubai] were like two separate countries back then.
“At weekends, people used to go to Sharjah, rather than Dubai, as it had lots of beach hotels along the Corniche there.”
Elaine Mazarello’s mum and dad came to Abu Dhabi from Goa, India, in 1974, when her dad landed a job as a steward at the Al Ain Palace Hotel. Mazarello, who was born here two years later, recalls her father’s hotel being like a five-star hotel in those days, a place where all the diplomats stayed when they were in town. Her mum found work as a secretary at National Drilling Company.
“People used to picnic a lot at the Corniche and at the old souq. We had lots of house parties on Thursdays and Fridays, which in those days was the weekend. We used to go swimming at the Corniche on Friday mornings, near where the Hilton is. That was considerably far out of town from where we lived on Hamdan Street, so it was always hard to get a taxi back. Abu Dhabi was so small back then.”
Mazarello lived in Abu Dhabi until she was 7, then she moved to Goa to live with a family friend, but came back to Abu Dhabi for holidays. When she met her husband Hanock Kemuel in Bangalore, he was offered a job in Abu Dhabi, where they now raise their children – Andrew, 4, and Amelia, 9 months.
“To me, this city has always felt more like home than Goa,” says Mazarello.
Louise Key’s parents moved to Dubai in 1972 when she was a 6-week-old baby. Her father was in shipping and her mum was a homemaker. “She used to ride Sheikh Mohammed’s race horses, to exercise them,” Key says of her mother. Few women worked back then – they did volunteer work. We used to go camping in the desert and boating and spent time at the Dubai Offshore Sailing Club. There was one TV channel and we would have an hour of cartoons a day, which was always interrupted by a picture of a mosque on screen and the call to prayer. When I went to boarding school, I discovered all the British soap operas.
“Every Eid, my parents would pay visits to the Emirati families’ palaces and houses; everyone did that back then. Dad would see the sheikhs and mum would visit the sheikhas, bringing gifts for them.
“I remember there was an official F1 race in Dubai – they built a little track and F1 drivers such as Stirling Moss came. There was a parade and we rode on the Al Nasr Leisureland float.
“Even though Dubai is completely different now, I still come across pockets of places from my childhood that are still there – the zoo, my old school [Jumeirah English Speaking School], and Bastakiya, which was very rundown then. There were no shopping malls, so you would buy fabric and get a tailor to make clothes for you.
“I went to boarding school when I was 11, in 1984. Flights home were known as ‘the Lollipop Express’ because it was full of unaccompanied kids going back to boarding school. I had never seen snow before and so it was a shock, seeing it for the first time as a 12-year-old.”
Key moved back to Dubai as an adult and now lives in Abu Dhabi with her husband Oliver and their two children, Sophie, 5, and Harry, 1.