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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

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. Al Ain, the second largest city in Abu Dhabi, is also becoming a hotspot for expatriate workers in the UAE who are seeking a slower pace of life.

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 expatriate 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. 

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.

There are plenty of opportunities for expats to spend their hard-earned salaries in the UAE’s numerous shopping malls and souks (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 Muslim 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.

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.

Healthcare in the UAE is excellent, and medical facilities are modern and easily accessible for both 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, and is organised and, generally, completely financed by the employer.

The largest concern that expats moving to the UAE with children will have is sorting out 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.

Essential info for United Arab Emirates

Official name: United Arab Emirates (UAE)

Capital city: Abu Dhabi

Other major cities: Dubai, Sharjah, Ajman, Fujairah

Population: About 9.4 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 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. It is customary to round up taxi fares to the nearest AED 5 and giving an additional AED 10 to hairdressers and beauty therapists is appreciated. 

Time: GMT +4

Electricity: 220 and 240 volts, 50Hz. The square three-pin plugs are the most frequently used.

Internet domain: .ae

International dialling code: +971 for UAE, plus (0)2 for Abu Dhabi. City/area codes are in use, e.g. (0)2 for Abu Dhabi and (0)4 for Dubai.

Emergency contacts: In case of emergency expats can dial 999

Transport and driving: Cars drive on the right-hand side. Seat belts are mandatory and children under 10 must sit in the rear seats. Expats must get a local driving license once they acquire their residence visa. Holders of a driving license issued by the US, UK, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and most European countries do not need to take a driving test.

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 1 669 8588


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 2 441 1222

Public Holidays in United Arab Emirates

 

2020

2021

New Year's Day

1 January

1 January

Israa & Miaraj Night

22 March

11 March

Eid Al-Fitr

22-26 May

11-15 May

Arafat Day

30 July

19 July

Eid Al-Adha

31 July-2 August

20-22 July

Hijri New Year's Day

20 August

10 August

UAE National Day 

2 December

2 December

Prophet Mohammed's Birthday

29 October

19 October

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

Doing Business in United Arab Emirates

Any expat doing business in the UAE will find themselves one foreigner in a sea of many. The vast 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.

The UAE is a relatively easy country to do business in, and this has been reflected in many international business surveys. Most notably, the country was ranked an impressive 11th out of 190 countries in the World Bank's Ease of Doing Business Survey for 2018. The UAE was ranked in first place for getting electricity and second for paying taxes. The country also scored particularly highly for factors such as dealing with construction permits (5th) and enforcing contracts (9th).

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 a Muslim 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. There may also be frequent breaks during the day for Muslim prayer times, so expats should expect and be patient about these interruptions. Working hours during the month of Ramadan are shortened by two to three 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 Muslim 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 hands 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 'Salaam Alaikum' is used instead of 'hello' and relationships built on politeness are pivotal to success in the professional world. Dates in documents should be detailed in both Gregorian and Hijrah dates. 

Attitude to foreigners

Business culture in the UAE is welcoming to foreign investment. Expat business owners are required to 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

Expats are likely to experience some culture shock in the UAE. However, 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 that find their way there quickly slide into a fairly insular niche made up of those from home or those from places similar to home.

The majority of the UAE’s 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, but they are obligated to respect it, which can certainly take some adapting to in its own right.

Dress and behaviour should be modest, buying and consuming alcohol requires a licence, and living together without being married is illegal in the UAE, as is conducting homosexual behaviour and adultery.


Religion in the UAE

Islam is the official religion of the UAE and the majority of Emiratis are Muslim. However, the government is a lot more liberal in this respect than some of its neighbours; 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. However, it’s illegal to proselytise in the UAE and to spread the ideas of any religion apart from Islam through any form of media or the distribution of religious literature. Those caught doing this can face criminal prosecution, imprisonment and deportation.

Nevertheless, non-Muslim groups do openly advertise religious functions such as holiday celebrations, religious gatherings and fundraising events in the local printed media and across social media platforms. Non-Muslim celebrations such as Christmas, Easter, Diwali and Onam are also marketed by some retail outlets offering specials and selling decorations and foods for these occasions.

One of the biggest adjustments to life in the UAE is getting used to the five daily calls to prayer. Most mosques are co-ordinated and the congregational prayer salat that happens each Friday, at about noon, 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 water and dates, and then enjoy the Iftar feast.


Drinking and drugs in the UAE

The consumption of alcohol is only legal for non-Muslims within licensed restaurants, pubs, clubs or private venues. Westerners must obtain an alcohol licence through the local police if they wish to purchase alcohol. It costs a percentage of one's salary, puts a limit on how much one can buy and is valid for one year.

Although it’s possible to buy alcohol without a licence at some shops, expats should not do so. Nor should they carry alcohol on the street or transport it in their cars, as they can be arrested in the case of an accident or if they are stopped by police. Bars are tucked away from the streets in hotels; public drunkenness is not allowed and could lead to an arrest. There is also a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to drinking and driving. The minimum drinking age is 18.

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. Even those simply transiting through major airports are subject to strict searches.

Expats bringing prescription drugs to the UAE should bring a doctor's note and should make an effort to notify authorities beforehand.


Emiratis in the UAE

There is an unofficial social structure in the UAE, and Emiratis are at the top. It's not unusual to be standing in a queue to order ice cream or buying a pair of shoes, only to find an Emirati has jumped to the front of the line and commanded the cashier or server's attention. It's also possible to be waiting in the heat for 15 minutes for a taxi and when one stops, a person who arrived seconds ago sweeps into it.


Men and women in the UAE

Overt public displays of affection are not allowed in the UAE. Public kissing or touching will at best offend local sensibilities and at worst get expats arrested. It's best to remember this goes for when in cars and taxis as well – anyone could be watching so it's best not to take any chances.

Men should not be surprised if women do not want to sit by them. Conversely, men will sometimes move away from women, out of respect for them. This frequently happens in movie theatres and airplanes. Western women who do not cover their shoulders may find men turning away from them; this is out of respect to the woman and not an act of judgement.


Marriage and co-habitation in the UAE

It is illegal for a man and woman who are not married to cohabit in the UAE. However, it is clear, given the number of unmarried Western couples living in the county, that this law is neither adhered to, nor enforced with any vigour. Many unwed couples give the illusion of being married by referring to each other as husband and wife and wearing ‘wedding’ rings. The general rule is to keep a low profile; the police do not actively seek out cohabiting couples (although they are more vigilant during the holy month of Ramadan) but it should be remembered that it is illegal and lawbreakers can be punished with a prison term, deportation or both.

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

  • Coins: 1 AED and 50, 25, 10 and 5 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; though service levels are rarely consistent, most banks are accustomed to catering to the large foreign community and there is usually no language barrier to speak of.

Some banks, such as HSBC and Barclays, offer offshore accounts so that expats can save their hard-earned wages outside the UAE. These are worth considering, as in the case of death, the government has the right to freeze an expat's account until their estate and debts are settled; a foreigner's home country will is not valid in Abu Dhabi.

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.

For Muslim expatriates and locals, all UAE banks offer Sharia-based accounts in accordance with Islamic laws and banking principles. These accounts earn no interest and have somewhat complicated arrangements for mortgages and loans.

One aspect of banking in the UAE that expats may find frustrating is the fact that many transactions can only be done in person at the branch, so expats should be sure to choose a bank that is convenient to their lifestyle. High fees for doing electronic transfers mean most people stick to cheques, cash and credit cards for making payments to a third party.

Cheques

Cheques are still widely accepted in the UAE. Expats can issue a cheque for pretty much anything, but beware if it bounces, as the penalty can include jail and a fine. 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 and credit cards

ATMs are widely available in the UAE and there is no charge 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, though in some cases, they can be rather unsophisticated.

Credit cards normally attract high interest charges. Some expats do run into trouble living beyond their means in the UAE, so it’s important to remain disciplined.


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. However, 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.