It’s 8pm on a Wednesday. The chat is buzzy, the wine is flowing, the nibbles are almost nibbled and the bar, with its tables filled, packs a vibrant atmosphere. I’ve got my usual seat, the big cosy one in the corner. I’m happy, relaxed, content… and completely alone. My company is my laptop; my conversation is via Facebook and my courage to be there snuggled in the back of the candlelit room is bolstered by the plonk beside me. I don’t think I smell, I don’t have any freakish characteristics (well, none I’m telling you about) and I don’t believe I’m unapproachable, but since moving to Dubai on my own five months ago, one thing I do feel is… loneliness. Before you start thinking I’m a bit of a weirdo, I need to highlight here that I’ve been lucky enough to make several lovely friends since my arrival. It’s just that sometimes I suffer pangs where I feel isolated, disconnected, small. Rather than sit in my room watching another episode of Holby City I’d like to go and have a drink and a chat, but then suddenly it hits me – I have no one to go with!
All by Myself
The reassuring news is that I’m not alone in my loneliness and, despite Dubai being a melting pot of singles, couples and families all finding their feet and forming their lives, the UAE is in the grip of a loneliness epidemic - with it being a huge issue for many people in their 20s to 40s. “Loneliness is like any other emotion,” explains life coach Adriana Mebarr (firstname.lastname@example.org), who moved to Dubai from South Africa five years ago. “It’s a state of mind that rules your overall mental state. It’s about feeling segregation and separation, and living without closeness and companionship.” Also, according to studies by the American Association for the advancement of Science, feeling alone can have a terrible effect on our health, weakening our immune systems, and can be as harmful to your wellbeing as smoking.
Of course, people can feel lonely everywhere, but Mebarr believes that the loneliness phenomenon is much more prominent in the UAE due to so many people being away from home. “Here in Dubai you no longer have the comforts of home; you’re left without the safeness of your family and the old friends who’ve grown up with you and that can leave you feeling isolated and without any care or support.” Oh, and there’s also that little thing called work to consider. “There’s a very hard-working culture within the UAE,” Mebarr continues. “The hours are long, the jobs are demanding and often there is no time to make friends properly, or to even find out where to start,” she says.
It was feelings like this that gave Rachel Morton, 32, the idea to launch Social Circles Dubai (socialcirclesuae.com), a social networking group that has monthly meetings and a website full of different activity groups. “Moving to a new country, starting a new job and getting a new routine can mean that your social life takes a back seat,” says Morton, who moved to the UAE in 2008 from LA. “I kept meeting people who felt quite alone so I came up with the idea to bring them all together.” Morton’s first event was a casual meet-up in a bar and attracted a handful of people, but three years on and the Social Circles Dubai site now has over 7,000 male and female members (plus families) of all different nationalities aged between 21–75. It works by encouraging visitors to create a profile, and gives them the option to join or create an activity group, of which there are currently 200, ranging from squash and camping to language exchanges and shisha groups.
Reports suggest that, worldwide, loneliness is becoming the norm. According to the American Sociological Review, the average American has only two close friends to confide in and, in the UK, alarming research found that depression between 18–34 year olds is on the rise and is caused by feelings of loneliness. A massive 53 per cent of people in the UK have reported suffering (and it’s affecting more women than men), and around 50 per cent said that society in general is lonelier.
In a bid to banish loneliness on both sides of the border, Anne Quinlan, 37, who moved to Dubai from the UK two years ago with her husband and three children, founded the social networking company Dubai Reunited (dubaireunited.com). “It’s hard to meet people when you move here and as Dubai is such a transient society with people always coming and going, it’s difficult to stay in touch with the friends you’ve made once they leave,” she says. With this in mind, Dubai Reunited runs events both here in Dubai and in London to reunite expats. “We’ve started with British expats (although any nationality can get involved) because that’s where we’re from, but we’re now looking to branch out to a Singapore and Hong Kong Reunited too.”
While the idea of joining a social networking group and being surrounded by more than stale peanuts at a bar is a desirable one, a problem I have is that, at 35 years old, I’ve forgotten how to make friends in the first place! My friends back home are those I’ve known for ever and, while I hate to admit it, the years have made me more fussy about who I’d actually like to hang out with. Thankfully, Mebarr doesn’t think I’m being an anti-social grump and confirms that these feelings are natural as you move out of your 20s. “When you’re younger it’s easier to make friends. You’re more open to new experiences and crave popularity.
Despite this, the answer for me doesn’t lie in continuing my social life from my laptop. Experts argue that while sites like Facebook and Twitter can bring closeness, they’re not enough to sustain the real relationships that fulfil our emotional needs. “Social networking sites work as a way of maintaining friendships, but not in the long run,” says Andrew McCulloch, chief executive of the Mental Health Foundation (mentalhealth.org.uk). “You need to see people or else you can’t create a solid bond.”
Of course, getting out there and forming friendships can feel daunting. However, Mebarr believes that the UAE comes with a hidden ‘gift’. “It throws you into your own ‘personal void’ which is uncomfortable,” she says. “With regard to other cultures, it forces you to accept other people’s differences more than you might in your home town. But if you adjust your way of thinking, you could go on to form friendships with people you’d never imagined. In terms of personal development, surely that’s a good thing?”