Life as a “trailing spouse” in the UAE

The Middle East is a completely different world, and there are many misconceptions, here’s a few things said to me before I came out here to live“you’ll have to wear a black sack and cover your face”
“you’ll have to walk five paces behind your husband and keep your gaze to the ground”
“you won’t be able to drive”
“you’ll have to ask your husband’s permission to go outside”
and so it went  on.  There are countries in the ME where as a woman you cannot drive, and you do have to cover up if you go out, however in the UAE all the above statements are untrue.  Here’s some observations from a married expat woman point of view

I first noticed that being female could have advantages when I arrived at AD airport at 4.30am when we emigrated.  As a woman with a child (albeit a 6′ tall teenager), I was immediately put at the head of the queue for collecting my paperwork and completing the formalities.  I felt a bit guilty at this as I thought my elevation up the queue was based on my skin colour, but no, ladies don’t queue here.

I didn’t need written permission from my husband to gain my driver’s licence because he was present when I applied, however if you go to the traffic department on your own you will need a letter from him!  (As well as copies of his passport/residency – see my post on officialdom).  If you get a job you will also have to give your employer a letter of “no objection” from your sponsor who will be your husband – and what man is going to object to his wife bringing in some extra cash?

image taken from

Speaking of cash, I have my own bank account at the ladies’ branch of the National Bank of Abu Dhabi.  What’s different?  Ladies shouldn’t have to stand in a queue so there are lovely couches to sit on, all the staff including security are female, often there are flower arrangements and feminine touches to make it a more pleasant place to be.  Compared to the men’s branch which is busy, may be full of labourers who have been outside in the heat for hours….. you get the picture.  Lots of government departments such as the traffic dept have their own ladies’ section, much shorter queues!

Only yesterday I was away to lug 3 bags of groceries to the car but the back packer stopped me, “madam, you shouldn’t… let me help”.  Had I been parked at the door the distance would have been about 30 feet and I would have refused but as it happened I was away at the other end of the car park so he earned his tip!  I usually get our day to day food requirements from the Zakher co-op, and once when I was standing in a queue, a man pushed in front of me.  An old arab tapped the man on the shoulder, told him to get behind me, and then told the next guy, who had been in the queue before me and was quietly waiting his turn, to get behind me too! 

Once I was out at the edge of the desert waiting for my friends, and decided to deflate my tyres in advance.  Some young local men came by and one insisted on doing this for me, he thought it was so wrong for me to be out of my car and on my knees in the sand!  I thanked him and asked him to come past next week at the same time!  Here’s a pic of my friends all deflating their cars, ready for an offroad drive in Liwa.

I had not long got the Patrol and was out in the sand with Neil and our friend Marco when Neil got stuck.  I was pulling him out when a local noticed Marco on his own and decided to investigate and then he got stuck.  Fast as I could I raced round the dune to recover him, and he looked very pleased when he saw my “cabsula” approach, but I could see his face fall when he saw a woman driving, this was replaced by a worried expression as Neil hooked the snatch straps to our cars, and finally relief when he realised I could drive and pull cars out of the desert.  Now I have my winch there’s nothing I like better than recovering a local from a stuck in the desert.  Sorry for going off on a tangent there but just wanted to get a dune bashing anecdote in!


There are no unisex hairdressers here in Al Ain, men are not even allowed to cross the “screened off” threshold of a beauty parlour.  The reason – ladies may have their hair uncovered and it is haram for a muslim woman to be seen uncovered by men other than their husband, father or sons.  These days when I am back “home” I find it hard to comprehend why woman would have beauty treatments such as henna and the like, in full view of everyone!

I like to think I dress modestly, always keeping my shoulders and knees and everything in between covered.  This means you are less likely to attract unwelcome attention.  Wandering around inappropriately dressed in public places is so offensive to locals, it’s not much to ask of us to respect their traditions.  Some who have not been exposed to our culture in the west think that western women have the morals of an alley cat and dressing inappropriately just confirms what they have been told!  Tonight I am going to a wedding and will wear my abaya over my dress when travelling there as the only way to step out of my car will involve showing quite a bit of leg and there will be men in the carpark.

I consider the UAE a very safe place to live, you are safe to walk around at any time of the day or night.  One night my car had a minor breakdown and I called my mechanic.  In the fifteen minutes it took for him to get to me four locals had stopped to see if I was ok – back in the UK I would be sitting in my car with the doors all locked, but here I felt safe enough to get out and stand back from the road.  Whilst personal safety doesn’t worry me too much here, road safety does and the chances of someone coming round the corner and smashing into my poor broken down car are far greater than in the UK!

In 2008 the BBC aired a great documentary “Women in Black” and if you can find this on youtube or a download it is well worth watching.  If you are lucky when you live here you will have the chance to make some local acquaintances and through them you can learn about and begin to understand their culture and beliefs.  I thank the day I met Mariam, who works for Ask Ali and in her off duty time is my personal cultural advisor and very dear friend! 

The local ladies I have met want the same things as us expats – a rewarding career and/or a good marriage with a kind and considerate husband, health and happiness for their children as well as access to quality education.  After all, we’re all Jock Tamson’s bairns!

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