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During the taxi ride from the airport last week I was reminded how it had felt that first time we drove down Abu Dhabi island, nearly ten years ago.

Then, there was only my husband and our toddler daughter with me in the taxi. Keeping an 18 month old occupied and happy during her first long-haul flight had been an endurance test. I survived thanks to a fistful of Neurofen and a bag bursting with individually wrapped tiny toys.

I was exhausted and not quite prepared for the culture shock of seeing men in white dish dashas and headdresses walking through the airport terminal. The pain at saying good-bye to my parents was still very raw, and I started to doubt whether we had really done the right thing uprooting ourselves from London to come here for two years.

The night-time air was heavy with heat and humidity as we walked out of the airport terminal. Driving along the old Corniche, palm trees and huge detached houses whizzed past the window and I questioned what on earth we were doing moving here, to this strange land.

Nearly ten years later we were back, as non-residents this time, coming to see our old friends and sit by a pool. Yet the sensations as we walked out of the airport terminal were no different, only this time I was wondering how our first trip back as a family would make me feel about having left.

As we drove to our hotel, surprisingly little had changed. The roadside was still dotted with those large detached villas, which I now know, are home to several generations of one family. If you look hard enough you can usually see, under the flourescent tube light fixed above the gate to the villa, a cheap white plastic garden chair. In the cooler times of the day this will be where the old man of the family sits and watches daily life in a city that has changed beyond measure in his lifetime.

There has been a great deal of development in Abu Dhabi over the last ten years. New hotels have gone up on reclaimed land and in the old mangroves, and the skyline now includes much taller, more ambitiously designed buildings. Roads have been widened and new bridges and tunnels built.

Yet, glancing around as the taxi sped down the island, in between the large villas and new hotels there are still the minarets of the mosques garishly lit by bright green strip lights, a reminder of Abu Dhabi’s less style-conscious past.

Abu Dhabi is a city of contrasts and contradictions: Maseratis parked next to pick-ups; an oil-producing nation with huge queues at every petrol station; high fashion and Islamic dress; ostentatious wealth and great poverty; a patriarchal culture where the majority of the graduates from university are women.

I learned a lot during my time in Abu Dhabi, not just in terms of growing eight years older and raising three children, but it also refined my perceptions of the Middle East and the politics of the region. It also made me understand that democracy was not necessarily the Holy Grail of politics; that a great deal can be achieved in a benevolent monarchic regime and that any move towards democracy must be done with patience and in tandem with a programme of education and support of a free press.

It was a great trip and wonderful to catch up with old friends, whilst others, sadly missed this time, will warrant another trip again soon. And did I feel we were wrong to have left? No, it was right for us, but I don’t regret the time we spent there one bit. The experiences we and the children have had, the benefits of living amidst another culture and learning about another way of life are unquantifiable and how fab is it to have a destination for winter sun complete with old muckers and a thorough knowledge of where to find the best dahl makhani?

 

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