Born in 1964 in Cairo, Egypt, Aboulela grew up in Khartoum, Sudan, where she attended the Khartoum American School and Sister School. She graduated from Khartoum University in 1985 with a degree in Economics and was awarded an MSc and an MPhil degree in Statistics from the London School of Economics.
In 1990 Aboulela moved to Aberdeen, where she started to write while looking after her children. Between 2000 and 2012, she lived in Jakarta, Dubai, Abu Dhabi, and Doha. She is currently living in Aberdeen