Why the UAE works for our families
We meet six spouses who have given up careers to follow their partner to the UAE.
Expat life is challenging for couples, perhaps more so for spouses who give up a career to follow their partner. Lisa Burke meets six who have done just that and finds out if they regret it or if it’s the best choice they’ve ever made. Photographs by Antonie Robertson
Here’s a question I was asked a couple of years ago:
“Would you like to live in Abu Dhabi for a while?”
After locating it on a map, and rapidly digesting all that such a move entails, the first concerns for wives are usually for the children. However, a niggling question for many partners, with or without children, is: “What about me? What am I going to do there?”
Being the one at home can mean the luxury of increased leisure time, or the gift of more time with children. A breather.
But work provides an instant routine, a sense of daily achievement and a network of colleagues who often become friends. Without it people can feel lost. Relying on a partner’s income can lead to vulnerability, and time out may not read well on a CV.
It is mostly women in the work shadow – “housewife” stamped on the visa – but not exclusively. We talk to six people who have followed their spouses to the UAE.
Abourida, 42, an American, and her husband, Wael, 44, an Egyptian, moved to Abu Dhabi in 2008 with their three daughters: Amira, 14, Sophia, 12, and Kayla, 10. Abourida worked on Wall Street and with Merrill Lynch, Chicago, until just before their first daughter was born
Moving from northern California to Abu Dhabi in 2008 was our family’s first overseas adventure. Now, this is our home. We have three children who go to ACS [the American Community School] and they love it, which is a major reason why we have adjusted so well.
Living away from family, friends, our culture, the shopping and all the wonderful places to visit in the States are the most difficult things about being here.
When I think about our lives overseas I like to remember the quote by Charles Darwin: “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change.” Living in another country away from our comfort zone has made us adaptable and we have not only survived, I believe we are thriving. I have seen my children become children of the world with friends from many different places and cultures.
I have had my challenges of being the tag-along spouse especially in a foreign country but I made a life for myself. I am involved in my children’s school, volunteer groups, have many good friends and support networks.
I have taken responsibility for my happiness and my life. That has made a difference. I recently completed my yoga teaching certification and I look forward to that journey.
Absolutely, I feel vulnerable being dependent on my husband’s income, but I would suspect that may be a common feeling among all stay-at-home spouses. But I’m at a point in my life, my children are getting older and more independent, so I have time to start a new career path and do something for myself. Of course, my main job as a mum is unfortunately not monetarily compensated for, and it should be, but that is another story.
Stiefler, 49, is Swedish and has four daughters: Emma, 21, and Vera, 19, both at university, and Madigan, 16, and Johanna, 14, both at school in Abu Dhabi. Her husband, Gordon, 53, an American, works for the UN Development Programme.
Gordon’s work has brought us to Washington DC, Cambodia, Vietnam, Mongolia, Kazakhstan, New York, Denmark and finally Abu Dhabi.
Since Kazakhstan I had the definite feeling I never want to put all my things in boxes again. We arrived in Abu Dhabi each with a big suitcase and things that make a house seem like home such as paintings.
Leaving is the hardest part of moving, not settling in. It can be easier to feel at home overseas than in your own country. Ironically, the girls found it most difficult to integrate in Dobbs Ferry, New York – one of their two “homelands”.
Has this lifestyle had a negative long-term impact on our children? Impact is measured over time. This question haunts you because you choose the lifestyle – children don’t. I think our girls have roots in the family – that’s our “home”. They have been a great strength to each other: never alone through the moves.
I forfeited a career in journalism in favour of family and lifestyle, but I got to live in lots of fascinating places. Yet I would have vigorously protested had anyone suggested I would spend most of my life being a mother, a housewife, following my husband around.
If career is important you should think hard about moving. Being home with children is tough regardless of where you are.
I have had dark moments during the past 22 years where I felt like my life was stagnating, a non-person because many people measure success only in terms of career. I can often measure my accomplishments only in terms of how the kids are doing.
But being “the spouse” has given me the freedom to pursue many other interests: I taught English and French in Ulan Bator, Mongolia and New York; I travelled around the countryside of Vietnam as a handicraft consultant. I studied the languages of the countries we have lived in and pursued my interest in music.
I don’t try to recreate my old life in a new place. I let life take a shape that will fit the new surroundings.
My experiences are so vast: driving along a candle-lit road in Phnom Penh during an electricity blackout, spinning silk at firelight with other women in a house on stilts in northern Vietnam, filming action scenes in Ulan Bator, hiking en famille up the ski slopes of Almaty to pick flowers in spring, dawn prayer call in Abu Dhabi. That sound has a community warmth that I am sure I will never experience again.
New Zealanders Moloney and his wife, Sophie, both 37, moved to Abu Dhabi from London last year with their three boys: Walter, 5, and twins Tommy and George, 3. Sophie is the legal director for Sky News Arabia.
Why not move? It was an exciting opportunity for Sophie’s career. Our family is young so any disturbance would be limited. The UAE is a vibrant country in a fascinating part of the world. It was October in London and we had five months of grey ahead of us.
We are a unit; what benefits one will almost certainly benefit all. We share the same goals, both personal and as a family.
I was fired by my work [as a senior defence analyst with IHS Janes , a publisher and consultancy] when I moved here. It was slightly annoying but in retrospect, great. I have had time to read, think, reconnect with other interests and people. I am very lucky; few people get to have a break from work. I have met some very smart people, enjoyed the art scene and the NYU Abu Dhabi lectures.
I converted our maid’s room into a small, dark and cramped office so I am outside of the house proper. I can read, write and work when I want. But I am not working on anything so important that I can’t take an hour off to play or chat with the boys.
We have a great set of neighbours. In the evenings we all sit on the kerb and chat while the kids play in the street. It is nice to be part of an old-fashioned neighbourhood.
Walt catches the bus to school. We are in a car pool to take the twins and their friends to and from nursery. It’s great fun as some days there are up to five kids in the car. Parenting is pretty much the same for fathers or mothers. Kids don’t care who looks after them as long as they are fair, kind, interested and loving.
It doesn’t bother me that my wife earns more than me, that is very old-fashioned. My wife is extremely smart, hardworking and talented; more so than me. She is also in a profession that is well rewarded.
Anyhow, pay is not a reflection of your worth as a person; it is a reflection of how the market values your work.
My advice: relax, enjoy the opportunities, get over yourself, think of the now and not what you might think you have left behind. I have not a moment of regret.
Abu Dhabi is a city that feels like the future.
Ahmed, 43, moved to Abu Dhabi in September with her husband, Asher, 42, an airline pilot, for his work. Their youngest daughter, Hanaa, 11, came with them.
Having lived most of my life in the UK, moving to the Emirates has been the most life-changing step I’ve taken. I’ve been married for 22 years and my husband and I always spoke about moving abroad. As time ticked on and my older two children started university we felt it was the right time to start the next chapter in our lives.
When my husband was offered the post, reality kicked in. There was so much to do before moving and, more heartbreakingly, I was leaving my son behind. My older daughter was about to start a year abroad and my youngest was moving with us.
Having said that, we were all embracing the new changes and knew that the initial difficulties would soon be overcome.
As a mother, my only concern during the chaos and stress was making sure my children would stay settled in my absence; I hadn’t contemplated what living in Abu Dhabi would mean for me personally, instead was praying that it was the best thing for my family.
Having been here six months now, alhamdulillah, the move was well worth it.
In England I worked part time as a sonographer, and actually intended to carry on working here. However, with the only option of working full time, I felt that my priorities lie with my family – especially my daughter, who has just started high school.
Part of me misses working and having my own separate sphere, although I must admit I’m enjoying walks on the beach and coffee with new friends (most of whom share my position).
I have started driving and learning my way around, an independence that I recommend. It’s scary at first but it gives me a way to get out, meet locals and become part of the vibrant surroundings.
The Abu Dhabi Woman group and cultural centres were also a great way to break the ice.
As it turns out, my older daughter is finishing her year abroad here with us and my son has been to visit during the holidays and we all love it here.
We certainly had our flags waving on National Day.
Halls, 36, from the UK, moved to Abu Dhabi in August 2008 with her husband, Simon, 41, and two children, Harvey, 8, and Rose, 6.
I remember the move vividly. Simon started his new job the day after we arrived, and later left for a two-week business trip to America. I stayed behind with the children, no friends, no family, stifling heat and the start of Ramadan.
Looking back, it took about six months to settle with all sorts of emotions: excitement, fear, exhaustion and frustration. When we packed up our life, our biggest concern was for the children. Harvey had just started “big” school and was loving it.
Early on, I realised that friendships and opportunities weren’t going to come knocking at my door. I needed to be brave, something I’ve told myself many times since. I’ve always been artistic and craved a creative outlet. So on one of my brave days, I signed up for silk painting classes at The Cultural Foundation. It was the best thing I could have done. I met some wonderful people and discovered a passion and skill for textile art.
I’m influenced by beautiful Arabian geometric patterns and the rich, intense colour palette so prevalent within the region. Two years later I’m exhibiting my silk paintings and prints, and loving every minute.
It’s true that I fit my life around the school day but it’s incredible how much you can pack into six hours.
Recently I had to drop everything and return to England – my mum has been seriously ill. I’ve had a few wobbles because I’ve felt so helpless, and waiting for news over the phone can make you feel a million miles away. My friends here were amazing, offering to help with the children. I couldn’t have done it without them.
Palestinians, Sihweil, 39, and her husband, Salim Nasser, 49, were raised in the diaspora. They have three children: Rudaina, 9, Anmar, 7, and Amani, 5. They moved to Abu Dhabi with Nasser’s work in 2001, post-9/11, then lived in Dubai from 2004 to 2010, and are now back in Abu Dhabi.
As a Palestinian I strongly believed that if I couldn’t live in my homeland then I would be better off living in a big city in the West – a “melting pot” where everyone is from somewhere else.
If you told me 10 years ago that I would raise three children in the Arab world I would have laughed in your face – the UAE was simply not on my horizon.
I left an amazing and very promising career at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts to follow my husband here. We got married shortly after 9/11 – he was living in Manhattan and the uncertainty that clouded most Arab-Americans at that time had a big influence on his decision to leave. Neither of us had any idea that we would end up living here for a decade. Man plans and God laughs, I suppose.
I do feel a sense of panic sometimes and sadness that I did not more consciously choose this life for myself and my family. I think I was asleep for many years, blanketed by the fog of exhaustion that clouds most mothers with young children. We have just gone with the river and flowed with the changes and opportunities that came to us without any real thought of what we may be giving up.
On some days I am deeply regretful that I did not pull the plug on our expat life earlier – that we are raising our kids without anchors, that they will not have a stable, constant community. I look around and realise that the only witnesses to whom I am as a mother and as a wife are my friends; this testament would naturally come from your extended family. My sister moved here a few years ago and that has lent me some calm; my children now have someone else beyond their parents they can rely on for nurturing and stability.
For a long time I loved being at home raising my babies and I feel very fortunate to have had the luxury of choice that I most likely would not have had if we stayed in the US. When my children were all in school full time I found that I had space and quiet to hear my own voice once again. I realised how much I missed working – contributing to the greater community.
Being a museum educator I had very few options. I knew working in a gallery would kill a large part of my spirit and I felt the art world here was so superficial, shiny and temporary that I rejected it outright. When I was offered a job at the Emirates Foundation for Philanthropy to work with local artists and strengthen the Emirati cultural community, I was ecstatic. It felt like everything I cared about came together – work in my field with a community I am increasingly becoming part of and that my contribution would lead to changing people’s lives and the country in a profound way.
It all came together for me haphazardly and this has ultimately led me to a current and hopefully long-lasting peaceful state of mind. I have chosen to bloom where I am planted.
As told to Helena Frith Powell
Photo: Kristy Abourida and her family who moved to Abu Dhabi from northern California in 2008
Helena Frith Powell was born in Sweden to a Swedish mother and Italian father, but grew up mainly in England. She is the author of eleven books, translated into several languages including Chinese and Russian. She wrote the French Mistress column The Sunday Times about life in France for several years. She is a regular contributor to the Daily Mail, Mail on Sunday, The Times, Daily Telegraph, Tatler Magazine and Harper’s Bazaar.
Helena has been the editor of four magazines, including M Magazine, a supplement for the Abu Dhabi based National Newspaper and FIVE, a high-end fashion glossy, also published in Abu Dhabi. Helena was also editor in chief of 360 Life, a quarterly glossy magazine published with the Sports 360 Newspaper in Dubai, part of the Chalhoub Group.
Helena contributes regularly to UK-based newspapers and magazines and holds a Masters in Creative Writing from the University of Cambridge. Helena is also working on a thriller called Thin Ice that will be published in spring 2021 as well as a novel about the relationship between Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield called Sense of an Echo.
Her latest non-fiction work Smart Women Don’t Get Wrinkles came out in hardback in 2016 and in paperback in April 2018.
Helena, who was educated at Durham University, lives in the Languedoc region of France with her husband Rupert and their three children.
More France Please, we’re British; Gibson Square 2004
Two Lipsticks and a Lover 2005; Gibson Square (hardback)
All You Need to be Impossibly French; (US version of above) Penguin 2006
Two Lipsticks and a Lover; Arrow Books (paperback) 2007
Ciao Bella Gibson Square; (hardback) 2006
Ciao Bella Gibson Square; (paperback) 2007
So Chic! (French version of Two Lipsticks) Leduc Editions 2008 (also translated into Chinese, Russian and Thai)
More, More France; Gibson Square 2009
To Hell in High Heels; Arrow Books 2009 (also translated into Polish)
The Viva Mayr Diet; Harper Collins 2009
Love in a Warm Climate; Gibson Square 2011
The Ex-Factor; Gibson Square 2013
Smart Women Don’t Get Wrinkles; Gibson Square 2016
The Arnolfini Marriage; Amazon Kindle December 2016
Smart Women Don’t Get Wrinkles (paperback); Gibson Square spring 2018
The Longest Night; Gibson Square spring 2019