Are you thinking about moving to Abu Dhabi? Or do you just want to know what life here is really like for an expat? Then check out this interview with a Danish couple about moving to and living in Abu Dhabi.
Abu Dhabi is the capital of the UAE, located right next to the internationally better-known city of Dubai.
With its vast number of employment opportunities, Abu Dhabi attracts people from all over the world.
I have had friends living in both Abu Dhabi and Dubai and have visited both Emirates several times. But to visit these places is very different from actually living here.
I can see the perks (i.e. high salaries, modern housing, a great hub to travel from) but I can also see the downsides (a strict religion and a huge inequality between expats from different countries).
Therefore I was very excited to interview Nick and Kia about their experiences living in Abu Dhabi.
Also Read: 10 Crazy Facts About Dubai
This interview is part of the Ask an Expat series. In this series, I interview people living all over the world but outside of their home country. I try to help paint an honest picture of the ups and downs of life abroad, share tips about moving to the place the expat now calls home, and information about what to see and do here.
Living in Abu Dhabi as an Expat
Name: Nick & Kia
Home town: Copenhagen, Denmark
“As soon as we were nearing the end of our university studies, we looked abroad for job opportunities. We simply had to get away from Denmark, out in the big wide world to get some new perspectives.
We were open to anything honestly, we just wanted to see and do something else. Luckily, Kia quickly got her first job in London, and we enjoyed living there for a year.
However, when Nick suddenly got an opportunity to work in Abu Dhabi, we didn’t hesitate. So only a few weeks after accepting the position, we took off on a one-way ticket.
When we arrived, it was the first time we ever set foot in the Middle East. We had so many questions, and there were so many new things to see and experience. We were excited to see what we would find here.
People back home had some strong opinions, and prejudices, about the region and about life in Abu Dhabi, and we were excited to see how they’d hold up. We expected that they wouldn’t hold up at all, and luckily we were right.”
Why Did You Move to Abu Dhabi?
“We saw moving to Abu Dhabi as one big adventure. And possibly a once in a lifetime opportunity.
We love seizing opportunities, and we live for new adventures. It was exciting that the culture was so significantly different from back home, the weather was supposedly a lot better, and of course, we were a little enticed about the tax-free salaries as well.
Other than that, we can’t really claim to have many good reasons for moving to Abu Dhabi. It was an opportunity that came up, and we took it.
Today, we are very glad that we did.”
What Do You Like About Living in Abu Dhabi?
“There are two main draws attracting expats to Abu Dhabi and the United Arab Emirates: The weather and the lack of personal income taxes.
Those are definitely some major benefits of the country, and they really are true. The weather is absolutely sublime. It NEVER rains. We’ve seen rain perhaps a handful of times here in 2.5 years. If you come from pretty much anywhere in the world, that’s great news.
Then there is the question of income tax. Well, there is none. Coming from a country where we paid more than half of our salaries in taxes, that’s a big plus. That tax-free salary makes us able to live the life we wanted and save up for the future at the same time.”
What Do You Dislike About Living in Abu Dhabi?
Well, money isn’t everything, and we want to be honest with you. Living in Abu Dhabi isn’t all rainbows and unicorns.
To take an example, there is the weather we praised earlier. It can often be too good. In the summer, between May and September, the sun and the humidity combine to form an almost unreal sauna effect. It’s unlike anything we’d ever experienced.
So yes, it gets HOT! When we walk out of the office, we put on our sunglasses to shield our eyes from the scorching sun. Then they’d immediately fog up because they came straight from air-condition temperatures into a furnace.
In summer it’s hot and humid, with temperatures on many days over 40 degrees Celcius (104 °F). On those days, you and all your belongings turn completely wet the instant you walk outside. And if there is wind, it offers no relief. It feels exactly like a hairdryer and we really aren’t exaggerating.
The charm about good weather is that you can sit outside and enjoy your dinner, maybe kick back a cold beer or go for a walk along the beach. There is no way you can do that in the summer months in Abu Dhabi.
So as you can hear, living in Abu Dhabi in summer is not particularly pleasant. But, we take the majority of our holidays during those months and go back home to Europe. Problem solved.
A second problem in Abu Dhabi is walking. We love walking, but Abu Dhabi is not made for it. It is made for cars, and cars alone.
We didn’t know just how big of an impact that would have on us, until after about a year. Nick had gained 12 kilos of weight, in as many months. You absolutely need to sign up for a gym, or the lack of natural exercise will take its toll quickly.
But it’s not just about physical deterioration. Not being able to go for a walk, almost anywhere, can get tiring mentally as well. Back home, we used to take a walk in the park every other day, and that just isn’t possible in Abu Dhabi. You have a stretch along the waterfront, called the Corniche, which is nice for walking but that’s about it. That’s an important thing to prepare for mentally if you decide to live in Abu Dhabi.
A third problem is the pollution. This is an issue in most of Asia, primarily due to transportation and industry. However, in Abu Dhabi, the issue stems from the desert. When the wind blows from a particular direction, fine dust particles will pollute the air, even though you may not be able to see them. Other times the pollution is very visible, in which case it’s referred to as a sandstorm.
We don’t feel that air pollution is a thing that the expat community in Abu Dhabi really talks about, let alone the government, so if this is a big concern to you, you should do some research yourself.”
What Is Your Favorite Thing to Do in Abu Dhabi?
“We have many favorite things! But number one would have to be going to the desert.
We realize that we just mentioned pollution as a major issue caused by the desert, but we love it nonetheless! We bought our first ever car in Abu Dhabi and chose a 4×4 Jeep Wrangler. That was excellent because it allowed us to explore one of the only pieces of nature the country holds.
We’ll never forget the weekends we camped under the stars, amongst the red dunes of Liwa desert.
The only other significant piece of nature you can see in Abu Dhabi is the mangroves. Kayaking here makes for a very nice day-trip. In general, anything with water is great due to the amazing weather.
Spending a day at a beach club is probably the main way we spend our weekends. But there are many other cool things to do while you are living in Abu Dhabi. And since we’ve been here for so long, we wrote a dedicated blog post about the 15 top things to do in Abu Dhabi.
- Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque. This must be the most beautiful mosque in the world and also one of the largest.
- Ferrari World. Included in the Guinness Book of World Records for having the fastest rollercoaster in the world.
- Friday Brunches. These are basically boozy, poolside, all-you-can-eat, food and drink extravaganzas which is what everyone seems to do on a Friday afternoon.
- Yas Marina Circuit. The Formula 1 track where you can walk, run or bike around twice a week. There are even free bikes.”
What Is Your Favourite Place to Hang out in Abu Dhabi?
“There is a Japanese restaurant called Toki that we quickly fell in love with. Their Black Cod and Chicken Katzu Curry dishes are absolutely outstanding. It’s not a fancy place, but we somehow always end up there for our date nights. It’s located right at the Corniche at what used to be the Hilton Hotel.
A close second place is JW Steakhouse at Mariott Downtown. It just ticked off all the right boxes and is by far our favorite steakhouse in the country.”
What Is the Expat / International Community like in Abu Dhabi?
“The expat community is huge, as local Emiratis only make up about 10-15% of the population.
A vast majority of the expats who live in Abu Dhabi come from India, Pakistan, Egypt, and the Philippines, and you’ll find that there are many subgroups within the expat community. So although the majority of expats are from non-Western countries, if you are from a Western country you will probably end up surrounded largely by other Westerners.
But don’t be mistaken, even though there are so many expats living in Abu Dhabi, there is definitely a culture shock for many people.
We did find the expat community to be great though, with lots of Facebook groups, meet up groups, sports clubs etc. for you to join.
And if you are willing to stretch your search to Dubai as well, there will be many more, because the expat community there is significantly larger.”
Any Tips for Moving to / Living in Abu Dhabi?
“First of all, you should keep an open mind. If you have any prejudices before arriving, expect them to be put to shame. The media is quite harsh on this region in general, and when we moved to Abu Dhabi, many of our friends and family members were concerned for our safety. They needn’t be in any way. The ones that visited us quickly realized this and had their perspectives broadened.
Secondly, it’s important to be aware that when you move to Abu Dhabi, you lock yourself down for a year. What we mean by this is that most services you sign up for will bind you for 12 months.
That includes apartments! For most rentals you need to sign a yearly lease and even pay the rent upfront. Things are changing a little bit, so there are exceptions to this, but do expect the worst. This also applies to your phone bill, internet, and utilities, which will all be based on yearly contracts that cannot be terminated early.
You’ll probably also like to stay in contact with friends and family back home. Just know that you cannot use Skype or Facetime to make calls and Facebook and Whatsapp, which do work to post messages and text people, can’t be used to call people.
The government is limiting those services, and even with a VPN, they won’t be functional. It can make it a little hard for expats to keep in touch, but where there is a will, there is a way. You might just want to sign up for a pricy phone subscription and think of that as a small sort of tax to pay.
Another thing I’d recommend is to be patient. This is very important. The bank, the utility services, the phone company, the rental office, and your car seller, are all very likely to test your patience.
Their processes are almost always extremely tiring to go through, but there is nothing you can do about it. The best thing you can do is to be super patient, or you will end up stressed out. However, while being patient, it also pays off to be firm. It seems the culture sometimes dictates that you speak up and firmly put forward your demands. Several times.
If you like cheap drinks, get used to looking for Happy Hour and Ladies Night offers. Abu Dhabi is usually a very expensive city to have a night out in, but if you are smart about it, it doesn’t have to be. There is almost always a happy hour somewhere in town and a ladies night in at least one place. On those nights, ladies drink for free, which is obviously a big money-saver.
It is perfectly fine to drink alcohol in Abu Dhabi by the way, but it’s only available in bars and restaurants associated with hotels. So if you want to have a drink you might want to check the restaurant before you go there, to avoid disappointment.”
Any Resources You Found Useful During the Process of Moving to And/Or Building a New Life in Abu Dhabi?
“Propertyfinder – You can start looking for apartments before you arrive, but it’s unlikely to yield any results. It’s mostly good for figuring out which area of Abu Dhabi you would prefer to live in, and the price range. Otherwise, the housing market is pretty fluid, so if you grab hold of a real estate agent once you are in Abu Dhabi, you will quickly find a place. There are plenty of empty flats.
Etisalat – For your phone services, you will need to start out on a tourist sim card while your visa is being finalized. Then, later on, you can upgrade to a regular, post-paid account. State-owned Etisalat is really the only serious company available.
The Entertainer – This is a money-saving app that everyone should use, even tourists visiting Abu Dhabi. It gives buy-1-get-1-free offers and is therefore very useful in an otherwise expensive country. It costs money to buy access to the app for a full year, but we earned that back within the first week. We would, for example, use this app when going on a weekend trip to Dubai. Then you pay only for the first hotel night, with the second being free.
WhatsOn – This keeps you updated about what’s going on in Abu Dhabi. You can find anything here from upcoming events to lists of happy hour timings and outlets with ladies nights across town.
WhatsApp – Forget Messenger or SMS, everyone in Abu Dhabi uses WhatsApp to message each other.”
Is There Something You Just Have to See or Do When You Are in Abu Dhabi?
“It might be weird to say, but the one thing you just have to see when you are in Abu Dhabi is another city entirely. Abu Dhabi is, in fact, so close to Dubai that it would be a real shame not to visit.
Dubai is a completely different city, and as an expat living in Abu Dhabi, you may find yourself going to Dubai very often.
There’s a lot to see and do in Dubai, it’s only 1.5 hours away, and you can even grab a taxi there without it getting too expensive.
Going to Dubai feels like a proper city escape, so you’ll probably find yourself spending a lot of weekends there.”
Any Final Words to Round off This Interview About Expat Life in Abu Dhabi?
“We hope we haven’t scared anyone away from moving to Abu Dhabi. We’ve tried to be honest and transparent about what you can expect, but remember, everyone is different.
We’ve met people here who love living in Abu Dhabi so much that they’ve been here for 25 years, while others left after six months.
It’s a place where you can live a very comfortable life, feel like you are on holiday each day of the year, and quickly save up for the future.
But it’s also a place where you have to take care not to grow lazy or get bored, and a place where you will never really be able to integrate with the locals.
We hope our answers in this interview can help you make an informed decision about what you want for yourself and whether moving to Abu Dhabi is the right thing for you.
We have covered quite a few more tips about the country in our guide to the United Arab Emirates. Here you can, for example, read a bit about what to expect for the holy month of Ramadan and what kind of clothing is culturally acceptable to wear. Spoiler alert: You don’t have to wear a niqab and, yes, women are allowed to drive.”
Nick and Kia run travel blog The Danish Nomads to help others live a life of adventure and to share their experiences traveling the world.
About Abu Dhabi, UAE
Abu Dhabi is the capital of the United Arab Emirates and the headquarters of numerous oil companies and embassies.
The city features large gardens and parks, sophisticated high-rise buildings, international luxury hotel chains, and large shopping malls.
For a long time, Abu Dhabi was seen as a dull, bureaucratic outpost entirely lacking in neighboring Dubai’s pizazz. But, things started to change radically in 2004 after long-ruler Sheikh Zayed passed away and his son Sheikh Khalifa took over.
In an attempt to attract tourism and investment, land sales to foreigners were allowed and restrictions on alcohol were loosened.
Abu Dhabi’s rapid development and urbanization, coupled with the massive oil and gas reserves and production have transformed the city into a large and advanced metropolis.
Today, Abu Dhabi is the country’s center of political and industrial activities and a major cultural and commercial center.
Abu Dhabi attracts expats from all over the world.
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