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Moving to United Arab Emirates

Expats moving to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) can anticipate a rich and rewarding experience. The country's cosmopolitan cities are among the most Westernised in the Middle East, and its competitive business environment – bolstered by the added incentives of generous expat salary packages and no income taxation – has been drawing foreign professionals to its shores for many years. 

The UAE consists of seven emirates (the equivalent of principalities), namely Abu Dhabi, Ajman, Dubai, Fujairah, Ras al-Khaimah, Sharjah and Umm al-Quwain. The most popular destinations for expat workers in the UAE are the emirates of Dubai and Abu Dhabi

Living in the UAE as an expat

Abu Dhabi, the capital of the UAE, is an enormous urban metropolis that has seen tremendous growth in recent years. The majority of expats moving to Abu Dhabi move to Abu Dhabi city, which boasts some great expat-heavy residential areas and suburbs, as well as fantastic employment prospects.

Dubai is the most established expat destination in the UAE. In recent years, thanks to the vision (and the petrodollars) of its leader, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al-Maktoum, Dubai has transformed itself into a cosmopolitan metropolis, with the majority of its population actually being comprised of expat workers. There is plenty to see and do in Dubai, and there are fantastic work opportunities available for skilled and qualified expats looking to start a new life in the UAE. 

There are many opportunities for expats to spend their hard-earned salaries in the UAE’s numerous shopping malls and souqs (markets), and with a thriving expat population, there are also many social events and gatherings to enjoy.

Nevertheless, although the UAE is more cosmopolitan and considered more progressive than many of its Middle Eastern neighbours, expats should remember that the UAE is still a conservative nation; Arabic is the official language and Islam is the official religion. It's essential that new arrivals familiarise themselves with the local laws of the land and respect the local culture.

Cost of living in the UAE

Although many foreigners move to the UAE to save money in the income-tax-free environment, expats should note that the cost of living in the UAE remains steep, and it's important to factor this into any contract negotiations, particularly the two likely largest expenses: accommodation and schooling. Aside from these larger bills, groceries, transport, utilities, and of course petrol, are quite reasonably priced when compared to other expat destinations.

Expat families and children

The largest concern that expats moving to the UAE with children will have is schooling. Expat kids in the UAE have limited access to free or government-sponsored schools. There are many private international schools in the popular emirates of Dubai and Abu Dhabi catering to the needs of foreign students. For the most part, these schools adhere to high standards, but fees can be exorbitant and space is limited. It’s therefore important that parents begin the enrolment process as early as possible.

Healthcare in the UAE is excellent, and medical facilities are modern and easily accessible for locals and expats alike. Nevertheless, it’s important that expats in the UAE have comprehensive medical insurance; in some emirates, it is the law that companies provide this for their employees. In the case of Abu Dhabi, health insurance is a mandatory prerequisite to obtaining a residence visa, but this tends to be organised and, generally, completely financed by the employer.

Climate in the UAE

Another major adjustment for many expats will be the stifling summer temperatures and desert heat. Temperatures can average 100°F (40°C) during summer, peaking in August. Many expats plan long family holidays during this period to escape the uncomfortably hot conditions.


Fast facts

Official name: United Arab Emirates (UAE)

Capital city: Abu Dhabi

Population: 10 million

Geography: The UAE is a small country occupying a desert stretch of land along the northeastern part of the Persian Gulf​​​​.

Neighbouring countries: The UAE is bordered by Oman to the southeast and Saudi Arabia to the southwest, with the Persian Gulf to the north.

Political system: United Arab Emirates (UAE) is a federation of seven constitutional monarchies/emirates. Traditionally, the ruler of Abu Dhabi is also the president of the UAE.

Major religions: Islam. Other religions are tolerated, but proselytising is illegal.

Main languages: Arabic is the official language, but English is widely spoken.

Money: The currency of the UAE is the Dirham (AED), divided into 100 fils. ATMs are widely available and credit cards are accepted in most establishments. Expats are able to open a bank account in the UAE.

Tipping: A 10 percent service fee is usually added to restaurant bills, but this rarely makes it to the serving staff, so leaving an additional cash tip on the table may be a good idea.

Time: GMT+4

Electricity: 220V and 240V, 50Hz. Square three-pin plugs are the most frequently used.

Internet domain: .ae

International dialling code: +971

Emergency contacts: 999

Transport and driving: Cars drive on the right-hand side of the road. Seat belts are mandatory and children under 10 must sit in the rear seats. Expats must get a local driving licence once they acquire their residence visa.

Embassy contacts for United Arab Emirates

Embassies for the United Arab Emirates

  • Embassy of the UAE, Washington DC, United States: +1 202 243 2400

  • Embassy of the UAE, London, United Kingdom: +44 20 7581 1281

  • Embassy of the UAE, Ottawa, Canada: +1 613 565 7272

  • Embassy of the UAE, Canberra, Australia: +61 2 6286 8802

  • Embassy of the UAE, Pretoria, South Africa: +27 12 342 7736

  • Embassy of the UAE, Dublin, Ireland: +353 1 660 0000

  • Embassy of the UAE, Wellington, New Zealand: +64 4 974 5715 


Foreign embassies in the United Arab Emirates

  • United States Embassy, Abu Dhabi: +971 2 414 2200

  • British Embassy, Abu Dhabi: +971 2 610 1100

  • Canadian Embassy, Abu Dhabi: +971 2 694 0300

  • Australian Embassy, Abu Dhabi: +971 2 401 7500

  • South African Embassy, Abu Dhabi: +971 3 447 3446

  • Irish Embassy, Abu Dhabi: +971 2 495 8200

  • New Zealand Embassy, Abu Dhabi: +971 2 496 3333

Public holidays in United Arab Emirates

 

2022

2023

New Year's Day

1 January

1 January

Eid al-Fitr

2–5 May

21–24 April

Arafat Day

8 July

27 June

Eid al-Adha

9–12 July

28 June–1 July

Hijri New Year

30 July

19 July

Prophet Mohammed's Birthday

8 October

27 September

Commemoration Day

1 December

1 December

UAE National Day

3 December

3 December

*Note that Islamic holidays are subject to the sighting of the new moon and some dates may change accordingly.

Safety in United Arab Emirates

The UAE is often hailed for its impeccable safety record and the life of luxury expats can enjoy with no fear of crime. In contrast to other highly populated cities, Abu Dhabi and Dubai have a high standard of safety, and violent crime is extremely rare, but petty crimes do occur and normal precautions should be taken.

The penalties for breaking laws in the UAE are severe and expats should familiarise themselves with local laws and customs in order to avoid attracting unwanted attention.


Crime in the UAE

Burglaries can and do occur, especially during the summer months when many expat families return to their home countries, leaving houses vacant. On the other hand, it is considered safe to walk around late at night and to take taxis independently.

Women on their own are not considered to be targets or at risk, but should ensure that they dress modestly as there have been occasional reports of women being harassed.


Road safety in the UAE

Road safety in the UAE is a concern and although road-traffic fatalities have gone down in recent years, driving here is not for the faint-of-heart. While there are financial penalties for dangerous driving and speeding, they are well within most people's financial means and therefore are not a successful deterrent.

The UAE has a no-tolerance policy for drinking and driving. Penalties are severe and can include a fine and/or jail time.

All traffic accidents, no matter how minor, are required by law to be reported to the police immediately. Dial 999 from the scene.


Terrorism in the UAE

The UAE does not have a high threat of terrorism, although some governments have warned of the possibility of extremist attacks in the country due to its proximity to other volatile countries in the Middle East and its large Western expat community.


Protests in the UAE

The UAE was largely unaffected by the Arab Spring of 2011. The country’s wealth and the high standard of living means that there is not much economic and social dissent against the government and protests and public demonstrations are generally rare.

Working in United Arab Emirates

Dreams of a luxurious lifestyle and tax-free salaries continue to attract many expats to work in the UAE, although salaries are less lucrative now than a few years ago, while housing costs have risen disproportionately.

Abu Dhabi and Dubai are the most popular destinations and opportunities abound in a range of sectors, including banking and finance, insurance, construction, retail and services, and the telecoms sector.

Expats should note that Emiratisation – a government policy that aims to increase the number of Emiratis in the workforce – is becoming increasingly prevalent, and with the economic fallout of Covid-19, even more preference may be given to locals in the job market.

Although generous relocation packages are not as common as they used to be, expats will still have plenty of opportunities to both splurge and save. Those in very senior executive positions are likely to still command generous employment benefits such as housing, schooling and transport allowances, and as a minimum, expats offered work in the UAE can expect funding of their initial flights there and a return flight to their home country at least once a year, as well as health insurance. If these benefits aren't forthcoming, we recommend expats negotiate with prospective employers.

Most who move to the UAE do so with a confirmed job offer in place and the employer arranges the logistics and the necessary paperwork for the residence and work permit. Expats considering a move should be aware that career flexibility in the UAE can be limited. Since residence depends upon sponsorship, which is tied to an employment contract, it's not easy to move between companies.

With so many expats living and working in the UAE, the business environment is unlikely to present any major culture shock for new arrivals. However, as the UAE is an Islamic country, Emirati businessmen will still take their mandate from Islam and Arab culture, and expats need to remain patient and flexible and always respect the local traditions and customs.

Doing business in United Arab Emirates

Any expat doing business in the UAE will find themselves to be one foreigner in a sea of many. The majority of the country's population is made up of those from abroad and, as a result, the working world is a mosaic of multinational influences.

Business customs and practices in the UAE vary from one company, colleague and client to the next, and the most important preparation an expat can make is to be flexible and understanding. That said, it's also important to remember that the UAE is an Islamic country, and Emirati businessmen will still take their mandate from Islam and Arab culture.


Fast facts

Business hours

Business hours in the UAE can vary. The work week runs from Sunday to Thursday, with Friday and Saturday as designated days of rest. Offices generally open somewhere between 7.30am and 9am and close at 5pm; however, the oppressive heat of summer has inspired some companies to implement a ‘split shift’ schedule that includes a three- to four-hour break in the afternoon and extended evening hours.

Business language

Arabic is the official language of the UAE, but English is widely spoken in business.

Dress

Business attire in the UAE is generally formal. Women should dress modestly, keeping arms and legs covered. Traditional Islamic attire is not necessary. Local businessmen may wear Western attire or a dishdasha, a flowing robe seen at nearly every type of occasion.

Gifts

It is not necessary to give gifts to business contacts in the UAE, but a small token with personal significance is not inappropriate.

Gender equality

Men and women are treated equally in business, although senior executive positions are still dominated by men.

Greeting

A handshake is the usual greeting between men. Placing one's right hand on one's chest after shaking hands marks a sign of respect. If greeting a woman, wait for her to extend her hand first. More devout Muslim women may not be comfortable shaking hands with men, and while dress may be an indicator, there is no easy way to gauge this beforehand. The best practice is to allow female business associates to offer their hand first.


Business culture in the UAE

Despite its cosmopolitan veneer, business culture in the UAE has its roots in Arab values and traditions. Along with respecting the all-encompassing effect religion has on everyday activity, expats will need to realise that relationship-building is paramount in the working world.

Communication and relationships

Foreigners looking to successfully do business in the UAE must acquaint themselves with the importance of building relationships. Emiratis do business with people they trust, and initial business dealings will always be devoted to getting to know each other. Some smaller, family-owned businesses may only grant access to decision-makers once a connection with junior members has been forged. Expats should budget time for this endeavour and should take care not to rush into negotiations.

It's also important to note that verbal agreements carry significant weight in the UAE. Be mindful of what is said, especially when it comes to agreements, conditions and refusals. That said, haggling is a common practice, so be prepared to engage in some good-natured negotiating.

Meetings

Expats may be surprised to find that punctuality is not always observed and it is not uncommon to be kept waiting on occasion. As family takes precedence in the Middle East, meetings may feature frequent interruptions and disturbances, so patience is expected. The Arabic greeting of 'assalamu alaikum' is used instead of 'hello' and relationships built on politeness are pivotal to success in the professional world.

Attitude to foreigners

Business culture in the UAE is welcoming to foreign investment. Expat business owners must be respectful of Islamic culture and tradition; however, they are not required to practise it themselves.


Dos and don’ts of business in the UAE

  • Always dress conservatively and wear a suit and tie

  • Don't rush into business talk. Emiratis prefer to get to know their business associates before any real negotiations can begin.

  • Respect Islamic religious and cultural practices. Although foreigners are not expected to practice the religion, they should be mindful of the impact it has on everyday life in the UAE.

  • Always arrive on time, though locals may be late

  • Don't use the left hand to eat or gesture to another person

  • Have one side of a business card translated into Arabic

Culture shock in United Arab Emirates

While expats are likely to experience some culture shock in the UAE. The country epitomises a true melting pot of cultures, and with the expat community accounting for nearly 80 percent of the UAE's population, many foreigners who relocate here quickly slide into a fairly insular niche made up of fellow expats.

The majority of the local population is Muslim and the country operates according to Islamic traditions; expats will need to make sure they're familiar with local customs and behaviour. While non-Muslims are not expected to comply with Islamic code, they are obligated to respect it, which, in itself, can take some getting used to.


Religion in the UAE

Islam is the official religion of the UAE and the majority of Emiratis are Muslim. That said, the right to freedom of religion is respected, and there is very little interference in the practice of other religions in the country.

Non-Muslim religious groups can own their own land and build houses of worship, where they can practice their religion, but it’s illegal to proselytise in the UAE.

One of the biggest adjustments to life in the UAE is getting used to the five daily calls to prayer, each of which lasts a few minutes. Most mosques are co-ordinated. On Fridays at about noon, a congregational prayer known as 'salaat al-jumu'ah' takes place and is considerably longer.

The prayer can be heard on the street, in homes, at work, on the radio and television and even in malls. For newcomers, it can be a repeated reminder of their new surroundings.

Ramadan

During the holy month of Ramadan, Muslims and non-Muslims alike are required to refrain from eating, drinking and smoking in public during the fasting hours (sunrise to sunset) out of respect for the Islamic practice. Those not complying with this may face prosecution.

Working conditions during Ramadan may vary, with some workplaces adopting a traditional approach, forbidding any eating, drinking or smoking, while others have more relaxed environments where designated rooms are allocated for non-Muslims to eat and drink. Muslims break the day’s fast at sundown with a traditional feast called Iftar.


Drinking and drugs in the UAE

Though the UAE once had numerous restrictions concerning the purchase and consumption of alcohol, these have recently been relaxed. Expats no longer need a special alcohol licence to purchase, transport or possess alcohol for consumption at home. Drinking in licensed public establishments such as bars is legal for patrons over the age of 21.

It's strictly illegal and forbidden to bring drugs into the UAE. Even the slightest residual amount can result in arrest, a four-year imprisonment and then deportation. This is not a law to take lightly.

Expats bringing prescription drugs to the UAE should bring a doctor's note and stick well below the legal limit of what quantity of medication can be brought in.


Men and women in the UAE

Public decency laws in the UAE can be somewhat unclear, but some types of public affection may be considered indecent. It's generally best to err on the side of caution and keep public displays of affection to a minimum.

Men should not be surprised if women do not want to sit close to them. Conversely, men will sometimes move away from women, out of respect for them.

Previously, cohabitation between unmarried couples was illegal in the UAE. As part of recent law revisions, this is no longer the case and unmarried couples are free to live together.

Articles about United Arab Emirates

Banking, money and taxes in United Arab Emirates

Expats will find banking in the UAE to be simple, sophisticated and reasonably familiar. That said, as is the case with any foreign destination, there are a few quirks to take into account and practices to avoid debt and maximise the tax-free liberties that come with living in the country.


Money in the UAE

The dirham is the local currency in the United Arab Emirates and is abbreviated as AED. It is sometimes also written as DH or Dhs. One dirham is divided into 100 fils. 

The dirham is available in the following denominations:

  • Notes: 5 AED, 10 AED, 20 AED, 50 AED, 100 AED, 200 AED, 500 AED and 1,000 AED.

  • Coins: 1 AED and 5 fils, 10 fils, 25 fils and 50 fils


Banking in the UAE

The UAE’s banking system is sophisticated, with plenty of local and international options.

Many foreigners choose a brand that they recognise from their home country, especially if they already have an account opened with that particular institution. Expats shouldn’t immediately discount local options as most banks are accustomed to catering to the large foreign community and there is usually no language barrier to speak of.

Banks generally keep hours from 8am to 2pm, and are closed on Fridays. Branches in large malls may stay open later. Internet banking facilities, some better than others, are commonplace.

Opening a bank account

Opening a bank account in the UAE is a fairly painless process once expats have their residence visa. Expats will need to show proof of their visa, as well as provide their passport, proof of address and a no-objection letter from their employer in order to open a bank account in the UAE.

Fees and service offerings differ between the various banks. Current accounts, debit and credit cards, savings accounts and car loans are standard fare, with some banks also offering preferential banking, depending on a person’s salary level.

Cheques

Cheques are still widely accepted in the UAE. Post-dated cheques are popular and are the primary method used for buying a car and paying annual rent, as debit orders are not common in the UAE.

ATMs

ATMs are widely available in the UAE. There may be charges for drawing cash from a different bank’s machine.

Most banks also have cheque and cash deposit machines available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Internet banking facilities are also available.


Taxes in the UAE

As most expats know, a huge advantage of working in the UAE is that there is no taxation on expat income, nor is there GST. That said, as of 2018, there is a five percent VAT.

There is tax attached to drinks and meals in restaurants that serve alcohol, but these additions are minimal.

Some expats may be liable for tax in their home country, although the amount varies and relates to how long one spends outside of the country, and whether they qualify for non-resident tax status.

Expats should consult a tax advisor to help with the process of filing in their home country, if necessary.