Friends for a season; friends for one reason - expat friendships can get a bad rap. Seen as here one minute, gone the next, traditionally we’re taught to value old friends over new. But sometimes there’s a benefit to not being around the people who saw you through bad haircuts, bad jobs or bad relationships. And, for me at least, that’s where expat friends come in.
An opportunity to reinvent
From the moment I landed in Dubai four years ago, I was bowled over by how friendly people are. We arrived in mid-December and went almost straight from the airport to the desert for an impromptu festive singalong. By the end of the evening, I’d exchanged numbers with several women, got my first job offer and we had plans for New Year’s Eve. All in the space of three hours.
As a relatively introverted Londoner, whose core friendship group previously consisted of the same people I’d been to school with since I was 11, this instant acceptance was different to anything I’d ever experienced. But I knew immediately that this fluidity of friendship and the attitude of inclusion that came along with it was something I wanted, not just for me, but for my then three-year-old daughter as well.
Capitalising on the social scene
And so it came to be. Dubai’s vibrance and plethora of dining and socialising options creates an atmosphere where it’s easy for friendships to flourish – if you let them. From amazing restaurants and coffee shops to family beach days or brunches with or without the kids, there always seemed to be something new and interesting to do – and new and interesting people to do it with.
For those people who haven’t found it so easy to make friends in an expat environment yet I would say: keep an open mind. Although the majority of my friendship-forming was pre-pandemic, my advice would be to accept invitations when you get them, or suggest alternatives if you can’t make it or don’t feel comfortable with the suggested set-up. Expat friendship – like any relationship – takes some commitment and investment.
All in the same boat
Friendship in Dubai comes in many forms. From the camaraderie created around the compound swimming pool with other mothers trying to apply sunscreen to squirming children, to the people we might meet in the gym, the school-gates or the lifts at work, everyone makes the effort to be friendly. In London, the careworkers at my daughter’s nursery barely knew my name whereas in Dubai, I formed friendships with teachers at both my daughter’s nursery and her school that have each outlasted my time in Dubai. Perhaps that’s the advantage of having such a large expat population. Almost everybody’s been in your shoes and we all remember what it’s like to be new.
Many cultures, many friendships
I saw a new ease when it came to be making friends blossom in my daughter too. Having been slightly overwhelmed by all the children in her London nursery, by the end of our first year in Dubai, she had two or three packs of different children to run around in and could sing Happy Birthday in Arabic, Spanish and French.
That mix of different languages and cultures add an extra depth to the friendships people make in Dubai. In the process of forming great friendships with people from every corner of the earth, I’ve learned something about their cultures and benefitted from their traditions. When we left, various friends treated us to a traditional Egyptian evening, a night of Spanish food and Italian wine and a typical Australian send-off to pay homage to where we were travelling to next. It made my few attempts at a traditional English Sunday roast to shame! Thankfully, none of my friends have ever judged me for my woeful English hospitality and overcooked vegetables. Because that’s another thing about living in a truly ex-pat place. Not only are we all in it together but because there are no preconceptions, there’s no judgment either; something a lot of other countries could learn from.
The flipside of transience? Resilience
Nothing’s perfect and of course, expat friendships do have their downsides. People leave. And each time someone close to you does go, it breaks your heart a little bit. That was my biggest worry when we first arrived, that my daughter would form an intense emotional attachment with someone who would disappear and leave her devastated. But after a couple of her close friends left and she quickly rallied, I realised that, by exposing her to the occasional transience of friendship, I was actually giving her a real gift: that of resilience.
Each time a cherished friend left, she learned that life goes on and that, just as things like friendship come easily in Dubai, other things, like maintaining them, require a little more work. When we left ourselves, that lesson stood her in good stead. Eighteen months since we moved, my daughter still sings Happy Birthday in Arabic and keeps in touch with friends from Dubai who now live in Wales, France and the UAE.
Lessons in keeping in touch
Like her, some of our Dubai friendships have endured and will be rekindled in Dubai and other destinations around the world, when we can all safely travel again. Others will undoubtedly fade away to be replaced by connections closer to home. After a bit of a shaky start, we’re slowly finding our tribe in Australia, where we now live. And that’s how it should be. Gone are the days when our world was limited to the towns and cities we grew up in. Just like people, and countries, friendships come in all shapes and sizes. Each one has a purpose and the right ones enrich and add to our lives. As a family, we’re richer for experiencing the friendships we made in Dubai and will carry the memories of them and the lessons we learned from them with us wherever we go next.
Polly Phillips is a British author and mum of one who moved to Dubai in 2016, and whose addictive and twisty psychological thriller ‘My Best Friend’s Murder’ won the Emirates Literary Festival book prize in 2019. Her book is now published by Simon and Schuster and is available on Apple books in the UAE or as a hard copy or in e-book on www.Amazon.co.uk