Photo: Evan El-Amin/Shutterstock

I'm an American Expat Living in Dubai, Here's What It's Like to Watch the US Election

Dubai Activism
by Ann Benjamin Aug 22, 2016

Back in November 2008, I was working for a multi-national consulting firm, located on Sheikh Zayed Road in the heart of Dubai. I distinctly remember more or less running to work — at 10 hours ahead of central standard time, this scene was unfolding live for me around 8 AM — logging onto my computer and anxiously pulling up the live stream from CNN so I could watch what would happen to my country.

And then, President-Elect Barack Obama gave his acceptance speech to delighted crowds in Chicago. I didn’t expect to get emotional (especially not at work), but happy tears ran down my face. With the election called, coworkers of all nationalities stopped by my desk to personally congratulate me on the historic win. Senior partners who I didn’t think even knew my name made a special point to give their regards.

All day, I felt a sense of ‘yes, we can.’

And now I wonder, ‘How did we get here?’

The pride, hope, and promise from the campaign of 2008 has all but evaporated. With an election cycle starting earlier than I can remember any previous one beginning, when I wake up every morning I roll over and check my phone. I have two ongoing fears as I scan through the pictures and announcements, jokes and memes: 1. That there has been another mass shooting, and 2. That Trump has said something even more cringe-worthy than his last idiotic statement.

I single Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump out for a couple of reasons, none more important than the fact that he is representing America and other Americans. His statements, actions, and decisions — whether I would vote for him or not — exemplify my country. The soundbites picked up by international media outlets erode how the world views the United States, a country I am a proud citizen of. When a man who could officially represent my country says he wants to build a wall between the US and Mexico, I want him to know those statements are now part of the conversation involving America, at home and abroad. When a presidential nominee says that he would ban all Muslim immigrants, and I live in a predominantly Muslim country, how am I supposed to explain to other world citizens that I completely disagree with his xenophobic rhetoric?

Increasingly in the past few months, with Americans and non-Americans, my conversations have often seemed to find their way to this toxic representation of the United States. Because I live in the Middle East, I am (mostly) spared from the overwhelming presence of the 24-hour news cycle, but I still see what friends post on social media and how polarizing these candidates are. Friends that are not or have not been particularly political in the past are flat out saying, ‘Enough is enough.’

Here in Dubai, American expats cope in different ways. A good friend recently said she is ‘literally obsessed’ with watching Trump and all his crazy actions. She claims to spend an hour or more a day going through news websites. Her actions leave me to wonder, would she do this with another candidate? Would she obsess this way if she lived in the States?

And then there was another young woman, an acquaintance, whom I met earlier in the year in Dubai. She became a Trump supporter all the way back in March. I was literally speechless when I heard her say this. By and large, the circles I seem to keep with other American expats tend to be overwhelmingly liberal — read into that what you will about what it takes to be an expat. For fear of getting angry and ruining brunch for everyone, I had to literally turn away from this woman. My curious husband asked why she was going to vote for Trump, and she never gave a clear answer. When I say ‘no clear answer,’ I mean that it was obvious she was just voting on her core Republican values, she had no specific preference for the candidate himself.

As an expat in the Middle East, I’m actually grateful to not have the 2016 election in my face all the time. I don’t have to watch political ads, and because we live many hours apart, I can choose what I want to view and when I want to view it. And, terrible citizen that I am, I can choose to ignore much of the controversy.

There isn’t really a local news source here, or, at least, not one that I watch regularly. Certainly, I have access to Al Jazeera (English), SkyNews, CNN and other international news sources, but much of the local news is broadcast in Arabic, which I do not speak. Therefore, my news comes from the bulletins delivered on the hour (by one of the local English radio stations) and whatever the news service can fit into one minute.

What do you think makes it on the airwaves?

In the States, there is time for discourse and research and opinions of all levels, but if a country is broken down to a short news clip every other day or so, how will it be remembered? How will it be described? And how will others hear that information? What opinion will they form of a place they’ve never been to, but have maybe seen in television and movies? As we get closer to the debates, I sincerely worry for the reputation of the United States.

Maybe everyone sees this. Maybe everyone looks at their friends, regardless of where they are in the world, and has the same view I do. Maybe people are smart enough to say, ‘That isn’t the whole picture.’ Maybe everyone (who is eligible) has registered to vote and will make their voice heard in November.

I was at another brunch a few weeks ago and got into a spirited debate with an Indian national and a New Zealander about the upcoming US election. The young Indian woman had been educated at an American university, but, without any prompting from me, declared she couldn’t see herself voting for Hillary Clinton. ‘Why?’ I asked. (Because honestly, I am always confused by any woman who would even consider voting for a misogynist like Trump.) And, like many Americans, she didn’t have an actual answer. All this was a moot point, as she is not legally able to vote in the US, but what struck me most was how much she clearly didn’t understand it was MY country she was talking about. What the stakes were. What was amusing or crazy to her and the New Zealander was absolutely terrifying to me. Similarly, when I posted about the election on social media to friends, it was not Americans who chimed in, rather it was my international friends who answered. Everyone seemed to have the same opinion: the current US presidential race is like watching a circus.

A circus? A dysfunctional reality show? Is that how we want to be viewed in the world?

The same country where eight years ago, when my American husband was in Cairo, and upon President Obama’s win, received texts from around the world and messages of hope from colleagues and friends.

I cannot honestly imagine any local co-workers or friends being proud of us, should Trump be elected. I wouldn’t expect to hear messages of pride and optimism. After the recent Brexit vote, my British friends seem beaten down and desperate, wondering what is going to happen to their country. I don’t want to go through the same thing. I don’t want four years of explaining and apologizing to everyone I meet.

So, yes, America, other countries are watching. And they are judging. And you have citizens who are outside the United States, who carry blue passports and represent you abroad. I take my nationality seriously. On a recent trip across the border to Oman, my husband and I were respectful individuals — being certain to act in a manner that not only our respective parents would be proud of, but also that says, ‘All that craziness might be going on where we come from, but let us show you that not every American is that way.’ We can greet immigration officials in Arabic, and thank them in the same language. We don’t have to attack or tear others down.

So, as an American expat, I implore you, make us proud in November. Give us something good to share with the world.

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