Living in UAE Guide

Living in the UAE Guide

By Betsy Burlingame

Last updated on Aug 19, 2019

Summary: Expats, global nomads and retirees living in the UAE talk about meeting other expats, befriending locals, the local culture, diversity in the UAE, international schools, crime and more.

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People living in the UAE share their experiences making friends, adjusting to the culture, what expat life is like in the UAE, healthcare in the UAE and more.

Meeting People in the UAE

Expats living in UAE talked about meeting people in UAE and local clubs and organizations:

"American Women's Network, Women in Abu Dhabi, Abu Dhabi Womens Group, Abu Dhabi Ladies Group, all send newsletters to members," said one expat living in Abu Dhabi, UAE.

"AWN American Womens Network (primarily Americans, but all are welcome...can tend to be a bit highbrow), WIAD Women in Abu Dhabi (A very international flair, this ladies group does some serious traveling!)," mentioned another expat in UAE.

"Major international hotels are (in order of my preference) the Intercontinental, Hilton, Rotana, Mercure Jebel Hafeet. The Palm Resort has a Rugby Club and Golf Club and both are good value. Have a look at the Living in Al Ain thread on the British Expats site in the Middle East Forum, it is a very popular thread and full of information about events, schooling, life in general," commented one expat who made the move to UAE.

"1) Al Ain Toastmasters Club 584495 to meet other professionals (while developing other useful skills). Check out to find the club. 2) For those who like to sing, join the Al Ain Choral Society. 3) Join in at social activities at lounges/pubs in the local international hotels, such as trivia contests, karaoke, etc. 4) Go to the cafes (Starbucks, Coffee/Bean/Tea Leaf, etc.) in the local malls on weekend afternoons (11 a.m. - 5 p.m.). You'll be certain to see people you know or make new friends. (Evenings it gets too crowded.) 5) Join one of the clubs are the local international hotels where other westerners go to swim, exercise, dine, tennis, etc. 6) For sports enthusiasts, especially men, you can find rugby and other intramural sports. 7) Join the Emirates Natural History Group (, an interesting way to not only meet people but have an opportunity to explore the natural histories of the UAE and Oman. 8) Your workplace may organize social activities including trips to the other Emirates for shopping, sightseeing, etc. You may also be able to join activities at some of the other organizations/companies in the area," remarked another expat living in Al Ain, UAE.

"From sailing to golf to sky diving to horseracing, Dubai is an emerging market that has it all. Wafi City is a great place for various activities such as Sport club, various bars and restaurants, mall and the newly opened Raffles Hotel. Dubai festival City housed some of the most prestigious hotels, mall and residential area as well as golf club. There loads of clubs (each country usually has their own) and activities from charity to commercial events, although you will miss nature's beauty - summers are very very hot (4-5 months)," added another expat in UAE.

Expat Life in the UAE

What is it like living in the UAE? Here is what people had to say:

"Though Abu Dhabi is more traditional compared to its glitzy sister Dubai, and family values/activities are stressed, nightspots are available for singles as well. It's an easier gig for families, as so much of life for an American expat here revolves around the ACS American Community School. They have a veritable cornucopia of activities and events planned for both students and their parents," said one expat living in Abu Dhabi, UAE.

"Al Ain is a great city to live in and offers many things to see and do. Expats get together frequently for quiz nights, to watch sporting events, meet for coffee in the malls. Life is varied and interesting," mentioned another expat in UAE.

"Life definitely revolves around work. Otherwise, it depends on if you are single, have children with you (and their age), etc. Singles often like to go to Dubai on the weekends for fun, sun, dance, shopping, friendships, etc. Families usually stay in the Al Ain area. With the clubs to join at the hotels, and other activities that many of them discover, there is sufficient activities for people not to get bored. There is a lot of socializing, too. Schools have a lot of after school activities, sports, dance classes, etc., and often have recitals and presentations. Married couples, and singles who do not enjoy the party/night life, join clubs and organizations in Al Ain, socialize among themselves, etc. We spend a lot of time at the mall, sitting and talking, too. Many people like to camp in the various Emirates as well. There are churchas and religious gatherings. Some of us organized Bible Studies, and were active in our churches. Some did volunteer work organizations such as Feline for Friends," commented one expat who made the move to UAE.

"People (expats) work hard and play hard, live revolves around malls and shopping, socialising, attending events/concert, some major sports events are happening during the winter season, Rugby 7, Dubai Horserace, Dubai Duty Free tennis, etc," remarked another expat living in Dubai, UAE.

What Expats Appreciate about Their New Culture

We asked expats in the UAE what they appreciated about their new culture. Here's what they had to say:

"The friendliness of the Emirati people. I have been made more welcome in the UAE that in several parts of the UK I have visited," said one expat living in Abu Dhabi, UAE.

"Although I don't like modern architecture, you just can't help but marvel over the buildings and beautiful water fountains. The Burj Khalif is out of this world and the fountains below are better than the ones in Las Vegas - (Designed by the same guy) Everything is over the top in style and beauty," mentioned another expat in UAE.

"The warmth and care they show their families, especially their children, is truly heartfelt. Americans could learn a lot by watching the time the Emiratis devote to family," commented one expat who made the move to UAE.

"As a woman, not many. Living in Dubai, we live in another culture but that culture is very closed to expats. You're living in a foreign country without any of the benefits of living in a foreign country...for example, the national population is very small, many transients, everything's in English," remarked another expat living in Dubai, UAE.

"In all 3 countries we've lived (UAE, Azerbaijan, & Egypt) teenagers seem to have a much better relationship with their parents. The less people have the more generous they seem to be. Slower pace, more balanced life in Azerbaijan and Egypt. Appreciation of the arts in Azerbaijan," added another expat in UAE.

"They're incredibly generous. If I admire something of they own, they will try to give it to me. They are also highly hospitable," remarked another expat who made the move to UAE.

The Most Challenging Aspects of Living in the UAE

Then, we asked expats in the UAE what was most challenging about their new culture. They replied:

"Moving to a middle eastern country is so different to other European countries, the greatest challenge is understanding how and why things happen in the workplace. One expects differences in food and the day to day shopping, bargaining etc. Working in Government I was and still am to a degree, challenged by the completely different way of internal working when compared to the UK. The language is a barrier, but it is also the unwritten codes of the tribes and families, the office politics etc which pervade every thing, every day," said one expat living in Abu Dhabi, UAE.

"The heat - by far the heat. And there is dust on everything especially after even the smallest dust storm. My deck off my apartment is like a beach most of the time," mentioned another expat in UAE.

"Time is just a variable here. An appointment really is not as specific as we expect, especially between friends," commented one expat who made the move to UAE.

"This one specifically has a very different view of females and males. Was not use to a man thinking I'm interested in him only because I smiled a polite acknowledgment type of smile. Also, giving up rights as a woman to husband is very foreign," remarked another expat living in Dubai, UAE.

"The Emirati population is small compared to the rest of the country, so there are generally less of them around. As a woman, forming friendships w/ an Emirati man can be tricky. The concept of the platonic male/female relationship doesn't exist in their culture. On the flip side, the women tend to have a lot of familial obligations and, at times, limited ability to move freely without a male member of her family, so going out to a restaurant or coffee w/ just the girls has never actually happened for me," added another expat in UAE.

"If you live in Abu Dhabi you may find yourself living 45mins plus outside the city as the only cheap accomadtion in AD is out near the airport Al Raha is slowly after 2 years only now becoming easier place to live with it now being on a bus route, and new supermarket's opening, AlReef still has very little out by the compounds in the way of taxis and shops Meeting new friends who are likeminded," remarked another expat who made the move to UAE.

Diversity in the UAE

We asked expats about diversity in the UAE and whether locals are accepting of differences. They said:

"Very diverse and very tolerant. However, there is not to much mixing among the three major groups, local citizens, western expats and expats from developing countries," said one expat living in Abu Dhabi, UAE.

"This is the most diverse city on the planet, along with Dubai. Everyone, and I mean virtually EVERYONE is from somewhere else. Religions and cultures all intermingle peacefully and it's not a big deal to have a Buddhist, a Hindu, a Christian and a Muslim in a group of friends. They all get along just fine. Differences are what make this country the experience it is. Perhaps that's why as many as 60% of American expats who repatriate back to their home country encounter difficulty reassimilating and most find themselves coming back to the UAE for more of that openness," mentioned another expat in UAE.

"Al Ain is much more traditional than Dubai or Abu Dhabi - so you will see more of true Emirati culture. The Emirati are a very closed culture and men and women do not generally socialise together. if you can make a few Emirati friends and be invited into the inner sanctum you will be very welcomed and valued, however it is not easy to do that. Most of the population in the Emirates is Indian - over 50% and the Emirati are a very small percentage (maybe 12-15%) so it is very multicultural here. Islam is the main religion and permeates all aspects of life here - and it is very peaceful and non-threatening," commented one expat who made the move to UAE.

"This is an extremely tolerant islamic country. All religions are tolerated although not promoted. There are more races, countries and ways of life than I have fingers, toes, legs and arms of counting. Everyone can do their own thing and it is accepted. My friends and aquaintances are British, Canadian, South African, Emirati, Yemeni, Australian, Indian, Pakistani, Jordanian, Palestinian. I think that we are diverse and accepting of differences," remarked another expat living in Abu Dhabi, UAE.

"There is definitely a lot of diversity. The universities, private schools (K-12), and hospitals are one reason for a lot of diversity and a lot of Westerners in Al Ain. A lot of Arabic and East-Asian nationalities are employed in Al Ain. However, there is an over abundance of men, living far from their families, often milling around down town Al Ain on their day off from work. The country as a whole is tolerant of the diversity and Western Ways (to a limit). Women should be sensitive to the imbalance of the genders, and all should be respectful of the local culture and customs," added another expat in UAE.

"75% of the populations are of expat, Asian/ subcontinent. People lives in harmony and the city are considerably safer than any other cosmopolitan city in the world. Although UAE is a muslim country, alcohol are served in licenced restaurants/hotels to non muslim. An alcohol permit could be applied through various alcohol stores (MMI or African eastern) - to be issued by Dubai Police upon approval - which allows you to purchase alcohol from the stores. UAE is also a tax free country," remarked another expat who made the move to UAE.

International Schools in the UAE

"GAA opened in 2011, however there are still many problems till today. Staff and administration are struggling due to lack of wise management," said one expat whose children attend Gems american academy in Abu Dhabi.

"I would be be very wary of enrolling your child here. The nuclear management of this school is non-existent. The communication from the administration to the parents and teachers and staff is abhorrent. There are no AP courses, and GAA has yet to qualify for IB status, because it is not yet up to IB standards. At the primary level, classes are over-loaded and teachers are unsupported. They are not able to split children by ability so higher-achievers sit bored all day long. It is my understanding some teachers are better able than others to stimulate these children, like anywhere. There are also no science labs to speak of, which is an utter travesty. The facilities are top notch, but the kids rarely utilize GAA's most prized features: planetarium, music tech lab, et al. There is no real technology curriculum yet in place, though parents have been told they are working on it. They do not teach the most basic skill of typing to their students. In the tour, they promised iPads in the classrooms, but that has yet to happen. In fact, kids as young as primary are allowed to bring their own devices. There Wi-Fi in the school is not filtered in anyway. Kids can access social media all day long, and they do. Other schools block sites such as Facebook, Instagram and Kik--not GAA, It's a free for all. Parents are expected to pay for school supplies, field trips, team uniforms, a rather insufficient lunch, et al. In short, nothing is free at GAA despite it having one of the highest tuitions in Abu Dhabi. I will say that the teachers are all fantastic, that is why we stay. There is hope for GEMS American Academy, but it will take some major institutional changes for it to function as well as even the most under-funded American public school. I would like people unfamiliar with the actual American curriculum to know that what GAA offers is nothing remotely like an American curriculum," added another expat with kids at Gems American Academy in Abu Dhabi.

"If you can, enrol for DESS, JESS, JEBEL ALI and a few others. This school is very much so business run....parents are treated with disdain by the Principal and Management. There are quite a significant amount of children with learning difficulties/ special needs so if your child does have SEN then this is the school for you but ONLY because you will get in...there is no achievement/support centre so any supposed extra help you child will get will be in the mainstream classroom. The foundation section of this school is good though.....its as the years go up that the many negatives become apparent," commented one expat when asked about Star International School Mirdif in Dubai.

"Be aware that the quality of teaching depends solely on the teacher and the group of students present in a certain level. Some teachers are very professional and caring. Others seem to be always stunned by the students inadequate skills! However, there is no action plan to find out the reasons behind this mediocrity and what to do to help students perform better. Teachers do not attribute a great importance to parents concerns since the administration supports the teachers 99% of the time," remarked another expat living in Festival City with children attending Universal American School.

"Overall the quality of the school is quite poor, the students have no self discipline and my son has come home on several occaisions crying after getting into a fight with someone who was bullying him. When I informed the administration they just said it is his problem for fighting back!!??. The academics seem to be quite sound and challenging but all the good western teachers seem to be filtering out of the school giving way to less qualified arab teachers. The school has very few expat students so if enrolling your child in the school make sure he is ok with it. I wouldn't reccomend the school," said another expat in the UAE with children at Glenelg School .

"Pay the school a visit. The students are great and the staff are getting better year on year," remarked another parent with kids at The Sheffield Private School in Dubai.

Health Insurance in the UAE

"Like most places, you pay for what you get. My company had our family on a health plan but it continually changed with the company trying to save money every year," commented one expat living in Abu Dhabi, UAE.

"Our health insurance was provided by the company I worked for. We had to pay about $10 (30AED) for a doctors visit. The process was very smooth and seamless," mentioned another expat living in UAE.

Cost of Living in the UAE

"Cost of living is pretty high, but there is a huge variety of income ranges and shops that cater to them. You can live a life of opulence and luxury, or get by quite well on a variety of cheaper options. We found that paying for our kids education was the greatest expense," commented one expat living in Abu Dhabi, UAE.

"Fairly high, comparable to New York City and other too metro areas in the states. But like most areas, there are places for all budgets," mentioned another expat living in UAE.

"The cost of living is fairly high. Schools are expensive, as is housing. A housing allowance is often included in an employment package though, and depending on your level of employment and the company you work for school can be included too. As far as groceries go, it depends on where you shop. There a lot of shops that cater to expats and hold imported products from the UK and the USA. There are certainly a lot of options. Expats make up the majority of the work force and so they are catered to very well," said an expat in UAE.

Residency & Visa Requirements

"You need to have a sponsor, typically your employer sorts this part out. A medical exam with tests for hiv, tb, etc... police record,," commented one expat living in Abu Dhabi, UAE.

"Not if not all are on work visas but you can get a residency with property purchase. Also, you may register in the free zones as well. Looking at 5-20k for the right to live there," mentioned another expat living in UAE.

"In order to get a residency visa, you need to be sponsored, either by an individual, or most commonly, by your employer. The employer will apply for the residency visa on your behalf. You will have to have a medical examination and police clearance etc..," said an expat in UAE.

Why Foreigners Move to the UAE

When we asked expats in the UAE why expats move there, they replied:

"Usually for job opportunities. The UAE is growing at an impressive rate and the majority of their work force is expat," commented one expat living in Abu Dhabi, UAE.

"Work. There are a ton of job opportunities and most companies provide really favorable employment packages," mentioned another expat living in UAE.

Expat Health Insurance in UAE

Expats interested in expat health insurance should take a minute to get quotes our partner, International Citizens Insurance, a trusted expat health insurance broker. They will provide you with comparison quotes from some of the biggest expat health insurers: Cigna, Aetna and GeoBlue.

About the Author

Betsy Burlingame Betsy Burlingame is the Founder of Expat Exchange. She launched Expat Exchange in 1997 as her Master's thesis project at NYU. Some of Betsy's more popular articles include 6 Best Places to Live in Costa Rica, 12 Things to Know Before Moving to The Dominican Republic and 7 Tips for Obtaining Residence in Italy. Betsy loves to travel and spend time with her family. Connect with Betsy on LinkedIn.

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