Home Away from Home: An International Student Guide to Dubai

campus life
culture shock
Heriot-Watt University Dubai
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By Kate H Knapp
Published on February 7, 2024

International students attending Heriot-Watt University Dubai will find a taste of home among its 200 nationalities living in the UAE.

Heriot-Watt University Dubai

The Dubai skyline towers stand tall above the Dubai Water Canals, not too far from Heriot-Watt University Dubai, a Shorelight university

With towering skyscrapers, a human-made island, serene beaches, daring architecture like the Museum of the Future, and global cuisines, Dubai is awe-inspiring for locals and visitors alike. As the most populated of the seven emirates of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Dubai is a true melting pot of diverse cultures. More than 200 nationalities from countries around the world — including India, China, Japan, Nigeria, Ethiopia, and Colombia, among others — call this metropolis home. International students attending Heriot-Watt University Dubai will have no trouble finding familiar scents, sounds, and flavors. 

Dubai’s Cultural Districts

Dubai is a newer city, built within the last few decades, and is divided into Old Dubai (historical Arabian architecture) and New Dubai (modern skyscrapers). Since such a large portion of its population represents other cultures, it is not uncommon to see signs in various languages throughout the city. 

Global Village, a theme park with dining, shopping, and entertainment, showcases 90 different cultures. Students living in Dubai who want to learn more about Emirati culture should visit the Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Centre for Cultural Understanding (SMCCU). If you are feeling homesick, take comfort in the knowledge that this diverse city has several restaurants and shops that will remind you of home.

Chinese Areas

As of 2022, there were approximately 150,000 Chinese people in Dubai, which means that international students won’t have to go far to find familiar flavors. There are Chinese restaurants, shops, bakeries, and markets across the city; additionally, two Chinese shopping malls make it easy to find Chinese culture within Dubai.

International City — Dragon Mart

Comprised of 10 residential buildings, each named after a different country, the area known as International City is where many Chinese people have chosen to reside. The neighborhood, bordering Silicon Oasis and Dubai International Academic City, is home to the Dragon Mart, the largest Chinese market and mall in Dubai. International students in search of a piece of home will find it here, since it is considered the “largest trading hub for Chinese products outside Mainland China.” The massive dragon-shaped building is filled with food, clothing, cooking ingredients, décor, and more. Dragon Mart 2, added to the original building, features an entertainment complex. 

Downtown Dubai — Dubai Mall Chinatown

The world’s largest mall, the Dubai Mall, has just added its very own Chinatown. The vibrantly decorated area, featuring red lanterns, neon lights, and hip-and-gable roofed storefronts is located on the first floor of the mall across from the ice rink. International students can choose from a variety of cuisines within its large food hall and many restaurants; shop for clothing and goods at a plethora of shops, including the tech Xiaomi; and see NFT art on display at an art gallery.

Asian Restaurants

Among the many Chinese restaurants available, Dubai also has Japanese, Thai, Vietnamese, Korean, and other types of Asian cuisine. These places make a great start to finding the flavors of home:

  • Sticky Rice — This family-run eatery serves traditional Thai cuisine in its small space, offering only six tables. 

  • Vietnamese Foodies — Dine on pho and other authentic dishes expertly made by owner and Executive Chef Lily Hoa Nguyen at several locations throughout the city.

  • Shogun Korean Bistro & BBQ — A longstanding favorite for Korean dishes, this spot features hot pot and an unlimited buffet. 

  • WAWA Dining — With an entrance designed to resemble an izakaya storefront in Tokyo, this Japanese restaurant sets the scene for authentic sushi, sashimi, ramen, and more. 

Asian Markets

If international students want to shop for familiar ingredients, these grocery stores, along with the Dragon Mart, sell a variety of imported goods:

  • 1004 Gourmet — This large Asian supermarket features a wide variety of meats, produce, imported food items, K-beauty products, and a dedicated non-Muslim section. The store also provides delivery, if needed. 

  • Hanarum — This Korean grocery sells meats, produce, pantry, and snack items, and offers free delivery, from its two locations. 

  • QKO Asian Market — This store sells a variety of Japanese, Korean, and Thai products.

Indian Areas

Since the Indian population is the largest ethnic group in Dubai — many of whom immigrated in the 1970s and 80s because of the oil boom and growth of free trade — Indian international students will be able to find the tastes of home in areas around the city. Bur Dubai can be a great place to start for those looking for community.

Bur Dubai 

As the oldest neighborhood in Dubai, Bur Dubai is not only worth visiting for its historic significance (especially the Al Fahidi Historical Neighborhood) but also because it is home to the Meena Bazaar, also known as “Little India.” Nestled between Al Fahidi Street and Khalid Bin Al Waleed Road, the market is a must-visit for Indian international students missing the sights and sounds of home. Hundreds of merchants gather here to sell South Asian wares, including traditional garments, shoes, jewelry, perfume, ceramics, and more, while street vendors offer affordable snacks, such as chaat or samosas. Those craving chicken tikka should stop in at Sind Punjab, which has been a favorite among the Indian community for years. 

If international students are looking for a particular spice or fabric that isn’t at the bazaar, they needn’t go far, as nearby Spice Souk has more than 150 small retailers selling traditional spices and teas, and Textile Souk offers an endless variety of raw silk, cotton, and embroidered materials.

The district of Al Karama in Bur Dubai is known for its lack of tall skyscrapers, as well as being a popular spot for South Indian and North Indian expats, making it one of the best places to go for traditional Indian cuisine. The Karama Market, featuring 300 shops across several buildings, is also worth a visit for those looking for affordable fashion. 

Indian Restaurants

Al Karama is home to many of Dubai’s best Indian restaurants, but traditional flavors can be found across the city. 

  • Maharaja Bhog — Check out this unassuming spot for vegetarian Rajasthani thali (plate) dishes.

  • Jaffer Bhai’s — Self-titled the Biryani King of Bombay, this restaurant lives up to its name at its several locations, including one in Al Karama. 

  • Calicut Paragon — Dine on affordable and award-winning South Indian specialties served at multiple locations. 

  • Mohalla — Meaning ‘my neighborhood,’ this eatery serves up street food favorites, such as avocado papdi chaatpani puri, and raj kachori.

  • Yummy Dosa — Locals know this is the spot in Karama for delectable dosas.

African Areas

Though Dubai doesn’t have one specific district or neighborhood dedicated to African culture, there is an abundance of African-run restaurants and stores peppered across the city, particularly in the areas of Deira, especially Abu Hail, and Al Quoz. International students will have no trouble finding a community of peers in these places.

African Restaurants

Dubai has a wide variety of African restaurants serving traditional cuisines, including Nigerian, Senegalese, Ethiopian, and Moroccan, among others.

  • Tribes — Located in the Dubai Mall, this casual eatery offers a fusion of flavors “taken from the African continent since the Tribal era, influenced by the Spice Islands of the East, the French in the West, the Malay and Dutch in the South, and the Arabic flavors of the North.” 

  • Al Habasha — Sourcing butter and traditional fermented bread (injera) from her home country of Ethiopia, Chef Sara Aradi has created an authentic place for Ethiopians to eat in Deira’s Abu Hail.

  • Zagol Ethiopian Restaurant & Bar — Considered one of the best Ethiopian restaurants in Dubai, Zagol serves traditional fare in a picturesque setting in Al Karama. 

  • KIZA Restaurant and Lounge — Celebrating African culture and cuisine through its music and flavors is the goal of this hip Dubai International Financial Center spot.

  • Chop House — This Nigerian restaurant is a popular spot among Dubai’s African locals who keep coming back for its traditional dishes such as pepper soups, spicy finger chops, and jollof rice.

  • Almadies — This beloved spot features traditional Senegalese food, including the country’s national dish, Thieboudienne (fish stewed in spiced tomato sauce and served over rice and vegetables).

African Markets

If international students want to shop for ethnic ingredients, these places sell a variety of imported goods:

  • Spice Souk — As mentioned above, this market is the place to find traditional spices and teas from all over the world.

  • Frank’s African Foods and Spices Shop — Shop at this African grocery store featuring imported goods, such as African crayfish, dry fish, palm oil, achu spices, egusi, etc.

  • African Shop — This store sells goods from East Africa, West Africa, South Africa, and the Caribbean.

Latin American Areas

The Latin American population living in Dubai may be small but the culture is well loved, meaning there are plenty of places for international students to find reminders of home. 

  • Fusion Ceviche — Authentic Peruvian dishes served in a cozy space decorated with Peruvian flags and postcards make this a favorite.

  • En Fuego — Live entertainment and fiestas accompany South American cuisine at this lively restaurant set in Atlantis, The Palm. 

  • Sucre — First opening in Buenos Aires in 2001, the location in Dubai serves authentic Argentinian cuisine in a stylish setting. 

  • El Malecon — Located in the Dubai Marine Beach Resort & Spa, this lively nightspot and eatery is known for Latin American sounds and flavors and its beachfront location. 

  • La Tiendita — Spend time in this café selling traditional Mexican sweets and beverages.

Feel at Home Without Leaving Campus

With more than 4,000 students representing 125 nationalities, Heriot-Watt University Dubai welcomes students from all over the world. The university encourages students to “experience new cultures, expand [their] horizons, and discover what it means to be a true global citizen,” and offers intercampus transfers for studying abroad at Heriot-Watt campuses in the UK and Malaysia. 

As a global university, Heriot-Watt University Dubai is aware that it can be hard for some to be so far away from home, which is why the school provides on-campus support for international students. The Dubai Student Service Centre helps with academics, housing, finances, visas, and more. The university’s social clubs can be a great way for new students to make friends and participate in school activities. 

For those students wanting help acclimating to the new surroundings, the college offers WattBuds. The university pairs new students with continuing students in their third or fourth year as a “buddy” to help with any questions or concerns. Big buds can “introduce Little Buds to university clubs and events, be a friendly person to chat with, advise Little Buds about other resources available on-campus, answer their general queries and guide them about things to do in Dubai.”

The Heriot-Watt campus is conveniently located in Dubai Knowledge Park, with easy access to the Dubai Metro and Tramway to explore the city. For further explorations, the campus is 30 minutes from the Dubai International Airport (DXB) — the world’s busiest airport for international travel, with more than 100 airlines flying to more than 240 destinations.

Finding a Home Away from Home

Thanks to its large population featuring such a wide variety of nationalities, Dubai is a place where almost anyone can feel welcome. International students attending college far away from their families won’t have to look too far to find a community of peers that reminds them of home. 

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