Imagine if you could take bits of all the different cities you have lived in and mix them together. What would that city look like to you? If I could just take a little bit of each of the cities in the Gulf that I have lived in and create a new place, then I’d do exactly that. I’d take the shopping and lifestyle of Dubai, the village and slower pace of Muscat and the family focus feel of Abu Dhabi and blend it all into one! I’m sure if you think about the cities you’ve lived in you will feel they’ve each brought something to your life. Here I’m going to tell you about my life in each place as a British mum…

I was born in the UAE and had grown up in Dubai in the 80’s. I had met and married and the opportunity to live and experience another city from this region arrived on our doorstep in 2008 with the opportunity to move to Muscat, Oman. We LOVED Muscat; from the scenery to it’s history, to the friends we made, to the opportunities the city gave us – we were very lucky to spend 5 glorious years there.  

Our daughter’s first years were easy, simple and sort of like island-life like. I know I look at Muscat as a very idyllic chapter in our lives these years later, and yes, we had our difficulties but it’s like giving birth – you forget.

We moved to Abu Dhabi mid-2013 when the prospect of moving back to the UAE again was so exciting. I was now, just up the road from my sister and parents as opposed to the 445 km drive it would otherwise take to drive to visit.  

We liked Abu Dhabi. Moving from Muscat to Abu Dhabi was like moving to the mainland. There were so many opportunities to see things and buy things, but after 5 years in a much smaller community, Abu Dhabi became somewhat daunting. We met amazing people, enjoyed the flavour of more Arabic culture, and the more conservative family pace that Abu Dhabi offers and it suited us.  

Our daughter was 5 years old and very much in that kiddy activity window so it was an opportunity for me to expand more on my career doing social media and podcasting that I had started in Muscat (and this was really a good time for all of us). Where we lived we had neighbours who were amazing and our compound felt to us like it was like a little oasis in the middle of the desert. 

In mid 2016 we moved back to the town I grew up in – Dubai. Whilst I really liked Abu Dhabi, I felt that our relationship with the city had come to an end. I wanted ‘home’. I had enjoyed an amazing childhood in Dubai and the future plans we were making with our businesses were not just going to take shape in Abu Dhabi. 

It was, for us, just not the successful destination we had hoped for. I have friends in Abu Dhabi that simply love it and who have all connected with the city really well, but it just didn’t quite happen for our family. 

Along this 8 year tour of the region, we have learnt a lot and it’s that I’d like to share with you now. On the face of it, the culture, city dynamics and the way of life are very similar across all these 3 cities. It wasn’t a massive culture shock or change like other people experience when they move from out from the UK to China or India for example, but what I want to share is my advice on how you can start connecting and building a memorable relationship with each of these cities.

Muscat

Muscat has a small village like appeal to it. Life is slower than the UAE and so much more relaxed. If you are considering moving to Muscat after living in Dubai or Abu Dhabi it may well feel like the brakes have been put on! 

However, your mindset and perspective on this is important; If your mind is open, ready for an adventure and ready to tackle that ‘to do’ list with a positive perspective then you can most certainly make this city your home. There are challenges – yes, but you are less likely to let them bug you.

In my opinion the successful demographic in Muscat were families. They adapted well and embraced the lifestyle better than a single person may. The parks, my home and my friends’ houses became our key sources of entertainment that ultimately became the cornerstones of life there. 

If you have kids under 5 then Muscat is a great place as they cater well to the little ones with parks, play spaces and fun zones. Making friends with other mums was easy and we regularly had play dates at each other’s homes, much like what goes on during the day here. 

With my buddies, we created a facebook group and then regularly rotated each other homes. Our end of the week get together was code named ‘WOW’ and we all brought kids, snacks, liquid refreshments and happiness and it was always super fun!  

With regards to making friends and the community spirit, well everybody’s different – I recognise that, but I found making friends in Muscat soooo much easier than making friends in Abu Dhabi or Dubai. It could have been because of the very nature of ‘expat living’ in Muscat is more real and there’s the feeling that thinking of yourself as an ‘expat’ has faded somewhat in Abu Dhabi and Dubai as more and more people treat these cities as more long term destinations.  

Whilst living there, I amended the phrase ‘6 degrees of separation’ to ‘2 degrees of separation’ because it was so so true for Muscat; Really – everyone knew everyone and when we went to annual events for example, we were guaranteed to know most of the people in the room.

Muscat is a beautiful place and it hits many of the tick boxes for a ‘get away’ list, but if you’re looking to move there but equally you’re not looking for that slower pace of life, then really do consider if Muscat is the right place for you and your family. I love it now but my first few months, much like anywhere, were tough and I felt quite isolated in the early days but being open to invitations and saying yes to everything most definitely helped open doors and you have to change your mindset quickly. 

Rest assured that it might not happen as quickly as you want it to, but you will make friends and connections there. People are always ready to embrace the newbies and get them settled into Muscat life very quickly and as part of my journey was that as an expat struggling with aspects of living there, I also created a Facebook group called ‘Muscat – Where can I find’. This was started in May 2010 and little did I know that years on, it would turn out to be Muscat’s number 1 space to help you find what you are looking for! 

Abu Dhabi

If Abu Dhabi was a person I would describe her as having a more shy and quiet personality, more conservative and timely in making key decisions. People are attracted to the UAE because of Dubai’s appeal but there is a warm, relaxed, family flavour that Abu Dhabi is shy in sharing with us. It’s a city that grows on you as it doesn’t flaunt it glitziness as does Dubai. But don’t be put off by the quieter appeal of Abu Dhabi – for this city has a lot to offer and if Abu Dhabi is your first venture to the UAE then it’s a great place to start.  

Your kids will love it, (your purse might not) but they’ll be happy and smiley for sure. When we moved to Abu Dhabi, our daughter was going on 5 years old so it was a great city to start moving away from baby/toddler stuff to more child like activities. There are loads of afterschool activities, winter and summer camps, sport activities and more – you will be spoilt for choice. If setting up your kids is a priority then you are good to go here.  

I personally found that making friends here was a lot more difficult than in Muscat. I know I was lucky with the amazing friend connections I had previously and I was keen to recreate that ‘WOW’ group again but it just didn’t happen.  

Abu Dhabi is more spread out and friends lived in many different places. Playdates became less frequent and playing with next doors kids became the norm. I have met a lot of amazing people in Abu Dhabi and made great friends too but everything had to be organized to meet up. I missed that spontaneity of just messaging buddies and saying ‘hey come on over’…. that we had in Muscat. Schools became the breeding ground for friendship but I missed the more eclectic mix of meeting many different people.

Abu Dhabi is a great city; less famous than its Dubai counterpart and probably doesn’t have the same initial appeal as Dubai for a tourist but I do feel Abu Dhabi is the more ‘real’ of the cities. Friends love Abu Dhabi because it’s less in your face than Dubai. Like them, I always enjoyed the drive back to Abu Dhabi after a day or weekend trip to Dubai. One hour travelling time and the unexciting journey back gave you time to decompress and find your inner balance point again (sort of like heading from a large capital city like London to a large city like Cheltenham perhaps?

Dubai

I’m not going to go into great detail about Dubai as most of us reading this live here anyway but I will say this – Dubai is a city of opportunity and vision. I love Dubai, very much. It has been my home since I was  a baby. (Read my article ‘Growing up in the 80’s below). However, you can get sucked into the bubble of an amazing lifestyle and beautiful picturesque moments.  

These days most folk know Dubai and all it has to offer and it does press all the positivity buttons but don’t be put off by the opportunity of a move to Muscat or Abu Dhabi. Both cities give you that opportunity to reflect on your own life and where you are taking it. Dubai can blindfold you to your ideas and goals you had when you first came this way, while Muscat and Abu Dhabi can help you get clearer on your personal goals.  

Muscat and Abu Dhabi did this for me. I don’t think I would have seen 2017 as the year it has been had these cities not been part of my life.  I’m thankful to my husband for considering the opportunities he was offered, feeling confident he could do them and then giving me and our daughter to embrace them as we have.  

Written by British mum Nicholla Henderson Hall, Founder of ‘Hendall’ social media company and ‘The Learning Curve Podcast’

If you have lived in Muscat or Abu Dhabi we’d love to hear your stories too.

Read more about Nicholla’s fabulous childhood stories

Growing up in Dubai in the 80’s