Where is home for the millions of expats in the Gulf?

We all know the saying: "Home is where the heart is."

But in today’s world, many people leave the place where they were born and live in several cities or countries throughout their childhood, then travel even more as adults. The question of "where is home?" is complicated and loaded. Add to this those people who have parents of different nationalities, cultures and even religions, and the question becomes even more complex.

Many of us have, at some point, been an expatriate – which is simply defined as a person who lives outside their native country. Some people remain expats for most of their lives, feeling more at home in places other than their countries of origin.

Why do people move? For security, for a better standard of living, to save money, for love ... for many reasons. Then there are those who flee war zones and unstable homes and are labelled refugees or displaced persons. Then there is the unique circumstance of some expats in the Gulf countries.

Some families have been in the UAE or Saudi Arabia for generations, usually because their fathers came for work in the 1960s or 1970s and then stayed on. Their children and grandchildren now consider this region home. These people are usually from other parts of the Arab world, or from nearby countries such as Pakistan and India, and they haven’t known any other home.

Expats from other parts of the world also get attached to the UAE – as evidenced by the popularity of the stories and short videos posted online by Morgan Carver Richards. She went back to live in the United States after four years of living in Dubai and missed the place so much that she made a series of "repatriation" videos.

They cover a range of subjects from missing home delivery services and having others pump petrol for you, to the variety of cuisines and services on offer. Let’s face it, we are quite spoiled here in the UAE.

How many times have we heard someone say, "Oh, I will come and work here for a year or two, save up and go back", but then they end up staying five, 10 or even 20 years? Whatever the case, it is accepted by millions of expats that this is a "temporary stopover".

I am sure that the inability to fully settle down somewhere has important side effects psychologically and emotionally. From identity crises ("Who am I really?") to language issues to building a home to finding the right partner – all of these things are harder for an expat.

In the case of marriage, for example, traditionally the community would help out. Often you could fall in love with the neighbour’s son or daughter. But how do you do that if the neighbours are always changing and there is no solid community around you?

When the time comes to leave, it can be quite a painful process – especially for those who don’t have a home country to return to. Eventually, all expats get to that stage, be it by reaching retirement age or getting laid off or some other change in their circumstances, and they have no way of staying on.

It’s easy to understand why departing expats would miss the UAE, as this country is popular and beloved, even among people who haven’t lived here. This is perhaps best captured through a statement made by a group of teenagers I interviewed once in Iraq. When I mentioned that I was living in the UAE, they said: "Wow! You live in the Paris of Arabia."

I have heard both Dubai and Abu Dhabi being compared to other major cosmopolitan cities, including New York and London. The fact is that every emirate is unique and has its own character and flavour that you just don’t find anywhere else. This is one of the many reasons expats have such a hard time letting go.

By Rym Ghazal




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