Abu Dhabi: the city where citizenship is not an option

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Abu Dhabi Indian School, founded in 1975, not long after the Trucial States became the United Arab Emirates, sits by Muroor Road. It was here that, in 1986, dressed in a short-sleeved white shirt, navy blue shorts and black-laced Batas, I started first grade.

My classmates, like me, were the children of Indian parents. Raju Uncle, a Malayalee from Kerala, drove us to school in his taxi, a gold and white station wagon. When I was running late, another young passenger, Iqbal, would be sent to ring our doorbell.

Iqbal was older than me by two years. We called him Itchy, but really I knew little about him, except that his parents were Indians, too: his father from Kerala, like mine, and his mum from Bombay. Nevertheless, even though we didn’t swap naughty jokes, share secrets or, later, hang out as adolescents, I grew to trust him. We communicated, like most boys our age, on the playground.

We spoke football – tennis ball football, Pepsi can football, masking tape football. Football made school tolerable. “When football happened,” as our schoolmate Shahneel Mallick puts it, “nothing else mattered.” Back then, I swear, our bones were elastic and we laughed at the 40C heat and 80% humidity. Nowadays, as a consequence of everything we did to our bodies in those days, our hips and spines feel like chipped glass.

Residents queue for bus tickets at the junction of 7th and 4th Streets for transport to construction sites


Outside a shop in the Hamdan Street area


Foreigners constitute roughly four-fifths of the UAE’s population


  • Residents queue for bus tickets to construction sites; shots of the area around Hamdan Street

Abu Dhabi back then was a different place. Iqbal and I are old enough to remember that Khalidiyah, his neighbourhood, used to harbour villas, before taller buildings sprang up along the Corniche and the sea was pushed farther out. We are old enough to remember that Hamdan Street, where my family moved in 1985, had the vibe of a little town. Saadiyat Island – what is now Abu Dhabi’s cultural district, where New York University Abu Dhabi (and my office) can be found – might as well not have existed.

We are also old enough to know that, even though we lived in Abu Dhabi, we were supposed to be Indians. Iqbal and I went to school with the children of teachers, butchers, drivers, engineers, office assistants and managers – all of them brown people who risked their ambitions and fortunes on the Gulf. Most of them arrived in the late 60s and early 70s, and came to work.

Waste collection in the Hamdan Street


  • Waste collectors at work in Hamdan Street, with other shots of the area

Large numbers of foreign workers arrived in the late 60s and early 70s


The junction of Hamdan Street and 6th Street


Foreigners constitute roughly four-fifths of the UAE’s population. My father came in 1972 on a three-year work visa, which allowed you to sponsor spouses or children to join you. After 18, sons were on their own. To stay in Abu Dhabi as a young man, you had to find a job or enrol in university. Only unmarried daughters could stay on their parents’ visas.

But unlike in the US, where the the H-1B work visas offer the possibility of a pathway towards permanent residency, no long-term option exists in the UAE for non-citizens. If a foreign worker loses his or her job or reaches retirement age (60 in most companies), they need to leave, irrespective of how long they’ve lived in the country – or even if they were born there.

Which is why, at 20, with the help of a loan from my parents, I found myself leaving for the US. I don’t recall having a conversation with anyone about how I felt. My parents, like others of their generation, normalised departure. But they didn’t tell us what to do with the memories, or how to archive them.

Dinner in a shopping centre in World Trade Centre Abu Dhabi



My father couldn’t have anticipated the length of time he would end up living in Abu Dhabi. He found himself stuck in the city – saddled with debt, ashamed and afraid to leave. Nor could he and his friends have anticipated the relationship his children would have with the city.

As Iqbal and I grew older, from kids in short trousers to men with grey in our stubble, Abu Dhabi’s ethos of perpetual transience would make us hesitate to describe the city as home. Yes, we knew the ordinary things inhabitants would know: that your glasses fogged in the summer, that Airport Road was quieter than Salam Street, that you had a death wish if you shopped at the Co-Op or Lulu hypermarkets with the Friday crowds. But we also knew what it was like to feel temporary, to keep your eye on the clock, to normalise the inevitability of departure so completely that you didn’t think about it, even though you always thought about it.

Zayed Street at dusk


Fishing on Marina Village island


  • Zayed street at dusk; fishing on Marina Village island

Classmates would talk about their backup plans: they’d give India a shot if they couldn’t afford residence permits for New Zealand, Canada, the States or Australia. This is a conversation only the privileged few can permit themselves. The less fortunate, especially those with debts to pay, aren’t in a position to imagine another life in another place. They are, as a friend said to me about his situation, “stuck” – just like my father.

In James Wood’s essay On Not Going Home, he uses the term “homelooseness” to express what happens to people – immigrants, especially – when they’ve lived outside their homelands for long periods, when “the ties that might bind one to Home have been loosened, perhaps happily, perhaps unhappily, perhaps permanently, perhaps only temporarily”. It’s a good term, but it doesn’t fully capture the psyche of those who have never even imagined being part of a city, because they never knew they could be – even though, paradoxically, they have been.

An early morning fish market at Zayed port


  • Merchants at early-morning fish and vegetable markets at Zayed port

Merchants prepare for the Zayed port market


Stock checks ahead of a vegetable market


The evidence is in the streets. In Abu Dhabi, lampposts advertise beds, cots or bunk beds (choice between top or bottom) in a shared room. The posts are handwritten and blunt: women only, or Filipinos only. Elsewhere, children turn the space between buildings into playgrounds. Baqalas sell fish sauce and poppadoms, and on Friday nights the plaza by Madinat Zayed shopping centre is like an airport terminal, buzzing with multiple tongues. Abu Dhabi can hammer visitors with bling, but thanks to the evolving marriage between locals and non-residents, there’s grit and bite, too.

Recently I have thought that we need a word to encapsulate the lives of voluntary and involuntary transients – to help express why their memories matter to cities long after they’ve gone. When I unexpectedly returned to Abu Dhabi in 2015, my partner and I lived on Saadiyat Island in faculty housing. The adjustment was difficult. I couldn’t find many people on campus who remembered an older city. Mentally, it was as though I couldn’t return to the city I had left, as though someone had changed the locks to my home without telling me.

Then in December 2015, I ran into another old colleague of mine and Iqbal’s from the Indian School, Vikram Shetty, who crushed my spine because that’s how he hugs. “I miss football,” I told him. He took my number and the next week gave me a call. “There’s a game happening,” he said.

A clothes shop in the Hamdan Street area


  • A shop in the Hamdan Street area

Vikram was the son of a man named NS Shetty who arrived in Abu Dhabi in 1967 and, after a few stints in sales, set up a stationery business. In 2003, he developed a heart condition and Vikram, then working in a call centre in Bangalore, was asked to return. Vikram’s mother, Shakunthala, had worked at Abu Dhabi Marine Operating Company for 25 years, was diagnosed with dementia, and by 2009 Vikram had lost both parents – eight years too early to meet their grandson, Siddharth, who drew his first breath in Abu Dhabi.

Recently I asked Vikram whether he would choose permanent residency in Abu Dhabi, if the option existed. Yes, he said, smiling. And if he had to go? “Leave my soul here; my body will be somewhere else,” he said.

Another word is needed for these people who trained to leave their home behind. Expatriate isn’t right. Neither is migrant. And guest worker just feels cold, almost euphemistic.

Conversations about residence permits in Canada or the States is a privilege only few can afford


  • Conversations about residence permits in Canada or the States is a privilege only few can permit themselves

An hour or two before game time, every Sunday and Wednesday night, I get a text or a phone call from Shahneel, Felix or Suby. We confirm the game colours, then they pick me and those who need a lift up and ferry us to the Dome, near Zayed Sports City, to play for an hour on a pitch that doesn’t help our backs.

Before kick-off, we put on our armour – knee straps, shin pads, ankle guards – and make a show of stretching and warming up. The younger players don’t bother: they still believe the human body is indestructible. Some of us pre-emptively apply Deep Heat to our inflamed backs and hamstrings before we’ve even kicked anything. Others nervously pat what’s not right. Shakeel has torn both ACLs. Pibin’s groin needs time. Nazar’s ankle is a mess.

In the hour that follows, we cuss and fight and wheeze and run. Nothing matters then – though, silently, fathers are thinking of their children, husbands are thinking of their wives, sons are thinking of their parents.

Deepak Unnikrishnan, centre, with his teammates – most of whom are Indian School alumni


  • Deepak Unnikrishnan, centre, with his teammates – most of whom are Indian School alumni

A match in progress at the Dome, near Zayed Sports City.


Game time for Deepak and friends


The men I play with are mostly Indian School alumni aged from 20 to more than 40, but there are other men from different backgrounds. They are jobseekers, bankers, engineers and IT specialists. I have passed the ball to a dentist, and then tripped a psychiatrist who once played a terrorist on film. I have played with men who have businesses selling clothes or jewellery or construction materials.

In the process, I’ve realised these men are also walking repositories of Abu Dhabi’s migrant memory. They remember the old street names and the new ones. They know the short cuts, or who to call to get discounts or better customer service. They are not only street smart, they’ve got street cred. And almost all of them are the children of parents from elsewhere.

It was at one of these football games that I finally ran into Iqbal again. He was surprised to see me, and I was surprised to see him, because in Abu Dhabi you never know who gets to stay.

“Still here?” I asked.

“Born here, I’ll die here also,” he said.

But Iqbal was running out of time and options. He was let go by his company, and worries about his wife and two sons, aged 10 and just 10 months, as well as his mother, who lived with the family. Itchy had become a parent, with new priorities. “In the present situation,” he said, “I’m thinking to move about.”

There were pauses as we spoke, neither of us knowing how to plug the silence with anything reassuring. It was not that Iqbal had given up. It was just that he had become hyper-aware of where his world was heading. “But if you could stay,” I pressed gently, “would you?”

“Used to this place,” he said. “People also.”

Deepak Unnikrishnan is the author of the novel Temporary People. He teaches at New York University, Abu Dhabi.

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