Abu Dhabi: A closed Facebook group has become the go-to place for all kinds of information related to the capital city.
Abu Dhabi Q&A, a group that was first launched in summer 2012 as a way for its administrator, Freya Jaffer, to share information with friends and get tips from them, has today grown into a forum with 30,885 members at the time of writing.
And it continues to attract more and more residents, who ask questions about all kinds of topics relating to life in the capital — from visa renewal procedures to mall store timings, from notifications about lost pets to the best recipes for Christmas dishes, from travel tips to company and restaurant reviews.
“I never thought the group would become what it is. I simply started it as a way to get updated information when I needed it,” Jaffer, a 41-year-old British homemaker with Pakistani heritage, told Gulf News.
Jaffer first moved to Abu Dhabi in 2008, but often found herself at a loss when it came to official paperwork or the best place to find household items and things for her children.
“I checked online but frequently found that information on store timings or locations was dated, for instance,” she said.
So, after delivering her third child, the homemaker and now mother-of-four started a closed Facebook group for some of her friends.
“Initially, there were just about 60 friends from my own Facebook, and I noticed that I received answers to my queries very quickly. Then members started adding friends and the whole thing just grew,” Jaffer said.
Today, there at least 10 posts every day from members asking one another all kinds of things, including the best places to find certain items, or how to complete procedures for various official transactions. And the questions always generate helpful responses from other members.
Although there are other similar Web-based forums for residents, Abu Dhabi Q&A’s success partly stems from the fact that it is hosted on a social media platform used by 46 per cent of the UAE population, as reported by digital agency Global Media Insight. In fact, in 2016, there were 1.5 million users on Facebook from Abu Dhabi alone.
“The most common questions are about visa runs, driving licence applications and car registration. But we still allow them because things are always changing and people often find a better way to get the same old thing done,” Jaffer said.
Those who do not want to be identified also have an option of personally messaging Jaffer, who then posts the query as an anonymous post.
“These posts often include sensitive information, but the answers often benefit many other people. For example, many newly arriving expatriates are puzzled by why the call to prayer is sounded at dawn. They don’t however want to offend anyone, so they message me and I post the query. In fact, the anonymous posts started when I myself had a sensitive question to ask and did not want to be identified as the questioner,” she said.
To accommodate the increasing activity, Jaffer added three more group admins last summer.
Manzer Qayyum, a long-term UAE resident and ex-pilot, Sadaf Sharif, a trusted family friend, and Loise Nodger Millington, Jaffer’s neighbour, now help her manage the group and approve joining requests. Even today, the group receives about 3,500 requests a month from people who wish to join, but only about 1,500 are approved.
“We are very vigilant, and deny entry to all fake profiles. In addition, I do not want the group to become a place where people buy and sell things, so it is advert-free till today and no one is allow to advertise items on it,” Jaffer said.
The aim, she says, is to make life easier for Abu Dhabi residents. To that end, a prominent law enforcement entity has also contacted Jaffer to create better awareness of the country’s norms.
On the other hand, many members have also become friends, and Abu Dhabi Q&A organises its own ‘meet-ups’ every now and then.
“My children sometimes complain that I am always on my phone. It takes a lot of work, but I take comfort in the fact that the group helps make things easier for thousands of Abu Dhabi residents,” Jaffer said.
Humour and controversy
Some queries on Abu Dhabi Q&A seem rather comical or quirky, but Jaffer says they often help expatriates find out about the UAE’s policies and cultural norms.
“Once I had a man innocently asking if he could wear an abaya and niqab if he didn’t want to dress up for work. It was very genuine on his part, but, within a few hours, the post had garnered angry responses from people who were offended by his insensitivity. I then had to intervene and explain that he honestly just wanted to know, having just arrived in the country,” Jaffer, the group’s founder, said.
As admin, she often closes the comment section, or even deletes posts, which seem controversial or unhelpful. A good example is posts from jobseekers, as these are not aligned with the goals of the group.