Expat Guide To Living In Abu Dhabi

Abu Dhabi illustration

Estimated reading time: 15 minutes

In this expat guide, we explore the practicalities of living In Abu Dhabi as an expatriate. Abu Dhabi is the second largest in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), after only Dubai. So, let’s dive a little deeper into life in this prestigious island city and whether it’s the best place for you in the middle east.

Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates

Although often mistaken as a separate country, Abu Dhabi is a city and emirate in the UAE, comprising seven emirates.

Based on an island, you’ll find it off the west coast, in the Persian Gulf, sitting right on the edge of the Rub Al Khali Desert.

Abu Dhabi is a magnet for expats and international travellers looking for a glamorous destination with some of the best beaches in the world.

The majority of foreign nationals in the UAE are professionals and move to this affluent part of the world for corporate career opportunities.

Doubtless, you’re going either to need a decent nest egg to cope with the pace of life here or local employment with a budget to match.

Of the seven UAE states, Abu Dhabi is the capital city and largest emirate, and although it’s luxurious, it doesn’t have a long history, having only been federated in 1971.

Since then, the city has grown massively, with around a 2 million population, 150 nationalities, and a hub for businesses with impressive tax incentives.

It’s a paradise for those who love slick city living, motorsports, and mega malls – but it also has some fantastic landscapes, coastlines and mangroves, with turtles nesting along the shores.

You wouldn’t be alone here, either – the lavish lifestyle attracts thousands every year, and something like 90% of residents are expats. Of those, an estimated 200,000 are Brits.

So, let’s dive a little deeper into life in this prestigious island city and whether it’s the best place for you in the UAE.

Reasons To Move To Abu Dhabi

So it’s warm, sunny and expensive, but there’s a lot more to living in Abu Dhabi than the picture-perfect postcards and fancy restaurants.

Here are some of the top reasons British expats opt for Abu Dhabi as their home from home:

  • Happiness matters. There is a UAE Minister of State for Happiness and Wellbeing. The emirates are all about the best living standards in the world and are proactive about making that happen.
  • The sky is always blue, pretty much without fail. So amazing beaches, incredible weather and glorious sunshine are a given.
  • The landscapes are gorgeous. A lot of it might be human-made, such as the islands off Dubai’s coast, but you can find nature here, too. The adjacent desert is called the Empty Quarter and is the largest sand desert in the world.
  • Communities here are a great mixture of expats from around the world – which means a heady combination of cuisines, languages and cultures all coexisting side by side.
  • It’s expensive, but the tax rates aren’t. The lack of income tax and low VAT rate (just five per cent) means that while living standards are high, the government doesn’t make any dent at all in your monthly paycheck.

Let’s talk for a minute about cash – because your budget will heavily influence any international move.

We’ll run through typical living expenses later, but it’s worth remembering that, while general costs are relatively high, they aren’t significantly different from average prices in the UK.

You can find reasonable average salaries, fantastic employee benefits, and incentives for skilled expats, making life in Abu Dhabi surprisingly affordable – with no shortage of good quality employment opportunities.

Working in Abu Dhabi is also a lot more laid back than in the UK. Working days are fixed at a maximum of eight hours, the UAE Labour Laws are strict, and you can expect around 22 to 30 days of holiday a year.

Open-minded about where to live in the Gulf region? Check out the Top 10 Middle East Countries For Expats.

Visas And Residency For UK Expats In Abu Dhabi

If moving to Abu Dhabi sways you, the next thing you’ll need to think about is a visa. The good news is that the process is simpler than in many parts of the Middle East.

The UAE government aims to make visas simple to apply for, and a lot depends on whether you have a job – and the subsequent employment sponsorship – or are travelling independently.

Note that it’s not as easy to move to the UAE for reasons other than work, but certainly possible.

Tourist visas

UK travellers don’t need a visa before travelling to Abu Dhabi. However, provided you have a full GB passport, you are granted a tourist visa free of charge on arrival.

All you need to do is visit the immigration desk to be granted a UAE Tourist Visa valid for up to 90 days.

Residence visas

If you plan to live in Abu Dhabi or anywhere in the UAE long-term, you need a residence visa. There are various types, but you’ll probably need an employment sponsor to get an initial permit.

The process works like this:

  • Look for a job – many UAE employers are familiar with visa sponsorship and won’t consider it any problem. Once you have been interviewed (usually online) and offered a position, the employer will typically take over the visa application process.
  • It’s best to get your documents notarised before sending them to your employer, who will apply for an entry permit for you. Most expats receive their entry permit via email, and it’s best to print a copy. Then, you pick up the original from the passport desk at Abu Dhabi airport.
  • Next, you’ll need to take a medical test and use that certification to file for a formal residency visa. That allows you to stay for two years, and you need to apply within 60 days of arrival. Note that medical tests involve blood tests and chest x-rays, and you cannot get a residency visa if you have HIV/AIDS or pulmonary tuberculosis.

Employers pay all visa application costs and usually include this as a perk to attract skilled foreign nationals.

For Emiratis thinking about getting permanent residency in the UK, look at the Tier 1 Investor Visa guide.

While Abu Dhabi might not always be as popular with glamour seekers as Dubai, the capital of the UAE offers a vast range of places to live – and they’re not all packed into skyscraper vistas.

Here we’ll showcase some of the best places to live in Abu Dhabi for UK expats.

Yas Island

About 12 miles west of the city centre, Yas Island is a tourist spot but equally popular with families. Here you’ll find:

  • Excellent schools, including Sabis School Yas Island and Yas School.
  • Attractions such as Warner Bros World, Ferrari World and Yas Waterworld.
  • A range of accommodations, primarily apartments and villas.

It isn’t a cheap place to live, given the commercial nature of the area. But, it also offers two major hospitals, so it is a great place to experience all the amenities and entertainment you can imagine within a short distance.

Saadiyat Island

This area is the place for keen shoppers, with a massive range of things to do, from Monte-Carlo Beach Club to the Saadiyat Beach Golf Club and mega-malls such as Art Central and Galleria Mall.

The island is around 20 minutes by car from Abu Dhabi Airport and is also a great place for culture, with:

  • Manarat al Saadiyat – a tech and entertainment centre.
  • Grand Mosque South Gate Abu Dhabi.
  • The Louvre Abu Dhabi.

It is a luxurious neighbourhood with prices to match and many large residential complexes, a perfect beachfront and five-star hotels.

Al Reem Island

Somewhere slightly more natural, Al Reem Island is an authentic island and a great place to relax. Of course, there are still modern apartment blocks and plenty of high rises, but you’ll also find:

  • Schools and parks.
  • Pedestrian-friendly walkways.
  • A beautiful waterfront landscape.

Al Reem Island is popular with families and has all the restaurants and shopping centres you’d expect.

Mohammed Bin Zayed City

Next, we’ll visit a development on the outskirts of Abu Dhabi designed to be family-friendly, which is a lot quieter and more peaceful.

Residents here enjoy far less traffic, a whole lot less pollution, and a couple of large malls for entertainment – all still within a commute of the employment areas and industries in Mussafah and Emirati.

The Corniche

Finally, The Corniche is well worth a visit, right next to the main beach in Abu Dhabi and one of the most stunning places to live in the city.

There are great schools nearby, excellent hospitals, and a stunning beach.

There are residential units with sea views and a wide range of housing apartments and homes, with prices decreasing slightly further away from the prized beachfront area.

Make sure to read our article about the best places to live in Abu Dhabi.

Cost Of Living In Abu Dhabi

While there are tax advantages to living in the UAE, there’s no getting away from the fact that Abu Dhabi is not the cheapest place to live.

It’s the second most expensive city in the Middle East and was placed 39th in Mercer’s 2020 Cost of Living Survey out of 209 cities.

That said, it isn’t as expensive as nearby Dubai, which came in 23rd, or London, ranked 19th most costly city globally.

Compared to Dubai, you’ll find prices in Abu Dhabi around six per cent cheaper overall, but with higher housing costs, about 11% more expensive, so it’s a bit of a balancing act, depending on where you work and how close you need to be to schools.

The primary concern with Abu Dhabi living costs is, therefore, accommodation. Most expats in the city spend upwards of half their income on rent, and you can expect to pay approximately:

  • 5,100 AED a month for a one-bed city centre apartment (£985).
  • 3,800 AED (£730) for a similar apartment further out.

One option is to rent a property in Dubai and commute to Abu Dhabi if you’re looking to keep your living expenses down.

Transport is also a significant outgoing, and while the public transport links are getting better, many expats choose to buy a car. However, it can be costly to purchase or rent a vehicle – although fuel costs are low, balancing the initial investment.

The below table shows some average costs of living in London, compared to Abu Dhabi:

ExpenseAverage Abu Dhabi Cost – AEDAverage Abu Dhabi Cost – GBPAverage London Cost – GBP
Bottle of water1.34£0.26£1.11
Cup of coffee17.79£3.45£2.89
Meal for two200£29£60
Monthly broadband373£72£32
Monthly nursery fees1,913£371£1,440
Monthly utilities511£99£181
Monthly public transport pass80£15.50£158
Litre of fuel2.00£0.39£1.20
Source: Numbeo

Abu Dhabi Healthcare

Most expats moving to Abu Dhabi for work will have private healthcare insurance included in the employment package.

The public healthcare system isn’t great, and given the affluence of the population, you’ll find more private hospitals than state facilities.

As a foreign expat, you won’t be allowed access to public healthcare in any case since this is reserved for Emirati nationals, and so you will need private cover.

Insurance premiums vary, but you’re usually looking at about:

  • 5,500 AED (£1,060) for a single person.
  • Up to around 10,000 AED (£1,930) a year for a comprehensive policy.
  • Around 33,500 AED (£6,460) a year for a family of four.

Note that you can get emergency treatment if required but must usually have medical cover to be granted a visa and need to have this if you require any medical appointments or non-urgent care.

Schools And Education In Abu Dhabi For Expat Families

If you’re considering a move to Abu Dhabi with your family, the first point to make is that English is widely spoken, so it’s a much more manageable transition than in many countries.

Family life is of great importance here, and there are countless private and international schools. In addition, around half of the schools in the region offer British tuition according to the national curriculum.

It is, however, essential for children to learn about Emirati culture and everyday differences, such as the call to prayer. In addition, traditional western holidays are still celebrated, including Easter and Christmas.

The government fully finances public education and is accessible to all UAE nationals up to the university level. International schools charge from 2,200 AED to 96,333 AED a year (£424 to £18,560), depending on the school and age of the child.

Parents also need to budget extra for transport, uniforms, books and additional admission fees.

Abu Dhabi Laws And Culture

There are many misconceptions about Islamic customs, but there are some laws and rules you’ll need to know:

  • It would be best if you always covered your shoulders and legs from the knee up when out in public.
  • Smoking and electronic cigarettes are illegal, although you can smoke at home or in designated spaces.
  • If you aren’t married or related, it is illegal to live with someone of the opposite gender.
  • Displays of affection are not permitted – although holding hands is OK.
  • Alcohol is illegal to drink in public (as is intoxication), but you can buy alcohol in licensed hotels, restaurants and bars. You can also apply for a license to be permitted to drink alcohol at home.

Weekends in the UAE are on Friday and Saturday, with Sunday as the first workday of the week, as Friday is an Islamic holy day.

Women in Abu Dhabi also need to be conscious of women’s sections in the front of the bus and avoid making eye contact with men they don’t know.

Living in Abu Dhabi FAQ’s

Below is a list of some of the common questions expats ask about living in Abu Dhabi.

What is it Like Working in Abu Dhabi?

The economy in Abu Dhabi is growing fast, and this wealthy emirate city is an important business location for oil and gas, supplying around 10% of the global demand.
 
Other sectors include:
 
Property
Tourism
Construction
Food manufacturing
 
Salaries aren’t as high as you might earn in the UK, depending on your profession, with averages of around 125,000 AED a year (£24,000) – but the lower taxes can even out the difference.
 
Having a professional accreditation or more than one language makes it much easier to find work.
 
The government is looking at introducing an Emiratisation policy to encourage businesses to hire local nationals, which might implement quotas on foreign national employees in the future.
 
Therefore, demand for Abu Dhabi jobs may drop as expats face steeper competition for roles.
 
Men perform most jobs in Abu Dhabi, and only around 42% of women over age 15 are employed, but it isn’t impossible to find suitable employment.
 
There are generally vacancies in finance, accounting or IT with multinationals such as DHL, FedEx, Marriott, Microsoft and AstraZeneca, all having a base in the UAE.
 
In terms of work benefits, employers often provide:
 
Housing allowances.
School fee contributions.
Air tickets for homeward travel.
Medical insurance.
 
You do need to know that trade unions and strikes are illegal and can lead to deportation – although, given the robust labour laws, it’s unlikely you’d feel unhappy with the perks on offer.

Where Is The Best Place To Live In The Emirates?

Dubai and Abu Dhabi are the most popular places to live in the UAE, but it’s worth remembering that there are seven emirates and many places to consider if you’re keen on a move.
 
Some of the other options you could look at include:
 
Fujairah, with mountains and countryside around the 650-year-old Al Badiyah Mosque. You can’t buy land or own a business as a foreigner, but you can enjoy the endless watersports and 64 kilometres of beaches.
 
Sharjah is a conservative place to live but is a great place for expats interested in nature. With a seaside promenade, aquarium, palace and classic car museum, the area has lots to do if you’re not concerned with the strict social rules.
 
Umm Al Quwain is another heritage place to live, with a massive water park next to an 18th-century fort.
 
It’s wise to do your research before moving to any part of the UAE, though, since laws and customs do vary and are often more restrictive than you’ll find in liberal Abu Dhabi or Dubai.

Do I Need To Learn Arabic To Live In Abu Dhabi?

You don’t necessarily need to learn Arabic since English is widely spoken. In addition, there are so many expats in Abu Dhabi; it’s common to hear a mixture of languages.
 
If you’re working at one of the large multinational employers, they’ll tend to do a lot of business in English as a globally recognised language.
 
However, it is recommended that you learn at least a little Arabic as it makes it easier to make friends and shows respect for the local culture.
 
Not everybody will speak English, and outside of tourist areas, it is useful to ask for assistance.

How Much Does It Cost To Move To Abu Dhabi From The UK?

International relocation can be expensive, and it’s wise to make sure you only bring things with you that you need – or that are very costly in the UAE.
 
By reducing the volume of heavy furniture you ship, you’ll keep the costs down. Most expats looking to move to Abu Dhabi permanently will send their belongings via a shipping container.
 
These cost an average of £2,000 for a 40-foot container shipped from London.

Is Abu Dhabi Always Hot?

The emirates are a hot part of the world but aren’t always sweltering. The summer reaches up to 45 °C. It can be much colder, but only as low as around 10 °C in the winter, depending on the part of the city you live in.
 
Dubai tends to be around 15 °C as a minimum year-round and can edge close to 50 °C, which is incredibly sticky. Still, just about every building has air conditioning – including the bus stops if you’re using public transport.
 
The beaches are also a great place to visit in the heat, with the water an excellent way to cool off and enjoy a bit of a breeze.

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