Image of the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque - a must see attraction if living in Abu Dhabi

Living in Abu Dhabi – An Insider’s Guide


Sarah Barthet


This post is all about what living in Abu Dhabi is really like, and general tips on life in Abu Dhabi.

2012 was the first year that I was properly introduced to the mysterious world of the United Arab Emirates. Of course, I was aware of its existence, its vast oil reserves and the renowned Burj Khalifa being the tallest building in the world, but that’s pretty much it.

You see back then, I wasn’t as clued up to Instagram or social media as I am now, and whatever I knew about the country was simply what I (very infrequently) heard from others.

It’s now 2023, and I feel that the United Arab Emirates, specifically, its two most famous emirates of Dubai and Abu Dhabi, are now so frequently featured on social media – with beautiful images of the country’s spectacular mosques, white sand beaches and vast desert plains often making their way onto many of our feeds.

The Abu Dhabi Skyline

But this was not my introduction to the UAE. Back in 2012, I was living in the bustling city of London, studying for my Masters degree. Holidays were sparse, money was tight and stress levels were high. So when it was suggested that my (now) husband and I book a trip to visit family that had recently located to Abu Dhabi, it was a no brainer.

I expected to be fascinated, I expected to be impressed – but what I didn’t expect was that it would become our goal to eventually find a way to live here in the future. We didn’t know how or when it would happen, but we knew we had fallen in love with the easy luxury lifestyle that the Emirates offered expats and we knew we wanted to be a part of it.

Fast forward a decade, and I’m proud to say that dream has become a reality, and whilst a lot has changed in the 10 or so years since our first visit, we are still as in love with the country as our very first visit all those years ago.

Today, I’m sharing what living in Abu Dhabi is really like with Dukes Avenue readers. I hope that it will inspire some to visit the region, or perhaps encourage some readers who are in search of change to take the relocation plunge. I’ll be sharing our own personal story, the process of moving to Abu Dhabi, and the pros and cons of living in Abu Dhabi so that readers can decide for themselves whether it is right for them.

Disclaimer: I want to stress that this is our story – what we experienced or how we feel about the pros and cons is very much personal, and not everyone’s journey and feelings will be the same. As we always say at Dukes Avenue, it’s important to find your own version of luxury – whatever that means to you.

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Woman at the beach, showing what living in Abu Dhabi is really like

Moving to Abu Dhabi

So how did we eventually end up moving to Abu Dhabi? To be honest, it came out of nowhere. Between my husband and I, we have always welcomed the idea of following the opportunities presented to us, and if that meant moving abroad, then so be it. Fortunately, having Dukes Avenue as an online business means I can be pretty flexible with my living arrangements!

One day last summer, my husband was headhunted for a role in Abu Dhabi by a UK recruiter. A complete coincidence, however he had applied for various positions in the UAE unsuccessfully in previous years. That day, it just so happened to come out of the blue. He didn’t quite get the role he applied for, but was referred for another position within the same company and was successful!

I’ll never quite forget the day we received the offer email, as it truly was a day that changed the course of our lives. Why am I sharing all this? Because it leads us to the first thing you need to know if you’re looking to move to Abu Dhabi or Dubai (or any of the other Emirates) as an expat.

The vast majority are going to need a sponsor. Most foreigners who come to live in the UAE are there thanks to work-based visas, meaning that an Emirati-based firm or the Emirati government is acting as their sponsor.  The good news is that they’ll likely handle all the paperwork for you. If you are travelling with a wife or husband and family (more on this later), the person who was offered employment will essentially be the sponsor for the rest of the family.

In some cases, a sponsor may not be required, so don’t automatically exclude yourself if you don’t have a local company to act as one. That said, there are criteria that will need to be met, and these criteria influence whether you’ll be granted a short-term or long-term visa.

If you are interested in either short-term, long-term or the much coveted Gold Card visa options, it’s best to connect with a qualified, professional Citizenship and Relocation Service for up-to-date requirements.

Editor’s Note: I purposely did not go into any of the criteria as these are subject to change and Dukes Avenue is by no means a UAE relocation specialist!

Life in Abu Dhabi

Ok, so you’ve decided that moving to the Middle East is right for you – you’ve connected with recruiters, found yourself a job locally and are patiently waiting to start life abroad… but what can you actually expect from life in Abu Dhabi?!

Expat Life in Abu Dhabi

The kind of life you can expect in Abu Dhabi will vary greatly depending on a number of factors, and of course, different people will have different opinions.

For me personally, and what feels like the general consensus from people I speak with – life in Abu Dhabi is pretty amazing. The sun is shining every day, it’s one of the safest cities in the world, the convenience factor (of practically everything) is through the roof and there are plenty of things to do in Abu Dhabi to keep you entertained.

Practically everyone speaks English (at varying levels – granted), and there is rarely a time when I have a hard time being understood. Remember that over 85% of the residents of Abu Dhabi are foreign, so it’s a whole melting pot of cultures, cuisines, religions and traditions.

If you’re feeling new to the country and a little lonely, remember that many are in the same boat and looking to meet new people too. There are plenty of opportunities to make new friends through expat social media groups on Facebook, events organized by the community you’re living in and ladies’ brunches and ladies’ nights that take place all over the city.

For the most part, the locals keep to themselves and typically live away from the usual expat gated communities. That’s not to say they are unpleasant – quite the opposite – but there is a clear divide between those Emirati nationals vs those who relocated here as expats.

Local women normally wear an black abaya with a shalya, a complementary headscarf. You’ll come across them going about their daily activities at the malls, typically with beautiful designer bags, shoes and a full face of makeup. All beautiful and poised, frequently in groups of women or with their families. On the other hand, men wear a dishdasha (a long white robe) and a ghotra (a type of scarf worn on the head).

I love that everyone is respectful, and in turn, it encourages you to be too. Unlike many Western countries, you’re unlikely to see fights or arguments break out, people rushing around and pushing their way through, or hear voices being raised.

Living in Abu Dhabi as a Woman

I thought I would add this as there are common misconceptions about moving to the Middle East as a woman – at least, I personally experienced these thoughts from family and friends.

I’ll say it like it is: there is a pecking order to society here, and women are not at the top – but neither are expats in general.

Whilst everyone is generally welcome here, it is clear to see that the Emiratis take care of their own first – rightly so as this is their country. They have opened their arms to the world, provided opportunities, accepted many from different cultures and religions and I personally see nothing wrong with respecting their home and their rules.

But what does that mean for expat women? To be honest… not all that much. As a female expat, you don’t need to wear the abaya, you are free to drive, have a career, wear a bikini at the beach, and pretty much do everything that you can do back home (almost).

The only thing you need to remember is that this is still an Islamic country, and like I mentioned earlier – be respectful. Wear a bikini to the beach? Sure. Wear super short skirts and a crop top to the mall? Maybe reconsider. It will invite looks from others and will likely be frowned upon, as will any signs of PDA.

I would say a simple rule of thumb is to dress more conservatively at the malls or government buildings where you might interact with locals, and more casually within gated expat community residences or international hotels.

Women are very much respected, and sometimes more so than in my own home country. For example, at the gym in my residential complex, there are set hours where only women are allowed to workout at the gym (to respect the more conservative residents), there is optional separate seating for women on public transport, and I’ve even come across ‘ladies parking‘ at some malls. If these perks are awarded for just being female, then I’m happy to accept them! I’ve never come across these privileges any where else in the world.

As mentioned earlier, ladies’ brunches or ladies’ nights are a big deal – and they often involve free-flowing drinks for a discounted price. Initially a Tuesday staple, these events now take place every day of the week at different locations and many more continue to pop up. For more info on the best places to go for ladies’ night in Abu Dhabi, check out this article on Times Out.

At the Sheikh Zayed Mosque inAbu Dhabi

Living in Abu Dhabi with Family

Living in Abu Dhabi with a family can be very comfortable, but it will require a slightly higher budget to allow for larger living arrangements, schooling and possibly household help.

I should also stress – living together as an unmarried couple is against the law. If you want to move to the UAE with your partner and intend on living together – you will need to be married. You will also need to present your marriage certificate if giving birth at local hospitals.

Options for living arrangements vary and these will range from apartments to villas. I love that many expat apartments and villas can be found within gated communities that include a gym, pool and possibly tennis and basketball courts, which is great if you have active young kids that want to play outside. The complex we reside in offers all of these amenities, as well as a separate kids’ pool. I frequently see groups of young children playing together in the basketball court after school or at the pool, which gives a lovely community feel.

Remember, the UAE as a whole is incredibly safe and crime rates are extremely low. It’s quite normal to see young children out at the malls or playing outside within the communities in the evening. This is a huge selling point for me – you could very well leave your front door unlocked without the fear that anyone is going to cause any harm.

When it comes to schooling, education is only free for UAE citizens at government institutions up to university level. Expats may also attend government schools as fee-paying students, or select from a number of private or international schools.

This next point is pretty unusual for most Westerners, but very common in the UAE and Middle East as a whole – many families have live-in household help, whether that’s a cleaner, cook, nanny or driver. It’s not uncommon for families to have all of those things. To cater to such families with more requirements and live-in staff, properties often have designated rooms or areas for them to reside within the same property.

Expats who move to the UAE with a family will definitely come across the ‘living in Abu Dhabi vs Dubai’ debate, and many will say Abu Dhabi is the preferred option to raise a family. Both are beautiful, but Dubai is more about the entertainment and nightlife, whereas Abu Dhabi feels more family orientated and calm.

Is Abu Dhabi Expensive?

I’ll admit, this is a question that really gets to me, yet is asked so often. The concept of whether or not something is expensive can vary wildly from person to person, so I don’t feel it’s fair to answer this with a yes or no answer. I guess the answer is… it depends.

To help give a better answer to the question of whether Abu Dhabi is expensive or not, here are somethings you might want to consider:

where are you relocating from? – having personally lived in London for 10 years, visited big cities like New York numerous times, and experienced places like Tokyo and Los Angeles, would say Abu Dhabi is pretty comparable to any of these big cities. Bear in mind that the local currency, the Dirham (AED), is pegged to the US Dollar, meaning that when the dollar is strong, prices feel abnormally high in comparison to your home currency.

what are your expectations or requirements when it comes to housing? – just like any of the big cities I just mentioned, you can find reasonably priced accommodation and you can find accommodation with a significant price tag. For example, a one bedroom apartment on Yas Island (which is still a great place to live) is significantly cheaper than say, a villa on Saadiyat Island. Think about what you need from your living arrangements – will you be driving? do you need to be close to certain schools? do you require outdoor space for dogs or play areas for children? do you need to be closer to the airport?

what are your entertainment preferences? – are you excited to check out all of the various international eateries that the city has to offer (and there are a lot) or is fine dining more your thing? You can find both, and they are at both ends of the ‘expensive‘ spectrum.

what kind of transportation are you comfortable with? – will you be living close to your place of work? do you plan to take taxis? Do you favor a Porsche over a Mazda?

Ultimately, it’s all going to depend on your Abu Dhabi expat salary package, what you are accustomed to and what your expectations are. It’s a place where it’s very easy to spend a lot of money, but you can also save a lot if you know where to shop from, where to eat out and how to be smart with what you spend your money on.

There are a few things I can say with certainty though:

– it’s a well-known fact that there is no income tax in the UAE, with a low 5% VAT only being introduced in 2018. This is a major driving force for many expats considering relocation to Abu Dhabi or Dubai.

alcohol is definitely more expensive than in Western countries – this is, after all, an Islamic country and drinking heavily is frowned upon. That’s not to say you can’t drink, but be prepared to pay a premium for it.

certain Western brands are priced higher than in America or Europe – I recommend NOT buying any designer goods from the malls (although tempting) and instead shopping from Farfetch, Net-a-Porter and the like. You might also want to stock up on makeup products when you visit home or have guests visiting.

The Cost of Living in Abu Dhabi

When it comes to the cost of living in Abu Dhabi, I recommend checking out some of the resources you can find online simply by conducting a quick Google search. Results vary wildly and change over time, but for the most part, I found Numbeo to be the most accurate and up-to-date.

I will add that from my first visit to the region in 2012, the cost of living has increased somewhat, particularly when it comes to rental prices – but it feels like this is the case in pretty much every big city around the world.

The Best Place to Live in Abu Dhabi

It’s hard to choose the best place to live in Abu Dhabi as most areas are great, and everywhere is reachable with a car or taxi. To choose the ideal place to live, have a think about where your job is based, whether you have kids that need to go to a specific school and just generally what you want out of your neighborhood.

For what it’s worth, here are some of my own thoughts on the different areas you might want to consider:

  • Saadiyat Island – the cultural district, known for its resort style luxury living vibes, beach villas, luxury beach clubs and golf courses
  • Al Reem Island – a waterfront community with multiple high rises offering luxury amenities
  • Yas Island – home to theme parks, the Yas Marina Circuit and the Yas Mall, great for entertainment
  • Al Raha Beach – close to Khalifa City and Yas Island, Raha is an up and coming area offering coastal living options
  • Al Reef – a popular residential area, particularly for those working at the airport and close to Dubai for those needing to commute between the two emirates
  • Corniche Area – Corniche Road is the most iconic road in Abu Dhabi, and runs along the coastline. Expect to find a range of high rises and large villas, parks and walking paths

What I will say is that gated communities or complexes are great – wherever they are located. As mentioned earlier, many of these complexes come with 24-hour security, free gym access for all residents, free use of a pool and many other amenities such as tennis courts, basketball courts and more!

Movers in Abu Dhabi

Including this here as it seems to be a commonly asked question. Honestly, there are loads of moving companies in the UAE and they are pretty much all the same. A quick Google search can help you find movers with the best ratings.

Believe me when I say this is the land of convenience, and you can find service providers who will be able to help you out with any moving requirements – even at short notice.

At the Emirates Palace in Abu Dhabi
An Evening at the Emirates Palace, Abu Dhabi

The Abu Dhabi Lifestyle

By this point, you probably have a good idea of what it means to be an Abu Dhabi expat, but just in case you want even more info, I’ve put together this list about all the pros and cons of living in Abu Dhabi, and tried to categorize them.

I haven’t really mentioned many cons up until this point – mostly because there aren’t that many – but if I really had to think about it, here are some of the things that might get a bit tiresome after some time. Don’t let them put you off though!

The Pros and Cons of Living in Abu Dhabi

Culture– All cultures and nationalities are welcome in the UAE – a true melting pot.

– The state puts a lot of emphasis on trying to keep their visitors happy, and it shows in the policies they implement – in fact in February 2016, the UAE Government created the post of Minister of State for Happiness.

– English widely spoken and understood.
– You may experience a bit of a culture shock, especially when dealing with customer service representatives. Not always an issue, but there have been times when there has been a lack of empathy.
Religion– The call to prayer everyday is really beautiful to hear.

– Working days are two hours shorter during Ramadan.

– All religions are welcome and accepted in the UAE – they even provide churches, synagogues, and temples to its multi-national and multi-faith population.
– Shariah law rules, which doesn’t personally bother me, but it may present a problem for unmarried couples wanting to move to the UAE.

– During the period of Ramadan, there is no eating drinking or smoking in public from dawn to dusk. Remember to always be respectful to the culture of the country you are in!
Accommodation– Most developments and villa communities have pools, gyms, sports facilities and entertainment options.

– There is generally a lovely community feel.
– You might find that there are a lack of address protocols, with deliverymen occasionally asking for a nearby landmark to make the delivery.

– Prices of higher end properties in affluent areas have increased in recent years.
Salaries– No income tax!– Local salaries are not as high as they once were, with benefits included in the packages decreasing.
Lifestyle– The convenience level is INSANE, from valet parking everywhere to being able to take your shopping trolley to the car park (and leave it there), to having Amazon Prime, to all shops offering same or next day delivery, and so much more.

– Plenty of entertainment options including ladies’ lunches, brunches and nights.

– A vast range of cheap eateries as well as fine dining options.

– Cultural attractions continue to emerge around the city.

– It is pretty normal to have live-in help to assist you in your day- to-day chores and errands.
– You may come across some bureaucracy which can be frustrating.

– A very relaxed way of living can sometimes be a breeding ground for inefficiency, but this is not always the case.
Travel– Being in the UAE means you are at the center of the world, and have access to two of the finest airlines, Etihad and Emirates. Both are very well-connected, making it very easy to travel.

– There are many emirates to explore other than Abu Dhabi and Dubai, and you can even consider driving further afield to say Oman or Saudi Arabia.
Local Transport– Taxi fares are very reasonable.– Cars are necessary to get around, so if you don’t drive, you will be using taxis.

– Some areas experience heavy traffic during rush hour.
Weather– The sun is always shining, almost every day of the year!– You might find it too hot in the summer months, but there is air conditioning pretty much everywhere, even the bus stops.
Shopping– You can buy pretty much everything, and almost always with same day or next day delivery.

– Amazon Prime operates here too!
– Some Western brands are more expensive than if buying them in the US or Europe.
Safety and Crime– Crime is pretty much non-existent. You can forget your cell phone on a restaurant chair, and it will still be there hours later.

– Overall, safety levels are excellent.
– For security reasons, there are cameras everywhere which can be a privacy concern. This might bother some, but I personally don’t notice it and love the safety that it comes with.

Healthcare– Healthcare facilities are also excellent. – Expats must have health insurance to use private hospitals or government hospitals in the event of a non-emergency.
Relationships and Friendships– Most UAE residents are expats, and many are looking to make new friends.

– There are plenty of expat groups on Facebook that will help in making connections.
– You may start missing friends and family back home as it is relatively far to visit frequently.
In the desert in Abu Dhabi

I hope this article gave a little bit of a glimpse into what life could be like as an expat in Abu Dhabi, and gave you the inspiration you need to try living abroad.



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