For the next in my relocation guide series, here’s a snapshot of Abu Dhabi. Helen is a blogger, teacher and of course, Expater, who’s been living in Abu Dhabi since 2016. Here she tells us everything about living in Abu Dhabi, from moving there from the UK and living there as a woman, to the availability of PG tips and natural afro hair care products.
The pros and cons of living in Abu Dhabi
There are many great things I love about living in the UAE. However the thing I’m most grateful for is the safety here. I’ve travelled to 23 countries (Japan was supposed to be my 24th this year, but COVID…) and the UAE is, by far, the safest country I’ve ever been to.
A close second and third are the fact that the sun shines every day and that all your money comes home with you at the end of the month.
My cons have to be related to the work climate here. We moved here because, although I didn’t initially have a job, I was told it wouldn’t be long before I got one. But this didn’t happen for four years; I was promised jobs within this time and they all fell through. This is not uncommon. Unfortunately, sometimes finding a job in Abu Dhabi is more about who you know, than what you know.
Cost of living
In a nutshell, it’s expensive.
Coming from the UK, there are some things which are (relatively) cheap like taxis, fish from the market and karak tea. But the majority of things here are incredibly expensive irrespective of what country you came here from.
A ‘comfortable’ lifestyle is indeed subjective here because it largely depends on where you’re coming from. I would say living here for a westerner is akin to living in London. It’s expensive, but if you live there, you’ll know where to get the deals and you’ll understand how to make your money stretch.
Where to go out in Abu Dhabi
There is always something to do in Abu Dhabi, from Friday brunches and water sports, to visiting cultural museums, like the Louvre Abu Dhabi.
I’m a massive foodie so I’ve got a long list of restaurants to recommend, but I’ll leave you with three:
- Market Kitchen for international food
- West to West Kitchen for African and Caribbean cuisine
- Al Dhafra for Arabic food
You can’t visit Abu Dhabi without trying a brunch either; all you can eat food and drink (yes, alcoholic beverages included) from about 12-4pm in the afternoon. It’s the number one thing to do here and they are on every weekend and some evenings.
The food in western spaces can be quite pricey, but there are loads of deals up for grabs and there are a plethora of ‘hole-in-the-wall’ restaurants which are easy on the pocket and very authentic!
Living in Abu Dhabi as a woman & as a single woman
I know people have preconceived ideas about Muslim countries, but I have to say that my experience as a woman in the UAE has been positive.
Apart from a few instances where my husband’s voice held more weight over the phone than mine, women in the UAE get preferential treatment in many places. You can find a ‘Ladies Night’ every day of the week where women get free entry to restaurants, clubs and bars along with complimentary drinks and half price food.
Additionally, in some places, women get prime parking and the best seats on public transport – all done to make sure we feel safe.
It’s definitely not equal, but personally I feel that the UAE actively takes care of its women.
As for single women, it is a great place for them to live in terms of safety. There are plenty of single women out here so you will not be lonely. However, if you’re not planning on staying single for long, Abu Dhabi may not be the place for you. People do find love here, but I’ve been told the dating scene is terrible!
I don’t think there’s a place in the world that isn’t influenced by racism/colourism in some way.
In the UAE though, I’d say people are treated based on their passports, rather than the colour of their skin.
The locals are extremely proud of their country so there is a strong sense of nationalism. Emirati people are the most important here. I actually love that and don’t find it oppressive at all.
I know exactly where I stand – I am a foreigner purely because I wasn’t born in the Emirates to Emirati parents. There’s no illusion of being born here but still feeling like an outsider, like I do in the UK.
British people are respected here and I find myself very privileged. I am acutely aware that the kind of lifestyle I’m afforded is because of where I was born rather than where I’m originally from; some of my African counterparts have had very different experiences. Either way, I am definitely treated better here than I am in my own home country of the UK.
Living in Abu Dhabi with family
I don’t have any children, but my friends who do always comment on how safe the UAE is, and how their kids can just be kids here.
I also find people to be a lot more trusting of others here. Parents are much more at ease when their children go out by themselves because there is such a high level of security. Things that you’d never even think to do in the UK, like leaving your child with the shop assistant whilst you waltz around the shop, are commonplace here. People seem to adore children in the UAE.
As for education, depending on what you can afford, there are plenty of schools to accommodate all types of learners. International schools, local government schools and schools for children with special educational needs.
Regarding entertainment, there are always things to do here and many activities are suitable for families. It does get extremely hot in the summer though, so in those months, activities tend to be inside or water-based.
Located in the middle of the world, there are great opportunities for travel too. Almost everywhere is accessible from Dubai and many people leave in the summer to escape the heat. South East Asia is a stone’s throw away and relatively cheap to get to, for example.
Expat home comforts
Okay so because the UAE is a lot more Western than one would think, getting typically-British things here is not too difficult.
You’ll be pleased to know Waitrose is one of the main supermarkets in the Emirates. You can find things like Belvoir’s Elderflower Cordial, Ambrosia’s Custard and Heinz Baked Beans under one roof.
My British side is pretty satisfied, but my African side is struggling. Ghanaian food is hard to find here unless you have a contact or if you keep your ear firmly to the ground.
Luckily, I’ve been here long enough now to know where to go and for the most part, I bring over as much as I can to save myself the hassle. This year, with COVID hitting hard, I have felt like a fiend when searching for home comforts. I may or may not have harassed friends to smuggle some shito, all purpose seasoning and Maggie cubes (I can’t find the shrimp ones anywhere) on their return to Abu Dhabi!
I started an online community, called Afro Hair UAE, to serve as a digital directory for products and businesses which cater to the natural hair community. Unfortunately, many black products and services are not included in the mainstream and we have to dig deeper to find the things which sustain us.
Lifestyle & etiquette in Abu Dhabi
Living in Abu Dhabi is not as strict as I once thought. There are some rules to follow in order to show respect to locals, but it is more liberal than you’d think. In places of worship or governmental buildings, both men and women have to make sure their shoulders and knees are covered.
After living in the UAE for some time now, I’ve learned what sort of things are acceptable. For me, it all depends on where I’m going and who I’m around. If there are locals, I will make more of an effort to cover up and be modest. If I’m going to be around westerners, I’ll dress pretty much how I dress back home.
Just to address any common misconceptions: you can drink alcohol here and you can even buy pork! Restaurants are open during Ramadan too. However most make an effort to be sensitive to those who are fasting. It never hurts to respect people’s religion, does it?
Things to know before moving to Abu Dhabi
I wish I had known how western Abu Dhabi is so I wouldn’t have filled my suitcase with PG Tips!
In all seriousness though, the main thing would have been knowing what the job climate was like over here so I could prepare. Had I known I’d be out of a job for four years, I would have invested more into my online businesses or I may not have come here in the first place.
All in all, is Abu Dhabi a good place to live?
Absolutely, I love this place. I am so grateful to have had the opportunity to live here. It is an amazing country. I’d recommend relocating here but at the very least, you must come and visit!
The country has officially only been around for 49 years, but what the Emirati people have achieved within that time is remarkable.
For more on life in Abu Dhabi, check out Helen’s blog and follow her on Instagram.
It was really nice reading this post, I am an expat from London and have been living in Abu Dhabi with my husband for 3 years now and I cant totally relate to so many things in the post. Number one, I would totally agree that the cost of living is as much or even more than London! Getting your hair done here in a reputable salon far exceeds London prices and don’t even get me started on the job market! I have been out of work for 3 years now and even taken the time to retrain with a view to getting a job here, still trying! At least the sun still shines everyday, and like you said, it is very safe.
Thank you Eva for your comment. I’m sorry to hear you also find Abu Dhabi challenging in some areas of life, but as you say there are also huge benefits and priorities are very personal. I also think it’s good to validate our experiences with other women in similar positions, so thank you for sharing this x