The People of The UAE – hello 2021: Discover the stories of 5 people living and working in the UAE

We are delighted to return with another edition of The People of The UAE – The HUNTR’s exclusive storytelling series, which aims to spotlight the various cultures and people residing in this beautiful country we call home.

The People of The UAE – hello 2021: Discover the stories of 5 people living and working in the UAE

After a seriously strange, life-altering year in 2020, The HUNTR’s contributing editor Zeashan finds out how five people living and working in the UAE have coped. Joyfully, we find a heap of positivity and enthusiasm for 2021, some silver linings from 2020 – plus some great recommendations of these folks’ secret gems and favourite places. So get yourself cosy and dive straight in…


The People of The UAE – hello 2021: Discover the stories of 5 people living and working in the UAE

Najla Al Ansari

Emirati, @najlaalansari

“Wake up every day with a great smile. Once you control your mindset, everything else follows…”

Can you introduce yourself to our readers? What do you do here and what is one thing we should know about you?

I’m from Sharjah but most importantly – I am a citizen of the world. I founded NOT A SPACE in Sharjah where we create unique experiences for people. Here in Sharjah, we house a barbershop, a parlor, hospitality, and a specialty coffee shop. We also have events that we like to activate throughout the year.

What about your work makes you most proud?

One of the many things we do here is creating experiences for people. It’s all about listening to people and what they want. (And as we’re still in the pandemic) A lot of people wanted to disconnect and reconnect. So I’ve brought NOT A SPACE to the desert, it’s an unexplored beautiful gem that’s located in Sharjah. One of the mountains behind us is called Al Faya where we’re going to be all winter. What my team and I love to do is to create experiences for the community so they can relate, interact, and engage with us – but also to connect with other people. One thing that I always make sure to do is to connect friends and let their stories be shared with the rest of our communities.

NOT A SPACE was actually a dream realized after effortless nights talking to different people and learning how they also wanted something different. I’m an ex-government employee (one of the biggest projects I did was the Sharjah Entrepreneurship Festival) and after leaving, I decided I wanted to do something more creative at a level where I had my freedom, pace, and fun while also making it very true to an authentic experience for people to be part of.

Can you share your secret gems with us. They can be nostalgic or new, open or closed – restaurants and cafes, galleries and salons, outdoor spots, beaches – whatever makes your heart sing...

The mountains in Sharjah. These are the places where I can call everyone to come, visit, and explore the different gems here. Whether it’s hiking, biking, or even paragliding – there are different things to do over here. Right behind our NOT A SPACE Pop-Up is the Al Faya Lodge. It’s a one-of-its-kind boutique hotel that has its own pool and great views of the sunset.

One of the reasons we set up our pop-up here for the winter is that moon and the sun is on opposite sides. You get the full experience of a great view with the camels walking slowly behind us.

There’s a lot of other secret gems in Sharjah. I love exploring – whether it’s by road or hiking in the mountains, there’s something for everyone. We’ve got an area called Muweilah (where the flagship NOT A SPACE outlets are located) which I like to call ‘M-Town’. It has a lot of home grown businesses that cater to the community – whether it’s a specialty coffee shop or restaurant. One of my favourites is Paper Fig. They offer such tasty and clean food that I recommend everyone to try out.

What are your hopes for the new year? What are you most excited about doing?

My hope is to keep going and find the next best spots in the city where NOT A SPACE can setup. It will be another secret gem – whether it’s on the beach maybe, or in the desert, or maybe in space. Our hopes are very high and we will continue doing what the community wants – as we answer their questions of “what’s next?”

Do you have a message for everyone that you’d like to share?

Wake up every day with a great smile. Once you control your mindset, everything else follows. You get to signal to the rest of your body that anything is possible. If you put the right mind-set to something, everything is possible. We just proved to everyone that you can create a positive space even out here in the desert in the middle of nowhere and have our local communities get together and share positive vibes and have fun.

Walk us through your perfect day

A typical day is to have great music early in the morning, meet people, and learning their stories. I am looking to connect with others or give someone a platform to share. I love connecting with people and traveling around. But most importantly, is coffee coffee coffee. It keeps me refueled and helps me keep going.


The People of The UAE – hello 2021: Discover the stories of 5 people living and working in the UAE

Ramie Murray

Scottish, @dibbabay

“…We always come back stronger. That’s what I’d like to remind everybody.”

Can you introduce yourself to our readers? What do you do here and what is one thing we should know about you?

I’m the Founder and CEO of East Coast Shellfish, which is the produce of Dibba Bay Oysters. I’m Scottish but I grew up in Dubai, spent most of my life here. I’m an oyster farmer.

What about your work makes you most proud?

The thing I love about oyster farming is the satisfaction of growing something that people use to celebrate moments and treat themselves. It’s really a great feeling to grow something, which people eat and enjoy. I got into oyster farming not entirely deliberately. I got into it by starting a lobster farm in Oman, actually. We were trialing different species and didn’t expect a lot when we did the trial with oysters, because they aren’t traditionally farmed in this part of the world. It was a fantastic success and we realized we were onto something. It just kind of grew from there.

Can you share your secret gems with us? They can be nostalgic or new, open or closed – restaurants and cafes, galleries and salons, outdoor spots, beaches – whatever makes your heart sing...

There was a fish restaurant in a porta-cabin, just up the coast from Dibba Bay, that I always loved. I used to love going there. They would just have these plastic seats outside. It was all about fresh looking fish, just simply prepared really well. What I wanted to do was create something similar to my local oyster brand. So this is what we’ve done here – we’ve created our own local gem. We’ve got these locally grown oysters, this converted shipping container (that houses the Dibba Bay Oyster Shack in Dubai), we’re right in on the water in the fishing port in Umm Suqeim. I really hope people treat this as the new local gem they can come down to.

When I have visitors in the country, other than bringing them to our oyster farm across in Dibba, I adore taking them out to the water in Dubai. I’m a big sailor. I love getting out on the powerboat and just love getting out on the water. It gives you such a different perspective when you’re out on the water looking back at this amazing city. The Dubai skyline, the Palm, the World Islands – it’s just wonderful to look at from the water.

What are your hopes for the new year? What are you most excited about doing?

The positives coming out of last year was that we were able to refocus our business and started focusing on direct-to-consumer services. So we doubled-down and opened up the Dibba Bay shop in the middle of the pandemic because we felt there was a real opportunity here with home deliveries. People weren’t going to stop eating oysters or other things they liked. We believed in the city and its market. Opening during the pandemic was wonderful for us and we got great support. We’ve also recalibrated our business a little. We’re focused on retail which is quite different from before when all our focus on the hotels. Yes, Covid hit us but we’re coming out stronger.

With this new year, I just turned 40 on the first of Jan so I’m dealing with that. We’ve opened a second retail unit at The Pointe on the Palm and we’re expanding our farm in Fujairah so we’re ramping up production and starting exports, so that’s lots to look forward to in 2021. On a personal note, I’m looking forward to getting a vaccine and traveling again. I’m looking forward to traveling around the world, introducing the world to Dibba Bay Oysters.

Do you have a message for everyone that you’d like to share?

I grew up in Dubai. I’ve been here quite a long time. This city always bounces back stronger – that would be my message. We always come back stronger. That’s what I’d like to remind everybody.

Walk us through your perfect day

My ideal day is actually most of my days. I’m quite lucky with the job that I have. I live in Dubai with my family but the farm we have is across in Dibba in Fujairah, which is such a beautiful part of the country. So quite often, maybe 2-3 times a week, I get up early in the morning and drive across to Dibba. I get out on the boat and check out the oyster bed, I check in with everybody over there, and then I come back to Dubai where I check in on our commercial office, I come down to the port to check on our shop. Then I might go and meet some chefs in restaurants around town. It’s a really varied day which I adore.


The People of The UAE – hello 2021: Discover the stories of 5 people living and working in the UAE

Monique Belle

British, @monbelle

“One of the things I love about Dubai is how it’s so rich in culture in terms of the kinds of people who come through…”

Can you introduce yourself to our readers? What do you do here and what is one thing we should know about you?

My friends call me Monbelle. I’ve been in Dubai for about 11 years. I run and own an entertainment company called Those Guys Events. Basically what we do is we provide entertainment to a number of incredible venues around the city. Our selection is across a variety of music, from DJs and live performers. I’ve been running Those Guys for about 6 years now. When I came out to Dubai, I started working with a large hotel brand and from there I kind of moved around the event industry and saw it from different angles and perspectives – from event training through to actual event management, and then entertainment management and then to the creation of event brands and marketing. I came out on the other side realizing that I needed to do this for myself so I took my little black book and laptop and set up Those Guys. It’s the best thing I’ve done, to be honest.

What about your work makes you most proud?

I love what I do. I love being able to bring people together, especially in a city that’s such a big melting point with different people and cultures. I love being able to provide safe spaces for people to party and be themselves – this is something I’m really proud of. At the moment, we’re working with a great venue called The Bungalow which is down at La Mer next to the waterpark. We head up all of the venue’s entertainment throughout the week and then on Fridays we have a special event that we run under Those Guys called Evry Frday, which is just a really nice weekend party. We have some incredible DJs, who we’ve worked with before – we’ve got Parvané who’s an incredible DJ, Capitano GB who covers everything from R&B to hip-hop to afrobeats to UK hip-hop and grime. We have Megatronic, who is an incredible artist in her own right and has travelled the world and played stages as big as Glastonbury. We also have 1TakeNnandos who is a Dubai-based DJ and great selector. This makes up our little Friday family down at the Bungalow.

Can you share your secret gems with us? They can be nostalgic or new, open or closed – restaurants and cafes, galleries and salons, outdoor spots, beaches – whatever makes your heart sing...

One of the things I love about Dubai is how it’s so rich in culture in terms of the kinds of people who come through (whether it’s short or long term), the kind of people you get to meet, your Dubai family who you get to pick and choose (which is great.)

Also, being in a city that is just always changing, growing, and evolving – a lot of new things just come up.

There’s quite a few places that I like to get lost in. I like the old side of Dubai, on the other side of Maktoum Bridge. When you go down to places in Bur Dubai and Deira, you find a lot of history down there. From the souks and spice stalls to the dhow cruises that take you around the creek.

A little guilty pleasure of mine is that I like to create suits and shirts for myself, so being able to go to that side of town and check out all the different tailors and fabrics or just things I wouldn’t normally get in Jumeirah or Satwa for example, it’s like a little adventure for me. That coupled with some of the more authentic restaurants there, it’s definitely worth spending a long afternoon and evening down there.

In terms of places that are “newer” (I call them the newer side of Dubai – the Marina-JLT-JBR-side), there’s a great little coffee and workspace in JLT named House of Monte Cristo (in MAG 214, Cluster R). It’s a really great space. It has good coffee, it’s quiet, their music selection is really good and they’re looking to bring some artists down and do some activations soon. It’s a nice new business that’s come up. That’s one of the things I love about being here. Dubai is a place that nurtures small and medium businesses. As a business owner myself, being able to support your friends and other small businesses is something I’m really passionate about.

What are your hopes for the new year? What are you most excited about doing?

2020 was a trip, for sure. It was hard, I’m not going to lie. There was a good chunk of time where events completely shut down. I took that time to regroup and sleep. Whilst it was difficult, it was also really beneficial for me to take stock of what I’ve done.

2021 is definitely set up to be a fantastic year – a much better year than what I had planned for 2020! We’re going into this new year with brand new events and a lot of new venues have partnered with us, so we’re looking to run a few different parties in the city. This is great because it opens up to a lot of talent in Dubai. There’s a lot of live musicians and incredible DJs that I’ve been wanting to work with for a while. So with being able to have these spots across different venues – The Bungalow down at La Mer, some stuff in Business Bay, and JBR, we are able to reach out to a lot more diverse talent.

Do you have a message for everyone that you’d like to share?

It’s the same thing that I say to myself – I feel like last year, yes it was hectic, but I would like to think that we’re able to focus a lot more on our self-care and our mental wellbeing. We were able to really understand what is actually important to us. Sure, we all need money to put electricity through our houses, food on our table, and biscuits in our dogs’ bowl, but it’s important for us to really truly have that work-life balance which is something that I massively struggled with before the pandemic came in. I’ll be honest, it’s something that I’m worried about losing going into 2021 and beyond. I feel like we need to make ourselves our primary focus before anything else and just make sure we’re taking care of ourselves, and without sounding too 90s Jerry Springer – each other as well!

Walk us through your perfect day

I wake up around 9-ish or 10, depending on what the previous night was in terms of work. Obviously, with the events, they run late into the evening and I can often be up quite late just getting a few things done with emails and things like that. I normally head out for breakfast maybe down at either Nightjar which is in Alserkal Avenue, or perhaps Amongst Few – I like their breakfast offerings. Then I’ll probably be out for a few meetings or I might decide to stay there for pretty much the whole day and get some work done, even though I do my little home sanctuary, it’s nice to get a bit of a change of scenery and I’ll get to just be a little bit more focused and my dog, Ms. Ziggy, won’t necessarily distract me with cuddles during the day.


The People of The UAE – hello 2021: Discover the stories of 5 people living and working in the UAE

Salem Faisal Al-Qassimi

Emirati, @salqass

“…I think with all the social media and crazy amount of artificial connectivity, we need to rethink our priorities and do what we want to do, and try to focus on what really is important for us….”

Can you introduce yourself to our readers? What do you do here and what is one thing we should know about you?

I am a graphic designer and the Founder and Principal of Fikra. I am an educator and currently teach at New York University, Abu Dhabi. I am currently teaching photography but I also teach design. I am from the UAE. I was born and raised in Sharjah, I lived and worked abroad for a few years and came back.

What about your work makes you most proud?

The impact of the work we do at Fikra is extremely rewarding. I really like and enjoy seeing progress in other people in their businesses and their education.

Fikra is a group of different things. It started off as a graphic design studio in 2006 and it started because there weren’t a lot of experimental and research-driven design studios, let alone a design studio that specialized in Arabic and bilingual graphic design, which we eventually became known for. In 2017, we opened up Fikra Campus, which is a co-working space, a café, a design/art library, a gallery space, and a rooftop. We also have year-long educational programs and three-month designer residency programs. In 2018, we also launched the first graphic design biennial in the region – the Fikra Graphic Design Biennial.

Can you share your secret gems with us? They can be nostalgic or new, open or closed – restaurants and cafes, galleries and salons, outdoor spots, beaches – whatever makes your heart sing...

The spaces I’m really interested in fall in two different extremes – they are the spaces that are calm (basically the desert, I really like the desert) or a very busy side of the city. I like the spaces that make you forget where you are. Sometimes the desert does that, sometimes a specific restaurant or café does that. It’s usually not because of the way it looks, but the way it made you feel.

There’s a neighborhood called Maysaloon in Sharjah where there’s a specific restaurant – Special Kabab Ahmed Ali, it’s a great place. Not a lot of people know it.

There’s also Sadaf Restaurant, I love Sadaf. I go there specifically for their falooda. It’s amazing. It’s probably one of the nicest things for me, I don’t know why but I absolutely love it.

Also at Fikra, we discovered a falafel place nearby called Filfila. It’s a great falafel place.

There are other places that I think are amazing which people must visit – the newly opened Flying Saucer in Sharjah (and in general, anything of the Sharjah Art Foundation spaces, Al Hamriya, the Rain Room, etc.)

I also think Khor Fakkhan is a great spot to visit especially now with the weather being so good and post-Covid lockdown. I think people have been trying to escape where they’ve been working and a lot of people have been going to Khor Fakkhan – it is a beautiful place with great scenery. People go hiking there too.

I also love running by the University City. There are a lot of good running tracks there – I run in that area a lot.

What are your hopes for the new year? What are you most excited about doing?

One thing that happened in 2020 was we finally decided to open our publishing department at Fikra and published one book already and we’re hoping to publish a few more books in the coming months. We’ve wanted to publish some books in the past but couldn’t do them for various reasons, and now we’re looking forward to publishing them.

I really do believe in allowing processes to dictate where the future will take us. We do not know what 2021 will bring, but we are sure that a lot of things will come up, we need to be flexible and be able to evolve as fast, and probably even faster than our environment. At Fikra, we have a set strategy that we’re driving towards, however, we are flexible enough to allow the process to lead us there. For this year in particular, it is our 15th year anniversary. We have a few things happening that we are hoping to announce soon, and are also trying to see if we can have the biennial this year, since it was postponed in 2020. There are a few other things we’re working on which, in’sha’Allah, will be announced soon.

Do you have a message for everyone that you’d like to share?

The past year made me realize how dependent we are becoming on social media. I see how we do things with social media and it’s always on my mind (whether it is business or personal), therefore I decided to slow down and cut down my dependence on it. I did not disconnect completely, but I use it in moderation. And most importantly, I try to not use it as the medium to stay in touch with people. I try to call them up instead or meet up with them if we can physically, otherwise see them on Zoom.

I feel like a lot of people have been posting because they felt like they needed to be posting something. I’ve felt that way as well.

Also, this year made me question the things that I am doing — it helped me shift my priorities and reflect properly. I even questioned my career path, and whether I wanted to do design for the rest of my life or not (the answer is yes, I do, so far…) But really, I think with all the social media and crazy amount of artificial connectivity, we need to rethink our priorities and do what we want to do, and try to focus on what really is important for us. If there is something that we would really like to do, then we should not waste time and really go for it and work towards it.

Walk us through your perfect day

I generally wake up at around 4-6.30 am depending on the day. There’s little distraction so I use this time to catch up on emails, things I was not able to finish, or use the time to work on new ideas and projects, etc.

For me, breakfast is really important — like, extremely important. If I don’t have breakfast, my entire day is ruined. It’s a very important ritual at 7 am with my own coffee and most probably oatmeal.

Recently I got a puppy so I walk her in the morning at around 7.30am and then I start work at around 9 am — if I’m teaching that day I prepare or do school work. I generally tend to work until 5 or 6 pm after which I exercise (recently I’ve been going to the gum during lunch break and I am finding it much better). If I run, I’ll only run in the evening or super early morning. Later on, I’ll either watch TV or read a book and fall asleep at around 10-11.30pm.


The People of The UAE – hello 2021: Discover the stories of 5 people living and working in the UAE

Didi Browne

British, @iamdidibrowne

“Positivity going out into the world does come back to you…Things always get better…”

Can you introduce yourself to our readers? What do you do here and what is one thing we should know about you?

Name’s Didi Browne. I was born and raised in London, UK and I’ve lived in Dubai now for almost 4 years. It’s home now, I love it here. By profession, I’m a corporate consultant and I was headhunted to come out and do some work with a large firm in Dubai. I remember, I landed here the day before Ramadan started and I fell in love with Dubai immediately. So I decided to stay here, bring my businesses here, live, and enjoy the lifestyle in Dubai. My businesses cover four main areas – the first one is food and beverages. We own two commercial kitchens in the JLT area and we work with brands to help their meal plans, preparations, and online deliveries on this side of the town. I also do events. We’ve run a few event nights around town where we’ve brought some international artists to perform. I also ran a burger brand with a close friend of mine, Monique, called Oh Brgr which was the UAE’s first Caribbean inspired burger joint.

What about your work makes you most proud?

I dabble in a lot of different things… I suppose you might call me an entrepreneur.

Can you share your secret gems with us? They can be nostalgic or new, open or closed – restaurants and cafes, galleries and salons, outdoor spots, beaches – whatever makes your heart sing...

I’m very into culture, especially as I’ve decided to make this my home. So I like to find the people who live here – the locals who were raised here. I love to go to places where I can get a real artisan feel of Dubai and the people in it. I love visiting Alserkal Avenue – some of my favourite places in it are Nightjar Coffee, which is amazing, I love the coffee, I love the people in it, the owner is a really great guy. I’m a bit of a sneakerhead so tend to buy all my sneakers from The Good Life, I love them.

I also like to go to the other side of town. When I first arrived here, I intentionally got myself lost in Deira just so I could walk around and know the backstreets and visit the little cafés. Everyone should know of Arabian Tea House, which is a beautiful place with really good food and a really authentic feel.

Another place I like to visit is The Kana Café in Business Bay (there’s a few of them but the one in Business Bay is my favourite). I shouldn’t recommend Shisha, it’s bad for you – but, I love to go down there.

On the other side of things, I do like pool and beach days. My favourite beach is Kite Beach and my current favourite pool day spot is Train Beach which is in La Mer. If you haven’t been, do go there. It’s an amazing spot. You can work out in the morning, they have great healthy food as well. They also have a lovely scenic pool and beach area as well.

What are your hopes for the new year? What are you most excited about doing?

Well, it’s a whole new year. Who knows what’s going to come. In Dubai, events are now opening up again. There are so many artists who haven’t worked in the last 9 months who are looking to get back into the events space. I’m looking forward to bringing live music back to Dubai and helping local artists. Even international artists – to bring them here and give them a platform to showcase their talent. I also have an acai bar and coffee shop that’s opened up called House of Monte Cristo. Do come through to check out some really healthy fully vegan acai bowls. You can also see some local artists’ work displayed on curation, which you can even pick up if you want to support some local artists.

Do you have a message for everyone that you’d like to share?

This is going to sound really metaphysical but I truly believe in the power of frequency and the power of energy. Positivity going out into the world does come back to you. Now, it’s impossible to be positive all the time. You can allow yourself to be down but remember that change is constant. No matter what you’re feeling today, that will change tomorrow. Things always get better. Things get worse but they’ll get better again. So be grateful, be happy, and say “I love you” to the people around you. It’s very important.

Walk us through your perfect day

There’s a bunch of different things I do here. I’m really into fitness and into healthy eating. First thing in the morning when I wake up, I like to have a little breakfast, go to the gym, and do a little workout. But one of the main things that I’ve been doing, and this especially came out during the Covid lockdown, is walking. I love walking. I can’t stress enough how important walking is. I happen to live in the Marina so I’m lucky enough to have a view to walk around every day. 

I’m a big fan of art, culture, and music. There are so many great local, homegrown artists in the UAE. You have people like Hamdan Al Abri – a great Emirati performer, Layla Kardan, there are too many to name. That’s essentially what I do with my free time. If there’s a local artist playing somewhere, I just go and support. You can’t show enough support for the local artists. If there’s any gig, you’ll find me there.


Photography and interviews by Zeashan Ashraf exclusively for The Huntr