On the first day of my newly launched program to find things I like about Abu Dhabi, I spent the afternoon at the beach. A narrow strip of white sand hugs the corniche along the northwestern edge of the city, and on weekends it is crammed full of locals and foreigners alike, out to enjoy the sunshine and take a dip in the aqua-blue waters of the Persian Gulf. At midday when families come for lunch, laden with shopping bags full of bread and hummus, watermelon and potato chips, you can gawp at the peculiar juxtaposition of Emirati women in black abayas slogging through the sand with their skirts trailing and feeding themselves morsels of food beneath their veils, side by side with well-bronzed foreign women in string bikinis reclining on towels beside their pasty, pot-bellied husbands.
But on weekdays the beaches are quiet, populated mostly by white women alone or in pairs, occupying themselves while the men are at work by working on their tans and catching up on their Danielle Steel. An entrance fee of 5 dirhams admits you to a secluded stretch of sand reserved for families and females, where--if wearing an abaya at the beach is not your style--you can strip down to a swimsuit unmolested by the stares of the young male laborers who often gather on the free public beaches in nice weather to talk, eat, and fool around in the sand (but rarely to swim). Since the only other outdoor hangout spot I've ever seen them use is the grassy medians between lanes of speeding, honking traffic, I don't blame them for flocking to the beach whenever they can. But still, it's hardly pleasant to be leered at, and so yesterday I was happy to exercise the privileges of my Western status and pay a little money for some privacy.
However much you resist becoming that privileged Westerner, you will inevitably end up assuming that role on many occasions when you live in the Middle East. Social norms in the Arab world are powerful, and when they assign you a particular place in society based on your race, nationality, and way of dressing, it is nearly impossible to go against their decision.
So I lay on the beach, I swam, I sunbathed, I ate lunch, I luxuriated in the feeling of absolute idleness. While meanwhile, just beyond the margins of the sand, the city hummed with the pulse of hundreds of thousands of foreign workers from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, the Philippines, and Malaysia, Egypt and Syria and Yemen, sweating for long hours under the very same Abu Dhabi sun to build this country.