Illustration by Cadence Cheah.

1001 nights: Navigating Abu Dhabi as an International Student at NYUAD

As students of NYU Abu Dhabi, we interact with the city and the local Emirati culture in a highly limited way. What kind of cultural forces determine such an engagement and what is the way forward?

Nov 13, 2021

There is an obvious disconnect between international students and Abu Dhabi beyond physical distance. There are many factors that impair the students’ ability to integrate into the larger city of Abu Dhabi and the UAE and the following is meant to speculate about a few. It should be noted that the subjects of this article are intended to be a sweeping generalization of international students with no previous history in the UAE. Although individuals may feel or act differently, discussing these general ideas, patterns and conditions will aid in bettering them.
The first and most prominent reason is the parental outlook adopted by the institution. NYU Abu Dhabi presents the city in a field-trip like fashion, framing interactions through a touristic lens. The most inappropriate of these is the Orientalist trip to the desert which takes place during Candidate Weekend. The experience influences the relationship between students and Abu Dhabi. The Tripadvisor-like tone does not stop on admission. Marhaba — the introductory welcome week organized for first year students — usually includes similar university-led excursions that dictate the students' relationship to the city. The Class of 2025 was excused from such overbearing parenting as their Candidate Weekend and Marhaba were online. Despite the lack of such trips, students still visit Abu Dhabi suggesting that the funding the university spends on ineffective touristy trips might be better spent elsewhere.
Financial dependence is another factor affecting student interactions with the city. While on one hand, Falcon Dirhams, or what many students call “monopoly money,” ensure students have access to things they need, on the other, it limits students to a closed market on campus. Why would you seek an alternative, or even leave campus, when there are “free” options? The other option — to “explore” the city — is often taken up by students is to interact with the city through classes. However the positionality of the university with relation to Abu Dhabi is such that these classes use the city as content, reinforcing the position of the East as content that can be exploited by the West(ern university), as it gains the authority to discuss and dissect this content from only a brief trip — not too removed from armchair anthropology.
Furthermore, American cultural imperialism on campus alienates students by creating a cultural environment that is isolated from the wider city. Defined as “values, practices and meanings of a powerful foreign culture that are imposed upon … native cultures”, imperialism, in this case, is not about the substance of the imposed ideologies and practices but the approach. With the second largest community on campus being the U.S. American students 8 percent in the class of 2025, the U.S. American social advocacy stances that take over campus are out of place within their larger geographical and cultural context. For example, it can seem tone deaf when these students are horrified by the professional clothing restrictions at certain public places while some off-campus peers struggle with autonomy of their own bodies. This lack of understanding and, at times, unwillingness to understand sociocultural context creates dissonance between the culture on campus and the city. This attitude relates to students' interaction with Abu Dhabi as it is difficult to shed this mindset when interacting with the city. This only serves to explain why some students may feel isolated from Abu Dhabi. In a way, they are not really living in it. International students have the privilege of isolating themselves from the social issues that concern everyone else in Abu Dhabi, and they do.
Thirdly, the existence of a curated narrative surrounding Emirati culture affects how students view and interact with the city. Culture is perhaps felt more when hearing the adhan playing on campus (at least in Ramadan, which NYUAD refused to allow) than when tasting Emirati snacks. Students are not to blame: when put in a position to showcase their identity, as they are in various student groups and university-led projects, with the pressure of engaging and entertaining, there are only so many approaches they can take. This leads to reductive, stereotypical and superficial engagement.
The university puts responsibility on students to handle the implications of their decisions such as setting up student boards to shift responsibility which allows these issues to go unaddressed. If the university wishes to assist students through their integration with Abu Dhabi, the first step is understanding the culture. Culture is dynamic, non-homogeneous, more tribal than national (or more than just Emirati culture), depending on the perspective. Instead, the university reduces it, scratching their heads at why students feel removed from the larger city.
Fourthly, we must also review The Gazelle's role. It is important to discuss how NYUAD exists in the context of Abu Dhabi and this discussion was needed when the pronoun tool was added to Albert. Instead, The Gazelle published a misinformed, slanderous piece written by a non-Emirati, which was later apologized for by the subsequent Opinion Desk. This article was published perhaps due to students being so ignorant and assumptive of the national population that they validated Patas’ generalizing claims, the largest assumption being that there were no Emiratis who would benefit from the introduction of pronouns. This reflects an oversight in thinking about NYUAD within Abu Dhabi and resulting in the publication of stereotypes.
The publication also mirrors students' approach and attitudes towards the city in the content it creates. The “AD Secrets” series is well intended, but anyone familiar with the language of Orientalism can easily identify the “secrets” trope employed in mystifying and alienating the city. This language additionally implies “good things” are difficult to find in Abu Dhabi. Changing this narrative is essential in how students feel about their interactions with Abu Dhabi.
In conclusion, these are only a few of the many things affecting the way international students look at Abu Dhabi — and their role in it — as a city. Senior leadership is changing both in staff and faculty and we can only hope for more regional hires as well as internal promotions. With the restructuring of NYUAD staff and faculty, hopefully the necessary systematic changes will occur in order to help international students better integrate with Abu Dhabi. Whatever the relationship might be, it will soon no longer be a question of getting students to go to Abu Dhabi. As Abu Dhabi slowly inches its way to campus, these next years will be formative in policy and attitude.
Jude Al Qubaisi is a staff writer. Email her at
gazelle logo