Want to live in the United Arab Emirates?
The UAE offers expats an exceptional quality of life. There’s modern accommodation and medical facilities, good international schools and a highly developed infrastructure. You’ll also find plenty to keep you entertained in the lively cities of Dubai and Abu Dhabi. This includes great beaches, water sports, indoor skiing, excellent restaurants and sprawling shopping malls.
All this comes at a price though. The cost of living in the UAE has increased over recent years. And while expat salaries are still high, benefits packages aren’t as comprehensive as they used to be.
Accommodation in the UAE
Rental prices in the UAE have stabilised in recent years, but accommodation is still likely to be your biggest expense. Although many companies allocate housing for expat employees, formal housing allowances aren’t as common as they were a few years ago.
You’ll need a residence visa to rent accommodation in the UAE. When you sign the lease, you’ll need your visa and passport, proof of address and proof of income from your employer.
The standard of housing in the UAE is high and you’ll have lots of options to choose from. Apartments tend to come with shared facilities such as a gym, sauna and swimming pool. Compound villas often have amenities such as a medical centre, tennis court, gym and restaurant.
Both furnished and unfurnished housing is available. Many unfurnished apartments don’t have basic appliances – so if you choose this option, be prepared for high start-up costs. The transient nature of the UAE means there’s a thriving second-hand market as expats get rid of their furniture and appliances before moving back home. These are advertised by word of mouth or on various classified websites.
Leases are usually for a year. It’s common to pay a full 12 months’ rent upfront, although some landlords accept post-dated cheques. You’ll also have to pay a security deposit of around 5% of the annual rent. Before you sign the lease, check for extra charges such as maintenance fees. And make sure the landlord’s responsibilities are clearly stated.
Local culture in the UAE
Despite the UAE being such a cosmopolitan country, adapting to the conservative culture will be one of the biggest adjustments you’ll need to make. Dress in the UAE is conservative. Although many women wear the traditional hijab or abaya, expats aren’t expected to follow this custom. But it’s still important to dress modestly and cover your shoulders and legs when you’re out in public.
Previously, unmarried couples in the UAE weren’t allowed to live together and you needed a licence to buy alcohol. But the UAE government has recently announced a broadening of personal freedoms for both expats and locals in the country. Now, you can buy alcohol without a licence and cohabitation of unmarried couples is legal.
Ramadan is the holiest time in the Islamic calendar. During Ramadan, you should avoid eating, drinking and smoking during daylight hours in public or in front of Muslim friends and colleagues. When the fast is broken for the day, expats are encouraged to join in the feasting. Many companies operate on reduced hours and have special rooms where non-Muslim employees can eat during the holy month.
Getting used to the relentless heat is one of the biggest challenges expats face when they move to the UAE. All buildings are air-conditioned to help ease the discomfort, but it may take time to adapt to the mostly indoor lifestyle.
The first working day of the week in the emirates is Sunday and the weekend is over Friday and Saturday. Most government and public offices are closed on Saturdays.
Education in the UAE
Expat children are allowed to attend public schools in the UAE, but unlike locals, expats are charged school fees. This, along with the fact that teaching in public schools is in Arabic, leads most expat parents to consider international schools.
The school year runs from September to July, with the year broken into 3 terms. The school week is from Sunday to Thursday and hours vary depending on the school.
Private schooling in the UAE is expensive. It’s no longer standard practice to include an education allowance in expat employment packages. You’ll need to budget for school fees, along with all the additional costs such as uniforms, textbooks, transport and extracurricular activities.
The high cost of international education in the UAE has pushed many expat parents towards home schooling. This is also a good option if you know you won’t be staying in the country long. It means you won’t have to deal with the bureaucratic process of enrolling in an international school. As home schooling is becoming more popular, many support groups have been set up to help parents.
Most international schools follow the British or American curriculum or the International Baccalaureate, but there are also French, German, Japanese and Indian schools. By law, all children in public and private schools must take UAE Social Studies and Arabic as a 2nd language. These subjects are only compulsory up until Grade 9. Schools also have to offer Islamic Education as a subject, but this is optional for non-Muslims.
Keeping in touch in the UAE
For mobiles, most international networks have roaming agreements in the UAE but keeping your home mobile contract is expensive. You can apply for a local contract once you have a residence visa and a bank account. Pay-as-you-go services are quicker to organise when you first arrive.
Choosing your telecoms provider is relatively straightforward. There are 2 primary companies, Du and Etisalat. They dominate the market and most residential buildings are pre-connected for services with one of them. Both companies offer packages for internet, cable and phone, so it’s worth investigating your options.
You can access most social media sites in the UAE, including Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter. Instant messaging services such as WhatsApp are widely used, but restricted, and Skype isn’t allowed in the UAE. Some websites are blocked because they’re offensive to local religious and moral values.
Healthcare in the UAE
To get a residence visa for the UAE, expats must pass a health assessment. The UAE has an excellent healthcare infrastructure and modern medical facilities. Both public and private services are available, but most expats opt for private hospitals where medical staff speak English. Many doctors are expats themselves or have trained overseas.
Private healthcare in the UAE is expensive and it’s essential that you have comprehensive medical insurance. In Abu Dhabi, you need medical insurance to get a residence visa. By law, Abu Dhabi and Dubai companies must provide medical insurance for expat employees – so this is an expense you don’t need to worry about.
There are pharmacies across all cities, and most are open 24/7. Although many medications are available, the country has strict drug laws. You may need a prescription for things that are sold over the counter back home.
Emergency services in the UAE are adequate, although ambulances are mainly used for road accidents. Many people use their own transport or taxis to get to a hospital in an emergency.
Getting around in the UAE
The UAE doesn’t have an extensive public transport system, so a car is the easiest way to get around. It’s no surprise that petrol is cheap. And you may find you can afford a more luxurious car than you could back home. Road conditions are good and the cities are connected by multi-lane freeways. That said, they’re often congested. Traffic regulations are strict and there’s a zero-tolerance policy towards drinking and driving. You can drive with an international licence, but you’ll need a local one if you have residency status.
With stiflingly hot temperatures, the UAE isn’t very pedestrian or cyclist friendly. You can catch a bus or taxi in the major cities. Ride-hailing services, such as Uber, are also available. And Dubai’s metro system is fast, efficient and cheap.
The UAE is a major air travel hub and Dubai has one of the busiest airports in the world. Many international airlines offer daily services to and from the Emirates, making the country a great base for expats who want to explore.
Cost of living in the UAE
The cost of living is high. Dubai and Abu Dhabi rank among the most expensive cities in the Gulf region. Despite the favourable tax climate, living expenses can add up as expats splurge on luxuries they wouldn’t buy back home.
Two of your biggest costs are likely to be accommodation and schooling − rent can swallow almost half of your salary. And expat parents typically pay hefty fees for international schools because their children are unlikely to attend public schools.
Groceries and other household goods are reasonably priced, but clothing and imported products can be expensive. Organic food and Western brands are also pricey – so don’t be afraid to try the Emirati equivalents if you want to cut costs. Eating out regularly is a luxury that many expats enjoy. Indian, Arabic, Chinese and African restaurants are more affordable than hotel eateries and bars. Alcohol is expensive but some hotel bars and restaurants have happy hours with discounted drinks.
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Top tips for the UAE
See what people responding to our Expat Explorer Survey think about living in the United Arab Emirates.
If you decide to move to the UAE, be prepared to manage your expenses well. While the nightlife and glamour of the city is appealing, it is a heavy burden on your wallet. Expenses come in from every direction - rent, utility expenses, bills.
All Expat Explorer survey data and all tips (in quotation marks) are provided by HSBC.
All other content is provided by expatarrivals.com, Globe Media Ltd and was last updated in September 2021. HSBC accepts no responsibility for the accuracy of this information.
This information is purely for orientation and to inspire further research, it does not constitute advice and no liability is accepted to recipients acting independently on its contents. The views expressed are subject to change.
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