I was sent out to my firm’s Abu Dhabi office in April 2009 to work for the government on the regulation of the privatisation of public infrastructure. I went alone initially, but over the course of the year another two or three people from the UK came out to assist with the project as well.
I lived in a lovely modern apartment attached to a hotel. It was near to the office and also on the waterfront, which was great as I could roll out onto the beach at weekends. However the beach in Abu Dhabi is a strange-looking place because they’re building a huge financial centre just off the coast. My rent was very high – even more expensive than in London. Living in Abu Dhabi in general is pricey, especially if you eat at the hotels all the time but there are lots of Indian and Lebanese restaurants where you can eat a slap-up meal for a fiver, which is what I often did.
Abu Dhabi is divided into three regions: the city; Al Ain out in the desert; and then the Western Region, which is also out in the middle of nowhere. I travelled around all three of these areas during my time there. Abu Dhabi is very different to Dubai. It’s a real living, breathing Arab city, whereas Dubai is just full of ex-pats. My friends and colleagues came from all over the Middle East – a lot of them were second-generation immigrants whose families had moved out there during the oil boom in the 1970s. So it was a really multicultural experience – certainly more so than living in Dubai would have been.
Working life is very cosmopolitan as well. I was surprised at how forward-thinking the Abu Dhabi approach to business was – they’re much more advanced in that way than many people realise. Having said that though, you wake up in the morning and never know what’s going to happen in the office that day because things are fairly disorganised. You don’t know who you’re going to meet – and they never have an agenda for meetings. It’s chaotic, which can be stressful at times – but I actually came to enjoy it and I’d even go as far as to say I miss it!
I wore a suit to work, which could be uncomfortable in the summer when the temperature would reach 98 degrees! It’s not so bad indoors because there’s air-conditioning, but when you step outside the humidity condenses on you almost instantly. So you spend most of the summer indoors as it’s too hot to be outside. The heat was quite shocking – one day the thermometer in my car read 53 degrees, so I stopped just to get out and see what it felt like. Needless to say, I quickly jumped back in!
The working day starts early in Abu Dhabi. I’d be in the office for 7.30am because the locals get up early, but then you finish your day by around 3.30pm. Working these hours is nice because you get a couple of hours by the pool at the end of the afternoon. A lot of my colleagues prayed five times a day so sometimes we’d be in a meeting and there’d be a call for prayer from the mosque – everyone would just get up and go out for ten minutes.
The office environment is generally very westernised, but work social events were a bit different. Alcohol is allowed in hotels in Abu Dhabi, but we didn’t really go drinking – mainly because a lot of people in the office didn’t drink. Instead, we’d all go to shisha cafes, as smoking shisha is more the done thing out there. We’d also go to Lebanese restaurants at lunch time and order huge mixed grills.
Clients would take us out sometimes and I got to go to some pretty cool places. One of them had a huge falcon farm out in the desert. The birds were worth around $50,000 each, so we had to be careful not to break their wings when he let us have a go at holding them. Then we went out to sit in a tent and eat dates, and I couldn’t believe that there was a 52” plasma screen TV. Even in the middle of the desert you can’t escape the Premier League!