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Moving to Abu Dhabi

It may be true that expats move to Abu Dhabi for the tax-free wealth, but the reasons they stay are manifold. Azure waves gently lapping on pearly beaches; gorgeous mosques with towering minarets contrasted by glittering skyscrapers and surrounded by green spaces; a vibrant cosmopolitan metro infused with Arab tradition and hospitality; year-round sunshine; uber-modern shopping and entertainment venues... The list goes on. It's no wonder expats stay far longer than they initially anticipated.

Once a desert outpost dependent on pearl diving and fishing, the United Arab Emirates' capital and largest emirate has grown tremendously in the last two decades and emerged as an attractive destination luring foreigners from around the globe.

Having made an effort to diversify its economy over the last few years, and particularly since oil prices dropped so dramatically in 2015, there are many work opportunities available in Abu Dhabi in various sectors. Expats who are drawn to Dubai will find that the two emirates share many of the same characteristics, including a thriving expat community that greatly outnumbers the local population, a vibrant lifestyle and an extremely safe environment where crime and theft are rarities.

That said, life in Abu Dhabi progresses at a slower pace than in Dubai, and the city is often characterised as being more family friendly and better suited to those looking to settle down and stay a while. Not to mention, the UAE's capital is less built-up and boasts broader patches of greenery.

The largest concern expats moving to Abu Dhabi will have is suitable schooling for their children; while a number of reputable private international schools exist, shortages are common and admission competitive. It's important to start the enrollment process as early as possible.

For those enjoying the single life, or who are yet to have children, relocating is simply a matter of negotiating the right kind of contract in the face of a rising cost of living, waiting for the appropriate paperwork to come through, and then embarking on the period of cultural adjustment that always comes attached to life abroad.

Though the majority of those living in Abu Dhabi are foreigners, behaviour in the emirate is nonetheless mandated by the Islamic faith, and it's essential expats familiarise themselves with what to expect and learn to respect traditional Arab culture. In addition, expats living in Abu Dhabi will have to adapt to the stifling summer heat and the artificial air-conditioned cocoon in which the city enshrouds itself in this desert emirate.

Ultimately, though, expats tend to fall in love with Abu Dhabi's way of life, and even though salaries in the emirate might not be as astronomical and alluring as they once were, expats still make it work – many for the long haul.

Weather in Abu Dhabi

Adjusting to the weather in Abu Dhabi is a challenge that can be difficult for expats. 

While the emirate advertises its year-round sunshine and sparse rainfall as one of its most attractive qualities, expats should be forewarned that the constant blue skies bring with them extreme heat, particularly during summer (June to September).

Temperatures can average around 100°F (40°C) during this season, peaking in August. Many expats plan long family holidays during this period to escape the uncomfortably hot conditions. Though, if expats can't arrange some time away, most buildings are air-conditioned and maintain a cool temperature. 

On the other hand, the mild months (November to April) in Abu Dhabi are incredibly pleasant. Temperatures hover around 75°F (24°C), rarely dipping below 50°F (10°C) even on the coldest nights.

Expats should bring lightweight clothes, but nothing that’s too revealing. Abu Dhabi is the capital of an Islamic country and Westerners should respect Islamic law even if they are not bound by it. Thin sweaters, jerseys and jackets are enough to keep one warm during winter.

 

Pros and Cons of Moving to Abu Dhabi

As with any of the world's cities, life in Abu Dhabi is a mix of swings and roundabouts, peaks and troughs, ups and downs. In the end though, the pros of expat life in Abu Dhabi far outweigh the cons.

Relocation to any destination has its disadvantages and advantages, and expats will find that Abu Dhabi is no different. The better prepared a person is for the less appealing aspects of life abroad, the more successfully they’ll be able to adapt, and the more they'll enjoy the positives.

Below we've listed some of our pros and cons of living in Abu Dhabi.


Culture in Abu Dhabi

+ PRO: A mix of cultures

Abu Dhabi is home to a hodgepodge of different nationalities, each contributing to the jumble of languages and dress, not to mention food and cultures. Navigating the mix and mayhem can be one of the best things about living in the capital of the United Arab Emirates, as one can only learn and grow amid so many influences.

- CON: A mix of cultures

With all those nationalities and different languages, comes communication problems and culture shock. A relaxed attitude, willingness to learn and empathy will equip an expat for life in Abu Dhabi.


Accommodation in Abu Dhabi

+ PRO: The Corniche

Developed, then redeveloped to host adjacent activities for the Formula One in Abu Dhabi, this stretch of fine white sandy beaches adjacent to the Gulf is one of the best parts of the city. With Al Mina Port on one end and Emirates Palace and Marina Mall on the other, this is the place to be at the weekend. Loved by fitness fanatics, families and swimmers, there are stretches of boardwalk, beaches dedicated to families, showers and washroom facilities, not to mention a host of new shops and cafés, many with beachside tables. Bicycles can be rented by the hour. On the weekends there are frequent art displays and events for children, including puppet shows. And there is almost always sunshine.

- CON: High rents and few living options

Though rent in Abu Dhabi has been astronomical in the past few years, it's starting to become more of a tenant's market. Still, expats should expect to pay a large portion of their salary for a modest one-bedroom apartment in a less-than-exclusive area. Villas with pools are out of most people's budgets altogether, but are still sought after.

Many people are moving to neighbouring Dubai, where the high-rises cost less and boast fitness centres, parking and outdoor pools; but that 90-minute, twice-daily commute down Sheikh Zayed Road is a considerable obstacle.

- CON: It will be hard to describe where one lives

Street addresses in Abu Dhabi can be confusing. Although the city is divided into different zones and sectors, with streets in each sector numbered, everyone generally still relies on a system of landmarks to explain their address. Many people have their mail delivered to their office, but that still leaves food, furniture, guests and a host of other items that need to get to one's home. It is best to figure out a good way to describe where one lives as soon as possible. 


Lifestyle in Abu Dhabi

+ PRO: Travel opportunities

Some of the most breathtaking and interesting locations in the world are less than a four-hour flight away: Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia; destinations throughout the Middle East; much of India, Nepal and Sri Lanka; Turkey; Greece; and so much more. People in Abu Dhabi take a lot of vacations, particularly during the hot summer months.

+ PRO: A wealth of hospitality options

Abu Dhabi is expanding at breakneck speed. New five-star hotels – and with them a variety of tasty and trendy eateries – are opening all the time, and not just downtown. Yas Island and the area by the Shangri-La Hotel near the Grand Mosque are exploding with new restaurant, bar and nightclub options.

+ PRO: Cheap eats

Abu Dhabi offers a mind-boggling range of cuisine at restaurants at extremely reasonable prices. Pakistani, Indian, Lebanese, Nepalese, Vietnamese, Chinese and Ethiopian are just a few of the national foods on offer. Take-out food is also much less expensive than elsewhere in the world; a network of drivers on motorcycles will rush to get the food delivered to one's door.

+ PRO: An emerging scene for culture and entertainment

There are a host of incredible new cultural attractions emerging in Abu Dhabi. Saayidat Island has undergone massive transformations to become a world-class cultural and entertainment hub.

Emirates Palace regularly hosts compelling exhibits and a brilliant series of classical performances, and the Abu Dhabi Tourism and Culture Authority brings in interesting entertainment from around the world. The F1 has made Abu Dhabi a circuit stop, and big concerts and other exciting events are always on the agenda.

- CON: Bureaucracy and inefficiency

From reporting a car accident to getting internet access to hooking up electricity, the way things work – or don't – in Abu Dhabi can be incomprehensible to an outsider. Again, patience is required.

- CON: Salaries shrinking, rent skyrocketing

The salaries on offer in Abu Dhabi are no longer as attractive as they once were, while rent has shot up disproportionately. Employment packages also don't contain all the perks they did a few years ago, and prospective employees will have to negotiate for even the basic allowances.

+ PRO: Near constant sunshine, income-tax-free living

In the end, after all the annoyances and differences are factored in, the weather and the lifestyle – and ability to save money – are what draws people to the UAE and keeps them here, many long after they had planned to leave. 


Relationships in Abu Dhabi

- CON: Women may feel uncomfortable

Women who move to Abu Dhabi from the West will find themselves receiving attention, even if they dress modestly. Some women get used to this attention, while others continue to feel violated. 

- CON: For men, a lack of women

There are definitely more men than woman in this country – blame the male-dominated oil and gas industry, for starters – and men who move here often complain that it is hard to meet women. This can be particularly true for those working for government companies and who mainly socialise with Emiratis. That said, male expats working in private ventures will find themselves outnumbering the ladies too. Joining one of the many expat organisations, gyms and social clubs can help.


Getting around Abu Dhabi

+ PRO: Cheap taxi fare

A standard taxi fare or ride-hailing service fare is relatively cheap, making getting around easy and accessible. 

- CON: The traffic

People have streamed into Abu Dhabi for decades now – and continue to arrive every day – and the infrastructure has not been able to keep up. Massive roadworks projects are attempting to ease the flow of traffic, but they are either just finishing or midway through.

The worst of it is in morning rush hour and when school lets out. Abu Dhabi's large grid system of multi-lane roads, U-turns, crowded back streets and a preponderance of aggressive, horn-honking, light-flashing drivers further contribute to tough driving conditions.

The closer to downtown and the Corniche, the worse it is. Many people move out to less congested areas, such as Khalifa City off the island, and the developments out by the Shangri-La Hotel and Qaryat al Beri complex in Musharif.

Working in Abu Dhabi

Due to its relatively small local population, the economy of the United Arab Emirates depends on qualified expats working in Abu Dhabi and its surrounds to keep the wheels spinning. In fact, the overwhelming majority of Abu Dhabi’s economy is made up of expats, and these foreigners hold jobs in any number of important sectors.

That said, the abundance of available positions that marked the course of the last decade has dwindled somewhat, and the income-tax-free environment that attracted expats en masse now holds less of an allure because of skyrocketing housing costs and salary levels that haven’t increased proportionately. Emiratisation is another factor to consider for prospective job seekers in Abu Dhabi.

Nevertheless, those with the right sets of skills who come to Abu Dhabi for a brief stint often end up staying for longer than they intended, mainly because of the luxe lifestyle.


Job market in Abu Dhabi

Though natural resources such as petroleum and natural gas still play a major role in Abu Dhabi’s economy, the global depreciation of fossil fuels has seen the emirate focusing on economic diversification and investing heavily in such sectors as property, tourism, construction, trade and food manufacturing. This diversification means expats of all backgrounds and diverse skill sets are finding their niche in the city’s job market.

That said, even with dropping oil prices, Abu Dhabi is home to the vast majority of the UAE’s oil production and nearly 10 percent of the world’s oil supply which, combined with recent diversification, means it has a rapidly expanding economy and high GDP, making it the wealthiest emirate in the UAE.

That all sounds incredibly attractive to expats looking to take up employment in Abu Dhabi, but we would offer a word of warning: salaries are no longer as high as a few years ago. In fact, expats can often make more in their home countries than in Abu Dhabi’s current climate; housing costs have risen disproportionately; Covid-19 is likely to have negative effects on the local job market; and, lastly, although the government fully recognises the contribution of the large foreign workforce to the region’s growth and development, it has nonetheless started advocating for an official policy of Emiratisation over the course of the last few years.

This concept pushes for both government and private sectors to hire a larger number of nationals in an effort to curb Emirati unemployment and to cultivate opportunity for the growing number of graduates. With quotas in place for the insurance, banking and trade sectors, expats may find it more difficult than in the past to find employment in Abu Dhabi. 

Nevertheless, those determined expats with the right level of skills and training can still quite easily carve out a place for themselves in Abu Dhabi’s buzzing economy.


Finding a job in Abu Dhabi

Most expats who relocate to Abu Dhabi do so with an employment contract in place. The best methods of finding a job from abroad are to register with local recruitment agencies and to peruse the employment sections of the local newspapers, such as Gulf News, Khaleej Times and The National

Scouring company websites, job portals and networking via social media sites can also be beneficial. If already in the emirate, networking with friends, locals and fellow expats is essential, and often the best way to secure a new position.

Expats will find that the ease of changing jobs is something they may have previously taken for granted. In fact, expats must basically apply for a new visa when they obtain a new job in Abu Dhabi.

The first step to completing the process is obtaining a No Objection Certificate (NOC) from the original employer. Without this document the foreigner is liable to be banned from working – a stipulation that has a six-month minimum.

Additionally, many companies write anti-competition clauses into their contracts, preventing expats from working in a similar field in Abu Dhabi – a clear limiting factor for expats with a specific skill set.

These measures are put in place to prevent job hopping and protect the high financial investment that companies put into hiring foreign labour.

If the original employer/sponsor does approve the NOC request, then documentation must be taken from the Ministry of Labour, typed into Arabic and signed and stamped by both the former and the future sponsor. These are submitted with the employee's trade licence and the new company card, hopefully approved and then sent to the Immigration Department to validate the new visa.

Visas for Abu Dhabi

Visa requirements for expats interested in living and working in Abu Dhabi are considerably less intensive than in neighbouring Middle Eastern countries. The UAE attempts to make the process of getting a visa as straightforward as possible, and there are plenty of agencies that can facilitate the endeavour.

Most expats will be moving to Abu Dhabi under the condition of an already established residency visa, either through employment sponsorship or family sponsorship. Without this document, it's difficult to accomplish anything in the UAE.


Tourist visas for Abu Dhabi

Before making plans to travel to the UAE, visitors should find out whether they need to arrange a visit visa beforehand. Nationals of countries in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) or those from a designated list of countries do not need to organise a visa before arriving in the country; the UK, the USA, and most Western European and Pacific Rim countries appear on this list, but India and Pakistan do not.

Those who do need a visit visa will need the sponsorship of a UAE national, resident or a UAE-based company such as a hotel or airline.

Visit visas are granted to those who are coming on holiday, family visits or long-term business and can easily be applied for online through emirates.com.

Those holding an Israeli passport are not permitted to enter the UAE.


Residence visas for Abu Dhabi

Expats who want to obtain a residence visa for Abu Dhabi will need to either be sponsored by an employer, which allows for the right to work and live in the UAE, or by a family member, which only allows for the right to live in the UAE.


Employer sponsorship

► Step 1  Find a sponsor

In order to obtain a residency visa for work in Abu Dhabi, expats will need to find an employer willing to offer them a job contract and then sponsor their visa. Most companies are familiar with this process and don't consider it a hassle.

Once there is a confirmed position and contract, the employer should assume responsibility for submitting the visa application.

► Step 2  Get an entry permit

Applicants need to supply their employer with various documents, and it's best to get all documents attested or notarised. The company will provide a comprehensive list of all the required paperwork.

They will then file with the immigration department for an entry permit, which will allow the foreign worker into the country. Once received, they will most likely email the applicant a copy of this document. It's best to print out a copy of this permit to show to airport authorities, and then when arriving in Abu Dhabi retrieve the original copy from the passports section of the Abu Dhabi airport.

► Step 3  Take required medical test

Once the employee arrives in Abu Dhabi, the company has 60 days to file for a formal residency visa, which will allow the employee to stay in the UAE for two years. To start the filing process, expats need to pass a medical test and present the certificate to their employer.

Blood and chest x-rays are taken during the medical test; individuals who test positive for HIV/AIDS or pulmonary tuberculosis will not be granted a residency visa and will be deported.

► Step 4  Obtain a labour card

Once the medical certificate is complete, the sponsoring company submits the application to the Immigration Department. After an estimated 10 days, expats will receive their labour card.

The labour card, like the residency visa, is usually valid for two years.

The employer is responsible for all costs incurred by the process, so expats should not allow themselves to be taken advantage of by carrying any of this cost. 


Family sponsorship in Abu Dhabi

Expats who hold a valid residency employment visa are able to sponsor their family members. Permits attained through family sponsorship yield the longest and most frustrating waiting periods – so it’s best to expect the worst in order to fend off disappointment.

Those who wish to sponsor their family must meet the minimum salary requirements as stipulated by the Department of Naturalization and Residency (as certified by an official labour contract) and must have a tenancy contract proving that their housing is not shared.

Parents are unable to sponsor male children of 18 years or older unless the child is enrolled in full-time education in the UAE. Additionally, women can only sponsor their immediate family if they hold a residency visa as an engineer, teacher, doctor, nurse or any other medical industry professional.

If sponsoring parents, stipulations become increasingly strict and require a greater average monthly income as well as proof that no other person can assume responsibility in the home country of the parents.

It is not possible to sponsor a boyfriend, girlfriend or common-law partner; it's necessary to have a marriage certificate as proof of the relationship.

Application forms are available from the Immigration Department and must be completed in Arabic, and submitted with the designated documents, medical certificates and fee, paid through vending machines inside the Immigration Department.

*Visa regulations are subject to change at short notice and expats should contact their respective embassy or consulate for the latest details.

Work Permits for Abu Dhabi

In order to legally work in Abu Dhabi, expats will need to obtain a residence visa sponsorship for employment.

As the title indicates, it’s necessary for expats to have an employer sponsor them by offering them a job contract and by applying with the appropriate authorities for the visa.

For the most part, the hiring company assumes the responsibility of completing most of the paperwork and braving the bureaucracy that comes with it. That said, it never hurts for expats to familiarise themselves with the process, and take note of the documents they must submit to help them on their way.


Getting a work permit in Abu Dhabi

After finding a job and successfully negotiating a job contract, by far the hardest part of the process, expats then need to apply for permission to work in Abu Dhabi by obtaining a residence visa. The process of securing a residence visa will normally be handled by the employer and the employee must provide all the requested notarised paperwork to their employer to support the application process.

Generally, companies are familiar with this process and will provide the applicant with a clear list of the documents they must gather.

Eventually, the successful applicant will be issued with an entry permit, which allows them to come to Abu Dhabi and the greater UAE.

Upon arrival, expats must complete and pass a medical exam, and submit the results to their employer. They will finish the application process with this information, and the applicant will be issued with a labour card; the official document that gives them the right to work in Abu Dhabi.

*Visa regulations are subject to change at short notice and expats should contact their respective embassy or consulate for the latest details.

Cost of Living in Abu Dhabi

The cost of living in Abu Dhabi for expats is steep and is only predicted to rise as the emirate’s oil-exporting economy will continue to thrive post Covid-19. Though many move to Abu Dhabi to save money in the income-tax-free environment, expats should be aware that the quality of life comes at a high price. This is demonstrated in Abu Dhabi's ranking of 39th out of 209 cities ranked in Mercer's Cost of Living Survey for 2020, placing it as the second most expensive city in the Middle East behind neighbouring Dubai.

Salaries in Abu Dhabi are slightly down from a few years ago (and the 2020 pandemic will likely have further detrimental effects), and many of the allowances included in expat packages of the past are no longer normal protocol. That said, with the right kind of research, expats can accurately estimate their costs and take the appropriate steps to wrangle for a better wage and the lifestyle they may have imagined.

As is the case anywhere, an individual's cost of living in Abu Dhabi is highly variable; the opportunity to live a life of opulence exists, as does the chance to get by cheaply and conveniently.

Accommodation, automobiles and schooling comprise the bulk of expenses, while food, clothing and entertainment are generally affordable.


Cost of accommodation in Abu Dhabi

No matter one's social status, the costs associated with accommodation in Abu Dhabi are outrageous. Expats should anticipate their largest expense to be housing; rent can sometimes take up nearly as much as 50 percent of a monthly salary.

On-island accommodation is generally more costly than off-island accommodation, as is the case with furnished and unfurnished housing, respectively.

We recommend that expats broach the subject of a shipping allowance or, for those planning to buy most of their household goods upon arrival, a start-up stipend.

Utilities are reasonably priced in Abu Dhabi, but they do add up, especially if expats plan to keep a garden and an air-conditioned villa.

House-sharing is a good solution to exorbitant rental rates, but do be careful of renting a room in a villa that has been divided, as this is illegal in Abu Dhabi.


Cost of transport in Abu Dhabi

Alongside accommodation, the cost of renting or buying a car will likely be another major expense for expats in Abu Dhabi. Public transport is available and pretty economical, but most who have relocated to Abu Dhabi nevertheless prefer to use a car to get around the emirate.

An option that can save a good deal of money is to ship one's car to Abu Dhabi. Costs vary depending on the location of an expat's home country, and import duties must be paid but, on the whole, if expats plan to stay in Abu Dhabi for a year, the total cost of both import and export may be significantly less than leasing or buying a car in the emirate.

One thing that expats should be wary of is the outrageous costs of parking- and speeding tickets in Abu Dhabi. In an effort to curb illegal behaviour the authorities have attached hefty fines to these violations.


Cost of schooling in Abu Dhabi

Expat parents with children will have to budget for high tuition fees. Private international schools in Abu Dhabi charge a fortune for an education that, some Westerners feel, is hardly worth the extravagant price tag.

Tuition varies considerably, with additional charges such as school uniforms, annual bus fare, textbooks and a non-refundable enrolment fee adding to the costs.

Expats should try to negotiate an allowance into their salary package. Although education stipends are less common than they once were, they do still exist.


Cost of health insurance in Abu Dhabi

In Abu Dhabi, employers are legally required to provide expats with health insurance. So, fortunately, this is one cost new arrivals won't need to concern themselves with. That said, some employers use local health insurance, which is not recommended for those at-risk individuals who have significant health issues.

Older expats, or those in poor health, may need to maintain health insurance in their home country and make sure their employer finances emergency evacuation insurance. Otherwise, local health care is up to standard for minor issues.


Cost of food and clothing in Abu Dhabi

Food and clothing costs have the potential to either eat away great portions of an expat's salary, or cost next to nothing. It all depends on an expat's lifestyle and preferences. There is an impressive assortment of cuisine and shopping options in Abu Dhabi to suit all budgets.

Local foodstuffs will always be more reasonably priced than imported goods, and ethnic-style (Indian, Arabic, Chinese and African) restaurants are much cheaper than hotel eateries and bars. Organic food and Western brands can result in a significant grocery bill, so don't be afraid to try the Emirati equivalents to cut costs.

Alcohol is also expensive, so try and buy duty-free products at the airport.

Clothing from the Carrefour and the downtown shops is incredibly affordable, while the big names and popular labels found in Abu Dhabi's malls will be expensive. Books and electronics also tend to be more costly than expats may be used to, and as a result, many purchase these goods during trips home.


Cost of living in Abu Dhabi chart

Prices may vary depending on product and service provider. The list below shows average prices for June 2020.

Monthly accommodation (in a good expat area)

One-bedroom apartment in city centre

AED 4,600

One-bedroom apartment outside of city centre

AED 3,700

Three-bedroom apartment in city centre

AED 9,200

Three-bedroom apartment outside of city centre

AED 7,000

Groceries

Eggs (dozen)

AED 10.60

Milk (1 litre) 

AED 6.20

Rice (1kg) 

AED 8.30

Loaf of white bread 

AED 5.10

Chicken breasts (1kg)

AED 25

Pack of cigarettes (Marlboro) 

AED 21

Eating out

Big Mac Meal

AED 26.75 

Coca-Cola (330ml)

AED 3.40

Cappuccino 

AED 18.80

Bottle of beer

AED 40

Three-course meal for two at a mid-range restaurant

AED 200

Utilities

Mobile to mobile call rate (per minute)

AED 0.60

Internet (uncapped ADSL or cable – average per month) 

AED 380 

Basic utilities (per month for a small apartment)

AED 495

Transportation

Taxi rate (per kilometre)

AED 2

Bus/train fare to the city centre

AED 2

Petrol/gasoline (per litre) 

AED 2.20

Accommodation in Abu Dhabi

Expats moving to Abu Dhabi may have a housing allowance stipulated in their contract, depending on their job. Their employer will either allow an expat to choose their own accommodation in Abu Dhabi or allocate them a home prior to relocating. We recommend expats negotiate the above with their prospective employer.

Expats wanting to rent a property in Abu Dhabi will find that lease rates are on the decline, and newer areas of Abu Dhabi may even experience a brief oversupply that will further increase affordability. But rental prices are still expensive, especially in the highly sought-after on-island locations. The most popular areas are Bateen and Karama for houses, and Al Khalidiya and Corniche for apartments.

Before picking an area to live in, though, expats should decide what their priorities are and what they’re willing to sacrifice. Each area of Abu Dhabi has its own unique set of pros and cons; we recommend newcomers speak to other expats about their experiences, and also consider things such as commute times to work and to local schools for those with school-aged children, congestion and noise level in the area, proximity to amenities, and perhaps also which areas are most popular with expat communities.


Types of accommodation in Abu Dhabi

Both furnished and unfurnished accommodation is available in Abu Dhabi, the former being more expensive. In the case of unfurnished apartments, even appliances will be absent, which could mean a large start-up cost for expats.

Expats planning to rent an unfurnished apartment should approach their employer about a shipping allowance or a stipend to furnish the property. Those with a housing allowance should make sure there is a separate allowance to cover the costs of purchasing standard household items.

Apartments

A common choice among expats, apartments are (mainly) smaller self-contained units in larger buildings; referred to as "flats" in some parts of the world such as the UK. These range from small studios or one-bedroom units to expansive multi-roomed units.

Condominiums

These complexes are similar to apartments but are more luxurious and will generally offer a wide range of facilities. Those at the top of the scale will offer a full suite of facilities including a pool, gym, playground, tennis and squash courts, as well as 24-hour security.

Villas

Villas are perfect for expats with families or those with sufficient resources. These come in various shapes and sizes: freestanding villas, semi-detached villas in which properties share one adjoining wall, and townhouse-style villas in which two adjoining walls are shared. Regardless of the type, the properties tend to be large and are most frequently available off-island, in Khalifa City A.


Finding accommodation in Abu Dhabi

Expats are advised to use a real estate agent to help secure housing in Abu Dhabi. Even if one manages to discover a great deal on their own, an agent will likely be present upon signing the lease, and it's best to let them do the legwork as well.

Expats can ask their employer for agent recommendations or consult print and online listings. Tenants pay a five percent commission to agents, as well as a five percent security deposit upfront.


Renting accommodation in Abu Dhabi

Rent is usually paid annually and in advance. Expats can also explore the option of getting a salary advance from their employer to remain debt-free, as bouncing a cheque is a crime in Abu Dhabi. Expats who elect to go the house-hunting process on their own without the assistance of a real-estate agent often opt to rent a short-term serviced apartment while checking out an area and deciding on long-term accommodation. This isn’t strictly necessary, though, and with a good agent, long-term rentals can be secured without the need for temporary accommodation.

Making an application

Once expats have found a suitable area that fits their lifestyle and caters to all their priorities, we recommend they research properties online and contact some local estate agents who will then set up viewings. When the right home is agreed upon, an application is submitted to the landlord, and a contract drawn up. Before the contract can be signed, the estate agent or landlord will check references and do some background checks, and check whether the applicant has the required residence visa, passport and proof of income.

Deposits

It's usual practice in Abu Dhabi for landlords to demand the entire year of rent be paid upfront, in addition to a security deposit. If this is a financial possibility, expats should use it to gain leverage over the landlord and try and bring the price down.

Deposits, usually the equivalent of a month’s rent or more, must be refunded, as it remains the property of the tenant, but landlords are allowed to make deductions from the deposit or keep the whole amount for various reasons. Deposits are sometimes used to cover unpaid rent, for damages in excess of normal wear and tear, other breaches of the lease agreement or unpaid utility bills. Additional fees to consider include the agent’s commission fee (if an agent was employed).

Leases

A lease specifies the period of tenancy along with other important terms and conditions that both parties need to agree on. We urge prospective tenants to finecomb the agreement and to make doubly sure that all verbal agreements with the landlord are in print and acknowledged by both parties. The tenant and the landlord should also agree on an inventory list of all items in the apartment/condo/villa at the start of the lease.

At the termination of the lease, the landlord and tenant can either choose to agree to renew the lease or end it. We recommend expats try to sign a renewable lease, and then notify the landlord accordingly when ready to leave, rather than having to restart the painful house search all over again after 12 months.

Utilities

It is also important for prospective tenants to scrutinise a lease agreement very carefully to ascertain which utilities are included in the rental cost before committing. 

There are no council taxes or permit fees associated with accommodation in Abu Dhabi. However, unless an expat is living in a company apartment or house, they’ll have to pay for utilities such as water and electricity in addition to rent. These are generally affordable, but those living in large villas may find themselves footing a hefty power bill due to constant air conditioning.

Areas and Suburbs in Abu Dhabi

The best places to live in Abu Dhabi

Each area and suburb of Abu Dhabi has its own unique qualities and there are plenty of options for expats looking for accommodation in the emirate.

Expats moving to Abu Dhabi will certainly want to learn a little about each part of the city before securing property. Below we've listed some of the areas that are popular with expats.


Downtown Abu Dhabi

Photo by amits22345 from PxHere

Abu Dhabi's city centre is a vibrant collection of shops, shisha bars, malls, five-star hotels and restaurants. The neighbourhoods that make up this capital city heartland are home to young singles and families alike, and most accommodation is found in low- and high-rise residential towers.

Expats who crave the frenetic energy of city life will find that downtown is just the ticket; every imaginable amenity is within reach and there are countless opportunities to socialise, entertain and dine out.

There are also good school and healthcare options in this part of the city. However, residents will have to sacrifice space and learn to deal with the congestion caused by crowds and traffic, especially on weekends.

Al Zahiyah and Al Markaziyah

Al Zahiyah (the Tourist Club Area) and Al Markaziyah are two cosmopolitan areas offering a number of attractions, such as the Abu Dhabi Mall and the Corniche (waterfront). Abu Dhabi Mall is one of the largest shopping centres in the city and packed with high-street brands. 

The Corniche has appeal for those expats who enjoy outdoor pursuits such as jogging, cycling or even just leisurely strolls. This area also has a vibrant nightlife scene as the numerous hotels are filled with bars and clubs.

Housing in Al Zahiyah and Al Markaziyah is limited to high-rise apartments; expats who choose to live here will have to compromise space for access. Parking can also be a problem, and some landlords will charge thousands extra for a space. 


Young, upbeat areas in Abu Dhabi

Madinat Zayed by Rizwan Ullah Wazir

Lying just outside the city centre, these areas bustle with life but are slightly quieter and more spacious. Traffic is bad during rush hour and weekends, and finding parking can be difficult. It normally takes 10 to 15 minutes from these areas to the city centre on a quiet day, and 30 to 45 minutes during rush hour.

Madinat Zayed

Madinat Zayed is close to the city centre and generally quieter and less congested than those districts found in the city proper. Properties in Madinat Zayed are slightly older than those in the city centre, although prices are much the same.

The Co-operative Society (Co-op) in Madinat Zayed Shopping Centre is good for buying groceries, while the vegetable/meat market and Gold Souk make the area ripe for those interested in a taste of Middle Eastern culture.

Al Wahda

Al Wahda is slightly further out than Madinat Zayed and traffic is lighter and parking easier to come by. Al Wahda Mall has a great range of shops and a large Lulu supermarket for groceries. Getting a taxi here is particularly easy because of the presence of the local bus station.

Khalidiya

Khalidiya is a bustling area with a large Western community. Khalidiya Park is great for kids and a family picnic. There are also lots of shisha cafés that are popular among young expats. The Corniche is within walking distance for those who want to visit the popular waterfront. Abela supermarket is nearby, while Spinney’s is but a short drive; both offer a good range of products.


Family-friendly areas of Abu Dhabi

These areas have large expat communities and are good for families because of their proximity to a number of international schools. Housing in this area mainly consists of villas.

Al Karamah

Al Karamah is quiet, with villa compounds that house a large expat community. The compounds come complete with gyms, swimming pools and additional facilities. Standalone villas and low-rise apartments are also available. The closest place for food shopping is Al Wahda Mall’s Lulu supermarket. Traffic is light and parking spaces are plentiful.

Al Rowdah and Al Mushrif

Al Rodwah and Al Mushrif are quiet suburban areas perfect for family living. While there are a few corner shops, expats will have to travel to Al Wahda or the large Carrefour, which is slightly further out, to do large grocery shopping. Traffic is light and parking spaces plentiful, while getting a taxi is easy for the most part.

Al Muroor

Decently priced villas and close proximity to good schools make Al Muroor great for families looking to avoid the frenetic pace and congestion of the city centre. While parking spaces are plentiful, getting a taxi is difficult at times.

The Health and Fitness Center and the Equestrian Club are both in the area – perks for expats who want easy access to a gym or swimming pool. These sports clubs also offer activities such as tennis, squash and martial arts lessons.

The Corniche is within walking distance and offers a great stretch for those who want to go running or cycling. This part of Abu Dhabi is also quite green, making it good for picnics and outdoor activities.


Abu Dhabi’s mainland

Khalifa City by Jaseem Hamza

Khalifa City

Khalifa City is an up-and-coming suburb of Abu Dhabi. Streets are quiet and parking spaces and taxis are plentiful. As it’s still a developing area, houses are well spaced. While rental prices are rising, it’s still possible to get good deals on the villas. The only downside is that it takes roughly 40 minutes to get to town by car. There are some nice cafés and small shops nearby and an Abela supermarket for food shopping, which saves on having to make a long trip into town for groceries.

Al Raha

Al Raha mainly consists of villa compounds, but apartments are also available. Al Raha Mall has a Lulu supermarket, and new shops, schools and hotels are adding to the attraction of this area.

Healthcare in Abu Dhabi

The UAE, overall, boasts modern and sophisticated medical infrastructure, and healthcare facilities in Abu Dhabi are world class and easily accessible to expats. Most public hospitals offer good quality healthcare, but many expats still choose private medical centres, and some even opt to return to their home countries for complicated surgeries or specialist procedures. Nevertheless, the standard of healthcare in Abu Dhabi is high, English is commonly spoken and much of the medical staff are foreign-trained expats. 


Healthcare facilities in Abu Dhabi

Both public and private healthcare facilities are available in Abu Dhabi, and the level of care and comfort is highly regarded across the board.

Many expats still hold onto the perspective that public facilities largely function as emergency service centres, and private facilities and clinics are more appropriate for everything else. Regardless of this viewpoint, an expat's specific health insurance coverage dictates in which hospitals they can receive treatment.

Doctors in Abu Dhabi are generally thought to be accessible, and service is prompt. For the most part, all health workers speak English, though some are more proficient than others. Many health workers have received their education abroad, and it’s not unusual for expats to seek out professionals with accreditation from their home country.

High prices accompany healthcare in Abu Dhabi, but all expats are legally bound to have health insurance, which usually covers most of the costs. Where there are exceptions to this rule, expats will only have to finance a small co-pay.


Health insurance in Abu Dhabi

Health insurance is a mandatory prerequisite to obtaining a residence visa in Abu Dhabi, and is generally organised and financed by the employer.

Depending on the company, expats will be granted local, international or both types of health insurance. It’s then the individual's responsibility to extend this coverage to their family, though expats in senior positions may be entitled to company coverage for their dependants as well.

The extent of a policy’s coverage often varies according to the job level of the assignee; however, for the most part, basic medical and dental are covered.

Once registered for a health insurance policy, expats will receive a health insurance card. This is then presented at the appointed hospital or clinic to receive care.


Pharmacies in Abu Dhabi

There are many pharmacies across Abu Dhabi, and most are open 24 hours a day.

Laws pertaining to drugs in the UAE are very strict, and certain medications, such as sleeping pills and anti-depressants, are prohibited from being sold over the counter. A prescription will be needed for such medicines.

Medication in Abu Dhabi is generally expensive, and it’s best to keep the receipt if planning to claim from medical aid.


Health hazards in Abu Dhabi

The extreme summer heat in Abu Dhabi, particularly from June to September, is something that many expats may struggle to adjust to. Temperatures can average around 100°F (40°C) during this season, peaking in August. Many expats plan long family holidays during this period to escape the uncomfortably hot conditions.

As a result of the soaring temperatures, heatstroke, sunburn and dehydration are common ailments for expats living in Abu Dhabi, and sensible precautions are advised for those partaking in any outdoor activities.

Sand and dust storms are also common, and can aggravate any pre-existing respiratory problems.


Vaccinations and pre-travel requirements for Abu Dhabi

No vaccinations are required for entry and residence in Abu Dhabi; however, a certificate is required for cholera and yellow fever if arriving from an affected area. Tap water in the city centre is safe to drink, but elsewhere only bottled water should be consumed.

Expats must pass a health exam to be granted their residency visa, and those that test positive for HIV/AIDS and pulmonary tuberculosis will be denied entry. Additionally, food handlers, housemaids, nannies and barbers must test for hepatitis B and syphilis.


Emergency services in Abu Dhabi

Local facilities are well-equipped and professionals are well-trained to handle most emergency situations. Expats can dial 999 for any emergencies.


Hospitals in Abu Dhabi

Some of the more popular hospitals for expats in Abu Dhabi include:

Al Noor Hospital Khalifa Street

www.mediclinic.ae
Address: Khalifa Street, Abu Dhabi

Cleveland Clinic

www.clevelandclinicabudhabi.ae
Address: Al Maryah Island, Abu Dhabi

Corniche Hospital

www.seha.ae/corniche
Address: Corniche Road East, Abu Dhabi

Sheikh Khalifa Medical City

www.seha.ae
Address: Al Karama Street, Abu Dhabi

Education and Schools in Abu Dhabi

While Abu Dhabi has a number of options available when it comes to education and schooling, most expat parents opt for private international schools. Expat children may be admitted to local public schools, but the significant language and culture barriers make this an uncommon choice. There are many private international schools in Abu Dhabi that adhere to various curricula, and the range of options are constantly expanding to cater to the city’s mushrooming expat community.

Predictably, with so many options, the standard, quality of facilities, teaching style, curriculum and teaching language all vary immensely from one school to another. Most expat parents choose an institution that mirrors the characteristics found in their home country's education system.


International schools in Abu Dhabi

New arrivals in Abu Dhabi will have quite a job on their hands deciding on the right school for their child. The British, American and International Baccalaureate (IB) schools tend to be the most popular, but also the most expensive. Inclusions of school allowances are less common than they used to be in expat packages, so we’d advise expats either negotiate for this or ensure their salary is large enough to cover the costs. 

All schools are required to adhere to a uniform school calendar, made up of three terms, with the school year running from September to July. The school week runs from Sunday to Thursday, and school hours vary depending on the institution.

Arabic is a required course at all schools, but no subject testing will be completed in this language – achievement in basic proficiency is all that is required.

Admission to international schools

One commonality shared across the board is seat shortages; Indian schools, in particular, have trouble accommodating the growing number of interested students in Abu Dhabi. Primary schools are also notorious for denying students due to unavailability. Even waiting lists can be long, and though efforts have been made to open new international schools in Abu Dhabi in recent years, space is still limited. 

Finding a school can easily be the highest hurdle new arrivals must overcome and, in turn, should be an issue addressed from the very beginning.

Expats should not be afraid to ask their employer to help them secure a seat for their child, especially if they’ve been lured abroad into a senior position. We recommend expats start the enrolment process as early as possible – applications and admission requirements are usually posted on school websites.

Those who cannot place their child into the school of their choice immediately should be patient, as the turnover of students is high and places become available throughout the year.

School fees

School fees have seen a sharp rise in the last few years; so much so, that many expat parents are choosing to homeschool their children or send them back to their home country for an education.

Most schools in Abu Dhabi have full uniforms, and many have a school bus transport system. Along with textbooks and other equipment, expats should remember to factor in these extra costs.

It's important to check whether a relocation package includes a school allowance; unfortunately, the days when this was a given are long gone. Also, most allowances won't be enough to cover a top school's tuition in full – so expats should make sure their salary is enough to cover the extra costs. We recommend expats negotiate for a better school allowance in such cases, especially if considering a senior position.


Tutoring in Abu Dhabi

Private tutors in Abu Dhabi have started to gain massive traction in recent years. Despite the rising cost of school fees in the emirate, nearly half of expat parents decide to carry the additional, and sometimes rather hefty, cost of private after-school tutors.

For expat families, tutors can be particularly useful in helping children adjust to a new curriculum, learn a new language or maintain their mother tongue.

We’d advise that parents conduct thorough research to find reputable tutors. Web portals and forums are a good place to start, and international schools will also be able to point parents in the right direction.

A few tutoring agencies worth considering are Sylvan Learning, Kip McGrath and Carfax Education.


Special needs education in Abu Dhabi

The UAE government has in recent years begun to focus on providing support to students with special educational needs. As a result, more public schools are now equipped to support such students. The ultimate goal is integration so that even those with special educational needs can develop alongside their peers.

Some international schools have excellent special needs education programmes, while others don't offer support in this regard at all. Parents with children with special needs should be sure to do their research before settling on a school.

Nurseries and Kindergartens in Abu Dhabi

Expats will have access to a wide range of options when it comes to having their little ones taken care of in the UAE capital. There are various nursery schools and kindergartens in Abu Dhabi that are aimed at foreigners, and which take a variety of approaches. Some of the most prominent ones are listed below.


Nurseries and kindergartens in Abu Dhabi

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Humpty Dumpty Nursery Abu Dhabi

Gender: Co-educational
Curriculum: British Early Years Foundation Stage
Ages: 1 to 4 years

Teddy Bear American Nursery

Gender: Co-educational
Curriculum: Own curriculum
Ages: 6 months to 4 years

Bright Beginnings Nursery

Gender: Co-educational
Curriculum: British Early Years Foundation Stage
Ages: 1 to 4 years
Website: www.brightbeginnings.ae

Jigsaw Nursery

Gender: Co-educational
Curriculum: British Early Years Foundation Stage
Ages: 1 to 4 years

International Schools in Abu Dhabi

Expat families looking for a high-quality education will find a wealth of excellent options among the international schools in Abu Dhabi. These schools offer a wide variety of respected curricula and qualifications, such as the English National Curriculum, the American High School Diploma and the International Baccalaureate. Cultural diversity is emphasised throughout the emirate's international school system and most are attended by a wide array of nationalities.

International schools in Abu Dhabi are held up to a high standard by the Abu Dhabi Education Council (ADEC). This government organisation conducts stringent investigations once every two years. Schools are then given a rating. Comprehensive reports are freely available, allowing parents in Abu Dhabi to select the very best international school for their family.

Popular international schools in Abu Dhabi may reach full capacity before the school year starts, so it's worthwhile to submit applications as early as possible. Expat children can then look forward to enjoying their new school's top-notch facilities, exciting extra-curricular activities and familiar curriculum.

Below is a list of some of the most well-regarded international schools in Abu Dhabi.


International schools in Abu Dhabi

BISAD_Abu%20Dhabi_cropped_option2_0.jpg

Abu Dhabi International School

The Abu Dhabi International School offers British and American education for Kindergarten through to Grade 12 students. Class sizes are limited to just 23 students who receive individual attention from teachers. The school is attended by more than 70 different nationalities. Read more

Gender: Co-educational
Curriculum: American, Cambridge IGCSE, A-levels and International Baccalaureate
Ages: 3 to 18

Abu Dhabi Grammar School Canada

The Abu Dhabi Grammar School is situated on-island in Al Zahiyah. There are more than 1,000 students of 50 different nationalities attending the school, which teaches the highly regarded Canadian curriculum from Nova Scotia. Read more

Gender: Co-educational
Curriculum: Canadian
Ages: 5 to 18

Al Ain English Speaking School

Al Ain English Speaking School is a co-educational independent school that caters for students aged from 3 to 18. The school was founded in 1978 and has been expanded and enhanced considerably since then due to its popularity with expat families. Read more

Gender: Co-educational
Curriculum: National Curriculum of England, Cambridge IGCSE and A-levels
Ages: 3 to 18

Aldar Academies, Al Ain Academy

Al Ain Academy opened in September 2011 and has been providing high-quality education to the region ever since. Students are taught the English National Curriculum, tailored to be meaningful to children living in Al Ain, alongside the local curriculum of Arabic, Islamic Studies and Social Studies. Read more

Gender: Co-educational
Curriculum: English National Curriculum, Cambridge IGCSE and A-levels
Ages: 3 to 18

Aldar Academies, Al Bateen Academy

Al Bateen Academy provides high-quality education for students from the ages of 4 to 18. Facilities in the school are world-class and technologically advanced, reflecting the needs of 21st-century students. Read more

Gender: Co-educational
Curriculum: English National Curriculum and International Baccalaureate
Ages: 4 to 18

Aldar Academies, Al Mamoura Academy

Al Mamoura Academy is a mixed primary and girls-only secondary school located near the Sea Palace off the East Ring Road. The school endeavours to enable pupils to reach their full potential and develop them into motivated, ambitious and confident lifelong learners. Read more

Gender: Mixed primary school and girls-only secondary school
Curriculum: American, English National Curriculum, Cambridge IGCSE, A-levels
Ages: 3 to 18

Aldar Academies, Al Muna Academy

Al Muna Academy opened in September 2009 and is located in the heart of the city. Popular with English-speaking expats, the school hosts an international community with families from more than 50 countries. Read more

Gender: Co-educational
Curriculum: English National Curriculum
Ages: 3 to 11

Aldar Academies, Al Yasmina Academy

 

Al Yasmina Academy, part of the Aldar Academies community, is one of the organisation’s longest established schools, having opened in September 2008. Children at this school are given a high-quality British education. Read more


Gender: Co-educational
Curriculum: English National Curriculum
Ages: 3 to 18

Aldar Academies, The Pearl Academy

The school follows the National Curriculum for England, with additional lessons in Arabic language, Islamic Studies and Social Studies to meet the requirements of the UAE Ministry of Education and the Abu Dhabi Education Council. Read more 

Gender: Co-educational
Curriculum: English National Curriculum
Ages: 3 to 11

Aldar Academies, West Yas Academy

West Yas Academy is an American-curriculum school teaching the Massachusetts State Curriculum. The school is located on Yas Island and first opened its doors to students in August 2016. Read more

Gender: Co-educational
Curriculum: American
Ages: 3 to 18

American Community School of Abu Dhabi

Founded in 1972, this not-for-profit institution has a well-deserved reputation as one of the finest schools in Abu Dhabi. The school teaches the highly regarded American curriculum. There are over 1,000 students in the school, hailing from close to 60 different countries. Read more

Gender: Co-educational
Curriculum: American
Ages: 4 to 18

American International School in Abu Dhabi

The American International School is co-educational up to the end of elementary years and has boys-only and girls-only sections in secondary school. Parents can expect an American-style curriculum from Kindergarten through to Grade 12. From Grade 11 onwards, students may elect to pursue either the International Baccalaureate or the American High School Diploma. Read more

Gender: Co-educational except for secondary which is gender-segregated
Curriculum: American and International Baccalaureate
Ages: 4 to 18

Brighton College Abu Dhabi

Brighton College Abu Dhabi is the sister school of the prestigious Brighton College UK. The school is an excellent choice for expat families seeking an authentic, high-quality British education. Read more

Gender: Co-educational
Curriculum: English National Curriculum, Cambridge IGCSE and A-levels
Ages: 3 to 18 

The British School Al Khubairat

The British School Al Khubairat was established in 1971. Both academics and extracurricular activities at the school uphold the highest standards, and the school is a member of a number of prestigious education associations. Read more

Gender: Co-educational   
Curriculum: English National Curriculum, Cambridge IGCSE and A-levels
Ages: 3 to 18

British International School Abu Dhabi

The British International School Abu Dhabi has developed an accomplished reputation since it opened in 2009. The institution is part of the Nord Anglia Education group, which has vast experience in delivering excellent education to expat communities around the world. Read more

Gender: Co-educational
Curriculum: English National Curriculum, Cambridge IGCSE and International Baccalaureate
Ages: 3 to 18

The Cambridge High School, Abu Dhabi

Part of the GEMS educational group, Cambridge High School Abu Dhabi provides high-quality education based on the National Curriculum for England to students from Kindergarten to Year 13. Outstanding teaching, a variety of opportunities and good facilities are just a few of the school's standout features. Read more

Gender: Co-educational
Curriculum: English National Curriculum, Cambridge IGCSE and A-levels
Ages: 4 to 18

Cranleigh Abu Dhabi

A prestigious British-curriculum school, academic life at Cranleigh is balanced with rich sporting, cultural and arts extra-curricular activities, competitions and trips. The school also places a strong focus on character development through their Moral Education: Learning for Life Programme. Read more

Gender: Co-educational
Curriculum: English National Curriculum, Cambridge IGCSE and A-levels
Ages: 3 to 18

GEMS American Academy Abu Dhabi

GEMS American Academy Abu Dhabi is a modern and prestigious international school in Abu Dhabi. The state-of-the-art campus caters to students from over 40 nationalities, from Kindergarten to Grade 10. The academic programme gives students the best of both worlds by offering an enriched American curriculum within the International Baccalaureate framework. Read more

Gender: Co-educational
Curriculum: American and International Baccalaureate
Ages: 4 to 18

Welcoming families from all nationalities, Repton School Abu Dhabi offers the very best in British education, within the context of an international environment and epitomised by the school’s philosophy of ‘the best for every child’. Read more

Gender: Co-educational
Curriculum: English National Curriculum
Ages: 3 to 14

Lifestyle in Abu Dhabi

The expat lifestyle in Abu Dhabi has achieved nearly mythical proportions; many foreigners moving here conjure images of paradise and a life characterised with lavish luxury.

And for a good number of expats it’s true that life in the emirate is centred on shopping, relaxation and socialising. For many, material wealth is much easier to come by in the emirate and, initially, finding new cause to swipe the credit card is invigorating.

Malls abound, an energised nightlife beckons and with such a large community of foreigners, there always seems to be something exciting happening.

That said, for others with less lucrative salaries or for those who no longer value the pull of the spend, it's necessary to be a little more inventive when it comes to living the good life, especially in summer when the oppressive heat eliminates any opportunity for outdoor fun. 


Shopping in Abu Dhabi

There is no doubt that the shopping in Abu Dhabi is excellent. Plenty of souks (markets), malls and airport duty-free shops exist in and around the city.

Souks are the place to go for oriental carpets, gold and antique jewellery, electronic gadgets, designer clothes, cosmetics, spices and souvenirs. Great shopping locations include the Souk at Central Market, the Fish Souk in the Mina Zayed Free Port, the Al Mina Fruit and Vegetable Souk or the modern adaptation of a marketplace at Souq Qaryat Al Beri. Typical gifts for family members back home include traditional coffee pots, Bedouin jewellery and antique chests.

Shopping malls open around 10am most days, and close late, even past midnight in some cases. In Abu Dhabi alone, there are more than 10 separate malls or centres, each with familiar Western outlets and cinemas. The two largest are Marina Mall and Abu Dhabi Mall. The famous Abu Dhabi Shopping Festival, held in March each year, offers amazing bargains and shopping prizes that lure visitors from all over the world.


Nightlife in Abu Dhabi

The nightlife in Abu Dhabi is surprisingly lively, even if the city claims a reputation as being more 'family friendly' than neighbouring Dubai. As most expats will quickly realise, there are two centres of the Abu Dhabi social scene: malls and hotels. Malls are places to see and be seen, to go to the cinema, or to shop. Hotels have everything else, and all under one roof: happy hour, dinner, drinks and nightclubs.  

Local nightclubs tend to feature international DJs as well as traditional Arab singers and belly dancers. Expats can also look out for regular live music, happy hours, quiz nights and ladies' nights to spice up the regular routine.

While hotel bar house bands tend to be the most consistent form of music and theatre in Abu Dhabi, there are some world-class acts that come and go with some regularity. After the summer, the Abu Dhabi Classics season brings in orchestras from around the world, such as the Berlin Philharmonic and the BBC Symphony Orchestra, among others.

Every mall has a cinema showing box office favourites from Holly(and sometimes Bolly)wood, and the New York University Abu Dhabi Institute also hosts occasional film screenings that would appeal to a more high-brow crowd. This is in addition to their extensive programme of public lectures given by visiting and local authors, politicians, musicians and scholars from across the academic spectrum.

For expats who tire of the clubs and restaurants in Abu Dhabi, Dubai is only 90 minutes away. The nightlife scene is bigger and wilder in Dubai, and plenty of hotels offer weekend specials for those in need of an escape.


Eating out in Abu Dhabi

Abu Dhabi is home to a wide range of international cuisine, top-notch restaurants and delivery options.

As a general rule, the best (and most expensive) restaurants in Abu Dhabi are in hotels. They're also the only restaurants allowed to serve alcohol.

Local cuisine largely consists of rice and lamb dishes accompanied by salads, hummus and bread on the side. As Islam frowns upon the consumption of pork, very few restaurants serve the “other white meat”.

Ramadan

Bear in mind that during the holy month of Ramadan, Muslims and even some expats fast. One is not permitted to eat or drink in public during the day for the duration of the holiday. Many restaurants remain closed until evening, although those in the larger hotels still serve food.

Lunch-time dining takes place behind covered windows in order to show respect. As take-away meals are allowed, many restaurants remain partially open to provide this service, or else do home deliveries. The sale of alcohol is also impacted during this period, with some restaurants not serving it at all for the duration of Ramadan.

That said, it's a great time to try local food as come Iftar (breaking of the fast), big hearty meals are often the norm. Lots of restaurants re-open after sunset during Ramadan, and the family-oriented vibe can make this a great month to eat out.

Kids and Family in Abu Dhabi

Expats moving to Abu Dhabi with kids will find themselves one of the many foreign families that have come to settle in this former desert outpost.

Whereas Dubai has the reputation of being a tourist magnet, teeming with single young visitors who love shopping and clubbing, Abu Dhabi is where those youngsters are likely to move to when they finally settle down. 


Child-friendly activities in Abu Dhabi

Friday brunch is the most popular pastime among expat families, and a number of five-star hotels serve up sumptuous fare while providing on-site entertainment for the little ones.

There are parks aplenty in Abu Dhabi, although they aren’t evenly spread out; Khalidiya has three parks, while Al Wahda doesn’t have any. Expats should familiarise themselves with park hours and park rules; one of the parks in Khalidiya and Al Mushrif Park are for women and children only, and some parks do not officially open until late afternoon.

Evening picnics are a great way to enjoy the outdoors without the sunburn, and offer a good opportunity to meet the locals who favour these areas during dusk.

Ball games, barbeques, and horse and carriage rides can be enjoyed in Khalidiya Park, and Sheikh Khalifa Park boasts an open-air cinema, funfair rides in the spring as well as a train, aquarium, heritage ride and museum all year round.

In the summer, the extreme heat limits entertainment options to indoor play areas in shopping malls, St Andrews Playgroup and television. Yas Waterworld is another great option to beat the heat and offers something for the whole family with water slides, static surfing waves, shops and restaurants.

Most expats go home for the months of July and August.


Parent networks in Abu Dhabi

The main lifeline for parents in the emirate is Abu Dhabi Mums, a parent's network that offers information on playgroups, membership discounts and opportunities to partake in pool swim meets, join in horseback riding and to borrow toys and books from library collections. They also organise social events for parents to enjoy a night out.

Other playgroups are held at St Andrews Church on Mondays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. For a small fee, children can enjoy the toys, and snack and drink while parents mingle. Or, on Tuesday and Sunday mornings, there is a ‘Messy Monkeys’ arts and crafts group for ages two plus.

Expat parents should keep in mind that most of these groups are run by volunteers, so chipping in with bits of one's own time and money is greatly appreciated.


Challenges for parents in Abu Dhabi

Playgrounds are a regular point of frustration and seem unlikely to have been designed by parents; there are often no toddler swings, and rarely shade or benches for parents to rest on.

Some parts of the city, especially on the outskirts, resemble building sites more than communities; and steering a stroller or pram over cracked, uneven and steep pavements can make any mother's blood boil. Furthermore, driving is hazardous and the Islamic call to prayer can be inconvenient for parents with young children who are easily woken at night or during naps.

Expat parents may also find it especially strange that random passers-by are interested in photographing their kids. There is no need to be concerned by the request, but how one responds is a personal choice.

See and Do in Abu Dhabi

Unlike its uber popular neighbour Dubai, Abu Dhabi appeals more to families and working expats than sightseeing tourists, but that’s not to say it doesn’t have its fair share of exciting attractions and fun things to see and do. 


Recommended attractions in Abu Dhabi

Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque

The impressive all-white mosque is Abu Dhabi’s landmark building. It's the biggest mosque in the UAE, and is recognised as a key point of worship in this part of the world. A fusion of Ottoman, Memeluke and Fatimid design, this modern mosque took nearly 20 years to build, holds up to 40,000 worshippers, and celebrates Islamic architecture in all its glory. It draws visitors from all over the world, and Muslims and non-Muslims alike can explore all areas of the beautiful structure, complete with guided tours.

Louvre Abu Dhabi

A mammoth structure with a collection to rival all others, the Louvre Abu Dhabi is surely the most impressive museum in the whole of the Middle East. The aggregate of art on display is simply staggering, and the diversity of exhibits is equally mind-boggling, from ancient Egyptian works to Picasso and Bellini all the way through to modern Ai Weiwei structures. The architecture of the building itself is also a sight to behold and certainly a must for new expats.

Ferrari World

One for the petrol heads and automobile aficionados, this branded theme park has an incredible collection of Ferraris, with models dating back to 1947. One could even take an exhilarating rollercoaster ride on the Flying Aces, at speeds of up to 75 miles per hour (120km/h) on a 52m loop – the tallest in the world. Afterwards, take a factory tour or test your Ferrari knowledge on the Ferrari game show. The kids will also love the day out, and they could even get behind the wheel on the Junior GT track.

Observation Deck at 300

While sipping on tea, take in the splendour of the highest vantage point in Abu Dhabi. Located on the 74th floor of Jumeirah at Etihad Towers, this astounding panorama is not to be missed. There is an entry fee for those not staying at the hotel, but this can be redeemed for snacks and a drink at the Observation Deck's restaurant.

Qasr al-Hosn (White Fort)

Abu Dhabi’s oldest building also known as the ‘White Fort’ or the ‘Old Fort’ was built in 1793 to house the former ruling family and is one of the emirate's biggest historical attractions. After extensive renovations in 1983, it now houses the Cultural Foundation – don’t miss the tile work over the entrance – and is home to a fascinating museum that exhibits the history of the emirate’s culture. 

Yas Waterworld

This sprawling water park on Yas Island is the ultimate reprieve from Abu Dhabi’s searing and unrelenting heat. The park contains such delights as the world’s largest surfable sheet wave, the Jebel Drop (a freefall waterslide), a tube river ride, the world’s first hydromagnetic tornado water rafting ride, and much else. There’s also a dedicated water play area for the little ones, and plenty of restaurants and shops for parents to peruse.

Warner Bros World

Also on Yas Island is Warner Bros World, a theme park dedicated to the franchise’s many film, comic book and cartoon heroes. There are six 'worlds' all under one roof, from Gotham City and Metropolis to Bedrock and Cartoon Junction – a hit with the kids. Visitors could also go on rides, interact with exhibits and much else. 

Emirates Park Zoo

The Emirates Park Zoo offers a fantastic outing for the whole family. It features elephant and giraffe feeding sessions, bird-of-prey shows and a host of environmental programmes. Highlights include the extensive primate enclosure, flamingo park, and the petting zoo where kids get to feed domestic animals.

Heritage Village

This living museum is designed to showcase the skills and lifestyle of the Bedouin, original inhabitants of this region. The Heritage Village over the Abu Dhabi Corniche has tents, courtyard houses, a working ancient irrigation system and various workshops. Visitors can watch craftspeople weave and do metalwork, and marvel at displays showcasing the ancient art of pearl diving.

Boat tours

To get the best perspective of Abu Dhabi’s imposing skyline, expats should take a boat tour out on the marina. One could go for a quick cruise or choose an island hopping tour, which includes snorkelling and beach sessions on the various islands dotted in the bay. A sunset cruise is also a popular option, and affords spectacular views of the lit skyline.

What's On in Abu Dhabi

Abu Dhabi is generally considered to be a more family-friendly destination than neighbouring Dubai, but that doesn’t mean that the city doesn’t have a full calendar of exciting events for expats to enjoy. 

Here are some of our favourite Abu Dhabi events for expats to look forward to.


Annual events in Abu Dhabi

Abu Dhabi Science Festival (January)

The largest event of its kind in the entire region, the annual Abu Dhabi Science Festival is an initiative to support UAE science and tech sectors. The 10-day event draws more than 100,000 visitors and is a fun day out for the whole family, and includes exciting exhibits, workshops and entertaining shows.

Red Bull Air Race (February/March)

The Red Bull Air Race comes to Abu Dhabi every year for an exhilarating showcase of aerial acrobatics by some of the world’s most skilled pilots. High above the impressive Abu Dhabi skyline, single-seat planes race for bragging rights, as spectators look on from the specially built race village on the breakwater of the Corniche.

Abu Dhabi Festival (March)

Started in 2004 by the Abu Dhabi Music and Arts Foundation, the annual Abu Dhabi Festival is a month-long celebration of Arab arts and culture and has become one of the largest cultural events in the Arabian Gulf. Events take place at the Emirates Palace and include music, dance and literary shows from artists from all over the world.

The Mother of the Nation Festival (March/April)

This festival is held to celebrate and honour HH Sheikha Fatima bint Mubarak with cultural events, beach dining, fireworks, musical shows and more. The celebration lasts a full 10 days during which the whole family can find something to enjoy, with many activities, workshops and performances taking place in and around the Corniche.

Ramadan and Eid al-Fitr (April/May)

Ramadan is the holiest month in the Islamic calendar when Muslims fast from dawn till dusk. The end of Ramadan is marked by Eid al-Fitr, a three-day feast, which is one of the biggest celebrations in Abu Dhabi. During the evenings, and during Eid, expats should make the most of indulging in local cuisine and customs.

Abu Dhabi International Hunting and Equestrian Exhibition (September)

This is the region’s most renowned hunting and equestrian extravaganza, showcasing exciting displays of Emirati traditions and culture, including beauty contests for Arabian horses and falcons, camel auctions, and fishing and hunting displays.

Taste of Abu Dhabi (November)

This Abu Dhabi food festival takes place over three days and sees both local and international chefs come together across the city to demonstrate their culinary skills in a celebration of delicious food, from gourmet delicacies to street food delights. International celebrity chefs and music acts add to the entertainment.

Abu Dhabi Grand Prix (November)

Held at the impressive Yas Marina Circuit, the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix was founded in 2009 and has just grown in popularity. It’s without a doubt the emirate’s biggest spectacle of the year and draws in thousands of petrol heads and fashionistas alike. After the race, the city buzzes with big concerts and other entertainment.

Keeping in Touch in Abu Dhabi

Internet connectivity is generally reliable and expats will find that keeping in touch in Abu Dhabi is quite easy, although relatively expensive compared to what some expats may be used to. Internet, telephone, mobile phone and post are available and service standards are quite good.

Two companies hold the monopoly over both telephone and internet services in the UAE, namely Etisalat (the national telecommunications company) and its primary rival on the market, Du. 


Landline telephones in Abu Dhabi

Landlines are not widely used in the UAE, with mobile phones being dominant when it comes to keeping in touch.

A request for a landline installation is usually done by the building owner – which will be an Emirati national or a company – and any apartment or house generally has one when it is rented out. Otherwise, landlines and internet can be installed as fast as the next day after requesting them.

Long-distance calls from a landline can be expensive. Calls between landlines within the UAE are relatively cheap, and, depending on the package, can be free on a post-paid landline. Payments can be done via the Etisalat website or through online banking, as all banks in Abu Dhabi offer bills payment methods on their sites.


Mobile telephones in Abu Dhabi

Mobile phones are the most common method of communication in the UAE. As both Etisalat and Du offer similar services, the only comprehensive difference is in coverage by their respective networks. Expats are able to apply for mobile phone contracts, but 'pay as you go' services are most common.

Mobile phone coverage in the UAE is extremely good, both nationally and internationally, and Etisalat and Du both offer a variety of plans and services.


Internet connectivity in Abu Dhabi

Internet connectivity in Abu Dhabi can be rather expensive compared to many other developed countries.

Etisalat and Du offer a broad spectrum of internet options, with the UAE now having one of the highest rates of fibre-to-the-home connectivity in the world.


Social networking and censorship in Abu Dhabi

Censorship is still common in Abu Dhabi, with numerous websites blocked in the emirate. Any material deemed to be offensive or inconsistent with the religious, political or moral values of the UAE is blocked. Pornographic, gambling and dating sites are also blocked. However, most of the main social networking sites, including Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter, are accessible.

Most other applications for messaging and video, including WhatsApp and FaceTime, are widely used and the best method to keep in touch with loved ones from Abu Dhabi. However, these services are sometimes subject to restrictions or blocked.


Postal and courier services in Abu Dhabi

Although traditional postal services are not very common nowadays, this service is very reliable in the UAE; postal services are used primarily for important documents sent by couriers. Couriers are usually on time, and the hassle is minimal.

Shipping packages or sending letters overseas is also easy. However, there is no home mail delivery; expats have to pick their mail up from the post office. Couriers are used for most home deliveries, such as credit cards. Utility bills are usually not mailed; they are available online.


English media and news in Abu Dhabi

English-language media is readily available in the UAE. The National and Gulf Times are English-language dailies. A number of other English magazines and newspapers are also readily available, including Aquarius, Time Out Abu Dhabi, Masala and Abu Dhabi World. There are also English radio and television stations.

Access to English-language television channels is quite good, including the Dubai-based Dubai One, as well as FOX and the BBC.

Shipping and Removals in Abu Dhabi

There are plenty of shipping and relocation companies in Abu Dhabi. Sometimes the employer will have an in-house or preferred provider who aims to make the move as smooth as possible. Relocation companies can be hired to assist with every aspect of the move to Abu Dhabi, from furniture transportation to school enrolment.

The UAE has strict rules on what may and may not be brought into the country. No weapons, ammunition or narcotics will be admitted. The UAE has imposed restrictions on various medicines, including codeine. It is advisable to check the UAE customs website before travelling as being caught with ‘banned’ items can result in a jail term.
 
All music, books, CDs and DVDs etc. will be subject to inspection/censorship at customs. Anything considered to be against the values, tradition and morality of the UAE will be banned. This would include anything with pornographic or anti-Islam content.

Many expats may also be surprised to learn that certain breeds of dog are banned in the UAE. Be sure to prepare accordingly if planning to ship a pet to Abu Dhabi.

Frequently Asked Questions about Abu Dhabi

There are many things to consider when deciding on a move to Abu Dhabi. At the forefront of many expats' concerns are culture, the emirate's education system and the cost of living.

Here are some answers to the most frequently asked questions that expats have about moving to Abu Dhabi.

Is the cost of living in Abu Dhabi really that bad?

The cost of living in Abu Dhabi, overall, is relatively high. However, as with anywhere in the world, an individual’s cost of living is all dependent on their particular lifestyle and family situation. Expat salaries for highly skilled and senior-level management jobs are usually high and it’s worth noting that salaries are tax-free. Accommodation and education will be the two most prominent monthly expenses for expats living in Abu Dhabi.

Will I experience any culture shock in Abu Dhabi?

Even though Abu Dhabi is a multi-cultural environment, where expats make up the majority of the population, Abu Dhabi is still a conservative Islamic emirate and expats coming from more liberal countries may struggle to adjust to this. There are strict rules and regulations governing behaviour; dress should be conservative and modest, buying and consuming alcohol requires a licence, and living together without being married, conducting adultery and homosexual behaviour are illegal in Abu Dhabi.

Will it be difficult to make friends in Abu Dhabi?

Abu Dhabi, like all areas in the UAE, claims a larger expat population than local one. As a result, there is plenty of opportunity for newcomers to find others who share their language, nationality, ethnicity, background and interests.

That said, it can be hard to make new friends initially, especially if not involved in a workplace. There is lots to do, but oftentimes people are hesitant to attend events alone. One of the best ways to make friends fast is to join a business or social group. There are plenty in Abu Dhabi, and nearly all group members were newcomers themselves at one point, so they understand the initial challenges of relocating to the emirate.

How important is it to speak the local language in Abu Dhabi?

Arabic is the national language of the UAE, but English is the business language, and most signs and documents are published in both. This means it's possible to get by without speaking more than a few words of Arabic – but there is no doubt one can make a real impact in business and social dealings by learning to speak conversational Arabic. So few expats make the effort to do so, that it is the simplest and most effective way to stand out in a positive manner.

Can I ship my pets to Abu Dhabi?

It's possible to ship pets to Abu Dhabi but given the heat and the likelihood of living in an apartment, large animals will not have a high quality of life. On the plus side, there are no quarantine laws.

Articles about Abu Dhabi

Expat Experiences in Abu Dhabi

When considering a move to a new city, there is nothing more useful than hearing real-life stories and experiences from other expats who have lived there. We'd love to hear about your expat experiences. Please contact us if you live or have lived in Abu Dhabi and would like to share your story.


Marike is an expat originally from South Africa. After living in Switzerland and China, she moved to the UAE. She now lives in Abu Dhabi and works as a kindergarten teacher. Read more about her life as an expat in Abu Dhabi.

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Marina is an experienced expat - she holds a Serbian passport, was born in Malaysia, grew up in Nigeria and has lived in the USA and Switzerland. She's now settled in Abu Dhabi, where she has lived for the past seven years. Read about her experiences as an expat in Abu Dhabi.

Marina - a Serbian expat living in Abu Dhabi

Eddie is an American expat who moved to the United Arab Emirates when his wife was offered a job there. In August 2016, they packed up their life in Texas, and along with their three children, headed to Abu Dhabi to start their new expat life. Read more about Eddie's expat experiences in Abu Dhabi.

Lindsey Parry spent a considerable amount of time in the UAE, before moving to Abu Dhabi permanently in 2013. She shares her insightful tips on making friends, overcoming challenges and what life is really like in Abu Dhabi. Read about her experiences here.

Mark Peters is an American expat who moved to Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates at the end of 2014. He shares his thoughts on his first experiences in a new country as he waits for his family to join him. Read about his experiences of living in Abu Dhabi.

Mark Peters is an American expat living in the UAE

Monica Dascal is a Romanian who was looking for a travelling career and ended up finding it as a flight attendant in Abu Dhabi. She met her husband there after just three months of living in the emirate, and six years later, they are still enjoying what Abu Dhabi has to offer. Read about her expat life in Abu Dhabi.

Ann Marie McQueen is a Canadian journalist working in Abu Dhabi, UAE. She moved there two years ago to help set up a new English newspaper. Before that she worked in Ottawa, Canada's capital, as a columnist and blogger for Sun Media. Read about her expat experience in Abu Dhabi.


 

Cristy Eubanks-Williams hails from Virginia and has recently quit her job and packed her bags in support of her husband's move to Abu Dhabi. She has adjusted well to life in the United Arab Emirates, and her teenage kids are loving their new location. Read about her take on expat life in Abu Dhabi.


 

This anonymous American expat living in Abu Dhabi found the city easy enough to settle into and foreign friends even easier to come by. She's now an active member of the American Women's Network, an organisation that aids new expats in dealing with the challenges that come with adaptation. Read about her expat experience in Abu Dhabi.


 

Randy "Ace" Parker has always loved adventure and fresh horizons. Originally from the Southeastern US, he moved to Abu Dhabi after a short career as a military officer, a series of boring technical jobs, and marriage which didn't work out. Here he relates his experiences so far of expat life in Abu Dhabi.


 

Getting Around in Abu Dhabi

With plans for major expansion in place, getting around in Abu Dhabi is set to get easier. The government has put a lot of effort into improving buses in the emirate and a metro service is expected to launch in the near future.

In the meantime, most expats in Abu Dhabi drive themselves or take a taxi. Efforts are being made to ease congestion, but there is often heavy traffic during morning and evening rush hours.

A bicycle-sharing scheme was launched at the end of 2014 but mainly seems to be for leisure purposes. Given the way the city is spread out and the summer heat, Abu Dhabi isn’t known for being very pedestrian-friendly.


Public transport in Abu Dhabi

Buses

Buses in Abu Dhabi are the most economical form of transport. The Abu Dhabi Department of Transport operates local routes on Abu Dhabi Island as well as various regional and intercity services.

Abu Dhabi's buses are modern, fully equipped and operate 24 hours a day. Most local city buses and some regional buses are wheelchair friendly. It is also worth noting that the front seats of buses are reserved for women.

An automated card system called Hafilat has vending machines installed at the main stations in Abu Dhabi. Under the system, the reloadable cards have largely replaced cash and the Orja card as means of paying for bus rides. 

Metro

No metro network exists yet in Abu Dhabi, but the planned metro will be 131 km. It will provide optimal connectivity between Abu Dhabi island and its suburbs and the communities of Saadiyat Island, Yas Island and Al Raha Beach.


Driving in Abu Dhabi

Expats often have their own set of wheels in Abu Dhabi, and usually buy a new or used car instead of renting because vehicle prices in the UAE are rather cheap.

Expats who have residence status and want to drive in the emirate will need to get a valid UAE driver’s licence. Those with a licence from a list of countries, including the UK, USA, Canada, Ireland, Australia and South Africa, can apply to replace their foreign licence with a local one at a Traffic and Licensing Department. They’ll need to undergo an eye test and provide various documents, including their passport, foreign licence and legal Arabic translation of the licence.

Driving in Abu Dhabi is best done with care. The authorities have zero tolerance for drinking and driving, and the smallest level of alcohol in a person's bloodstream can result in jail time. Expats who have committed road offences will also be unable to leave the UAE before they have paid their traffic fines.

Even though expats are likely to see other drivers ignore red lights and speed limits, there are cameras at many intersections and fines are high. Unfortunately, despite having excellent road infrastructure, car accidents are among the leading causes of deaths in the UAE.


Taxis in Abu Dhabi

Expats who aren’t keen to buy or rent a car in Abu Dhabi and don't want to brave the emirate’s roads alone often get around by taxi. Taxis can be flagged on the street or ordered ahead by telephone. Most taxis in Abu Dhabi are silver and are easily spotted. Taxis are usually metered and are relatively affordable.

Ride-hailing services are also available, and expats can download their choice of Lyft, Careem or Wow, among others, as an app on their phone, which makes communication with drivers and payment much simpler.