Black Expat in the UAE

Happy October, people! October marks Black History Month in the UK so I’m dedicating this month to documenting my experiences in the UAE from the perspective of a Black Expat. This week, I’ll answer the five questions I get asked the most when I tell people that I’ve relocated to Abu Dhabi (not Dubai, Abu Dhabi).

Being Black and Abroad

For those of you who don’t know, I moved to Abu Dhabi just over 3 years ago with the hubby, Massimo. We had never visited the Middle East prior to relocating so we came here completely ignorant.

Even in this day and age, Black people need to be careful when travelling or relocating to another country. Thanks to colonialism and slavery, we are still not always well-received in some cultures (you can read my post about travelling while Black here) but luckily, you’ll be pleased to know, our experience has been largely positive. In fact, I’d say I’m actually treated better as a Black person out here than I was back in the UK; it’s interesting not to be in the ‘underprivileged’ or ‘disadvantaged’ categories for once.

“Where do Black Expats in the UAE come from?”

Being Black comes with all sorts of connotations but if there’s one thing I’ve learned – especially since coming to the UAE – it’s that we are incredibly diverse. There are a lot of Black expats in the UAE but our experiences are as varied as the number of steps in the Burj Khalifa.

In the UAE, we have three predominant groups of Black migrants. Those who have come directly from:

  • the USA
  • the UK
  • Africa (Ethiopia, Uganda, Kenya, Nigeria, Ghana, Sudan, South Africa)
It doesn’t really matter how you ‘identify’ or what subcategory you belong to when filling out forms back home. Here, it depends on your passport.

ou can be half Ghanaian, half Iranian but if you have a Russian passport then my friend, you are Russian.

Growing up in the UK, I was constantly reminded that I’m African. It’s only recently I’ve started feeling more British; our underground music has become more mainstream and our art is being recognised under the ‘British’ banner in museums. Here in the UAE, I’m seen as European because that’s where I physically came from to get here, plus my passport is purple. Race doesn’t really come in to it and I’ve definitely felt more British since moving here.

“Are they racist towards Black people in the UAE?”

This is the number one question Black people always ask me. I’ll repeat, It’s such a shame that in 2019, we’re still having to ask this question.

Local Emirati people are actually a minority here in the UAE. They’re also quite private and conservative people so unless you work with them, you may not interact with them often. However, the ones I have come into contact with have been incredibly friendly and insanely generous (like, on another level).

When we first moved here, we were told not to compliment an Emirati on any of their belongings, because their culture obliges them to give you that item.


It’s an urban myth but I’m not gonna lie, I have seen it done. Anyway, I say all that to say I have personally never felt an Emirati person express any sort of racism towards me. And I feel as though the systemic racism embedded in most Western societies doesn’t affect me here.

As for the non-Emirati expats, they’re either well-travelled, don’t care or they’re used to living in a cosmopolitan society. You may get stares from tourists but on the whole, most people don’t even bat an eyelid.

“Can I find Black Cuisines (African/ Caribbean/ Soul Food) in the UAE?”

The short answer is yes. It may not be as authentic as back home but hey, it’s here. There are a handful of Black restaurants and a few underground connects who order food from back home based on demand. Many of the restaurant/food business owners will ship things in from back home only if their pockets allow, which is why it’s really important to support Black businesses out here so that these places can stay open. Here are a few I’ve found:

“Can I get my natural hair done?”

Yes! There are a plethora of salons that cater to natural hair, even though most are in Abu Dhabi and Dubai (sorry if you live in one of the other 5 Emirates). I’ve also recently started an online community for expats to find solutions to their afro hair needs in the UAE; we’re called AfroHairUAE. Follow us on Instagram at @afrohairuae and join us on Facebook at ‘AfroHair UAE Group.’

Afro hair is not political in the UAE like it is in the West. As a Black Expat in Abu Dhabi, I have never heard of anyone being discriminated against at work because they’ve rocked up with an afropuff or locs. I’ve had interviews wearing a African headwraps and gotten the jobs. People don’t think you’re protesting or starting a movement when you have your natural hair out. So even when you get your hair did, you shouldn’t have to worry about how you’ll be perceived.

“Will I hear Black music on a night out in the UAE?”

Yes unless you want niche. You’ll always hear American music, you’ll probably get some Ed Sheeran and they always throw in three Afrobeats songs from 2013. But if you’re looking for grime or drill, forget it.

There’s only one place I know of in the whole UAE that caters to us Black British Expats in the UAE and that’s Miss Lily’s in Dubai on a Friday Night. A bit of a trek for me but it’s just the right medicine if I’m feeling homesick.

Here are some other Black places and spaces I’ve come across:

  • Afrocentric play Afrohouse and Afrobeats on the first and second Friday of every month in Dubai and Abu Dhabi respectively.
  • Rooftop Rhythms is a poetry and spoken word night which, of course, draws in the melanin! They also do a Silent Party and Lip Sync Wars.
  • JS Entertainment do a range of parties for the culture in Abu Dhabi, including the well-attended White Out Party.

Remember, in the UAE there’s the option of hiring a yacht. Hopefully one of your friends know how to DJ so you can turn all the way up! Don’t forget your swim suits and your meat for the BBQ!

Do you have any other questions about being a Black Expat in the UAE (or just about the UAE in general)? Let me know in the comments, I always reply!


Happy Black History Month! Love you guys, Helen x

Want to read more from Helen, the twenty-something Londoner living her best life in Abu Dhabi? 

Check our her fabulous lifestyle blog,

You can also find our more about her community, Afro Hair UAE listed here.


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