21 Things to Know Before You Move to the UAE
Living in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) is an experience like no other. Home to a wide range of nationalities, a nightlife to rival London and New York, and absolutely zero income tax, the Gulf nation has plenty to offer. Thankfully, it’s not too difficult to move everything you own halfway across the world – especially if you use the form above.
Gorgeous, isn't it? This beautiful scene is one of many you'll see while living in the UAE
There’s plenty to recommend about life in a land where the skies are almost always blue. Here are the five best reasons to start living in the UAE:
- It has a minister of state for happiness and wellbeing. No, seriously. The country aims to become one of the five happiest countries in the world by 2021, so why not hop on board the love train?
- The weather and beaches are amazing. If you love following a day of work by working on your tan, the UAE is perfect for you.
- In fact, everything is gorgeous, from the man-made islands off the coast of Dubai to the world’s tallest tower, Burj Khalifa. There’s plenty of natural beauty too, including the wonderfully named Empty Quarter (Rub' al Khali), which is the largest continuous sand desert in the world. If you’ve ever wanted to see the sweeping sands of Disney’s Aladdin in real life, this is your chance.
- You’ll be in good company as an expat. While the UAE’s population is around 10 million, more than 88% of residents come from abroad, according to the United Nations (UN). This means a huge variety of exciting cultures and food, and better still, you won’t be alone – data from embassies shows that 120,000 people from the UK and 50,000 from the US live in the UAE.
- There are almost no taxes. In 2018, the government introduced VAT for the first time on most goods and services, at the low rate of 5% – but that’s it. No income tax. Everything you make is yours to keep.
However appealing these reasons may be, it must be noted that if you're thinking of making the jump to this Gulf nation, you may be in for a shock. Homosexuality remains illegal in the UAE, while women may face grave challenges in light of the country's attitudes towards abortion, rape, and domestic abuse.
If you are able to navigate this level of culture shock, and are able to secure a decent job, then you'll be in a prime position to take advantage of what the UAE has to offer. Let us help you get the most out of your move with these top 21 things to know.
1. How do the individual emirates differ?
The UAE is comprised of seven emirates, which gained independence and formed the country in 1971 after the British military stopped protecting the region. If you’re moving for work, you’re probably heading to either Abu Dhabi – which includes the UAE’s capital, most of its population, and 87% of its land – or Dubai, the spectacular business hub of the country.
Abu Dhabi contains both the largest place of worship in the country, in the shape of the imposing Sheikh Zayed Mosque in Abu Dhabi City, and the UAE’s biggest economy. In 2018, the emirate’s gross domestic product (GDP) was £194 billion. That’s more than Portugal, Egypt, and Vietnam, according to the International Monetary Fund – and it’s just one emirate.
Meanwhile, Dubai’s GDP is £83 billion – and when you consider that fact alongside the emirate’s incredible skyline and man-made islands, you can start to understand why Dubai International Airport is the third-busiest in the world. According to National Geographic stats from 2018, an enormous 88 million passengers pass through its gates across the year.
2. Don’t forget to check out the other emirates
While the urban hubs of Abu Dhabi and Dubai are endlessly enjoyable, the other emirates also have their unique charms, and are worth exploring – not least for their highly Instagrammable landscapes.
As well as Ajman, which is a mostly agricultural region, there’s Fujairah, an emirate with picturesque countryside and mountains that also boasts the Al Badiyah Mosque, built more than 650 years ago and still in use. And though you as a foreigner are banned from buying land or owning the majority of any business, you’re welcome to enjoy plenty of watersports, such as windsurfing, water skiing and diving.
You can also take a sea-and-sun-themed trip to Ras Al Khaimah, an emirate with 64km of beach coastline, as well as the longest zipline in the world at Jebel Jais – the UAE’s highest peak.
Take care if you visit Sharjah, where the law requires everyone to dress conservatively and bans drinking in public (and only privately if you have a licence). You’re also forbidden to socialise with members of another gender if you’re not married to them.
But if none of that bothers you, Sharjah has everything from a classic car museum to a palace and aquarium – and for those who are more interested in exploring nature, there’s a mangrove forest, a seaside promenade, and a beautiful bird of prey centre.
The UAE mixes Islamic history and culture with many western attractions, and nowhere is this clearer than Umm Al Quwain. The emirate contains a majestic 18th century fort and historic architecture, alongside a water park which covers 250,000m² and has a daily capacity of 10,000. Dreamland Aqua Park contains more than 30 rides, slides and attractions, and runs throughout the year.
3. What is healthcare like in the UAE?
Hopefully your company will provide you with access to private treatment, which has a better reputation in the UAE than the public healthcare system. As of 2017, there were more private hospitals than public, according to Allianz. This makes sense, since anyone who isn’t an Emirati national only has access to emergency treatments. In the particular case of Dubai, unless you are an Emirati national, it is mandatory that you have some form of private medical cover.
If you need to take out your own private medical insurance policy before your move to the UAE, we recommend Cigna. With four levels of annual cover to choose from and extra modules for more flexibility, Cigna will sort you out with a plan that suits your needs.
Start building a customised plan with a free quote to protect your most important assets – you and your family.
4. Make sure you can afford the move
Living in the UAE isn’t cheap. Stats gathered by Numbeo reveal that renting a three-bedroom flat in the centre of either Abu Dhabi or Dubai costs more than £2,000 a month, and even your everyday expenses like coffee or beer will set you back about £3.50 apiece.
If you’re from a big city like London or Los Angeles, then you’re prepared for these sort of prices. Just make sure, as ever, that your salary matches your lifestyle – a calculation which will be helped by the complete lack of income tax in the UAE.
5. Living in the UAE is a cultural shift – but yes, you can still drink
The UAE could be your dream move, as long as you respect the rules. First off, remember that the weekend is on Friday and Saturday – with Sunday as the first day of the work week – because Friday is a holy day in Islam.
If you’re after some alcohol-fuelled fun when you clock off on Thursdays, go for it – just don’t discuss it at work, as there is still a stigma around drinking. There are plenty of bars and restaurants with drinks licenses, and most Dubai bars have happy hours. Women can also enjoy ladies’ night, usually on Tuesdays, while there are countless brunch options with unlimited food and drink.
Watch out if you’re used to life in the UK, though: the legal drinking age in the UAE is 21, and they check IDs. It’s also illegal to consume alcohol on the street, and there is a zero tolerance approach to consuming drugs, which can lead to deportation or imprisonment.
6. In fact, get ready for many unexpected laws
Though you can find licensed bars, clubs and restaurants to drink in everywhere apart from Sharjah, watch out for other unusual restrictions. You could be thrown in prison for gossiping, swearing (both in real life and on WhatsApp), raising money for charity without a licence, carrying food with poppy seeds, or taking photos of people without their permission.
You can be deported for all of these offences, and may also be forced to leave the country – as well as facing a five-figure fine – if you take photos of road accidents.
Sex outside marriage is banned as well, meaning that you and your partner will have to tie the knot before moving to the UAE or risk spending a minimum of one year in prison.
7. What’s life in the UAE like for foreign women?
While it’s generally safe to walk the streets, if you’re a woman in the UAE, that comes with conditions. There’s no need to wear a hijab, but make sure to cover your shoulders, knees and neckline if you’re at work or in a public space – unless that place is the beach.
Lonely Planet recommends that if you’re in the UAE with your boyfriend, you should say you’re married, and avoid public displays of affection – these can even be punished with 80 lashes. On public buses, sit near the front in the women’s section, and try not to make direct eye contact with men you don’t know.
Also be aware that women have often faced denial or even imprisonment after accusing men of rape or domestic abuse. Abortion is also illegal in the UAE, unless the person giving birth or their baby is in mortal danger. It can lead to a year in prison.
Apart from these restrictions, living in Abu Dhabi as a woman – or almost any other emirate, for that matter – is much the same as life in the west. You can drive, you can drink, and you can move around the country alone without much trouble.
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8. What’s it like working in the UAE?
If you’re moving to the Gulf nation for work, you’re most likely heading to Abu Dhabi or Dubai, where the majority of the jobs are found. Most of these roles will be taken up by men, who form the large majority of the population and the workforce. The Emirati government reported in 2017 that 91% of men above the age of 15 were employed, compared to just 42% of women.
While the country’s economy is largely reliant on oil, government agencies and construction, tourism is booming – especially in Dubai, which was the world’s fourth-most popular tourism destination in 2018, according to Mastercard.
But expats in Abu Dhabi or Dubai have typically come to the UAE to work in accounting, finance or IT – that is, unless you’re working for a multinational company like Microsoft, AstraZeneca, DHL, FedEx, Marriott or Hilton Worldwide, which all have offices in the country.
There are many bonus features when it comes to working in the UAE. As well as the tax-free income, many companies also offer their employees a housing allowance, contributions towards your kids’ school fees, medical insurance, and even free air tickets back home.
Be warned, though: labour laws are different in the UAE. If you’re ever thinking of joining a trade union or starting a strike, don’t. It’s a criminal offence, and can lead to you being deported.
9. Do you need to learn Arabic?
If you pick up some Arabic, you’ll find it easier to bond with colleagues and locals. As with any country, learning some of the language shows you respect the place and its people. However, English is widely spoken, and the sheer number of expats in Dubai and Abu Dhabi means that you’ll always have a community available to you if you need it. By using an online forum like InterNations, you can easily stay in touch with other people in your exact situation – and even ask for advice before you travel.
There are also plenty of British pubs and restaurants in both Abu Dhabi and Dubai, if you ever have a craving for bangers and mash or toad in the hole.
10. What do I need to do to start living in the UAE?
You can get a free 30-day visa if you’re a citizen of a host of countries – including the UK, US, Australia, Canada and Ireland – and extend it for another 30 days during your stay. You’re probably after something a bit more long-term though – in which case, you need a sponsor.
This can be anyone who lives permanently in the UAE, but if you’re moving for work, it’ll most likely be your company. Your sponsor will apply for a 30-day residency on your behalf, before extending your stay while you’re in the country. All you need to provide is a copy of your passport – your company should take care of the rest.
Expats living in the UAE can sponsor you to bring over close relatives like your spouse and children, so you shouldn’t have to leave anyone behind. Also make sure to get an ID Card through this government website, as everyone living in the UAE has to have one.
11. Move your belongings to the UAE in the least stressful way possible
After you’ve done all of that, you’ll need to ship everything you own to your new home in this desert paradise.
We’ve calculated the average international shipping rates for some of our most popular journeys from the UK (London), the US (New York), Australia (Sydney) and Canada (Montreal) to Jebel Ali in the UAE. The rates are sourced from WorldFreightRates.com, and are based on the port-to-port transportation of a 20ft container of used furniture worth £40,000 – the typical value of the contents of a three-bedroom house (according to Admiral Insurance). These prices were last updated in April 2019.
Please note: these container shipping costs exclude typical add-ons such as door-to-door delivery, professional packing/unpacking, and basic insurance cover. Our shipping suppliers normally incorporate these services into their prices, so expect some discrepancy between the rates given here and the quotes you receive. These estimates should be used as an indication only.
12. What’s it like living in the UAE with a family?
Once you’ve managed to arrange for your spouse and kids to join you in your fresh start, you’ll want to get them settled in as quickly as possible. Fortunately, English is widely spoken in the UAE, which will make things easier.
As in many cultures, family is highly valued in the UAE, and will give you an easy way to bond with locals and other colleagues. In terms of education, you will be encouraged to find a private or international school for your kids – and if you’re worried about your children suffering a culture shock or having to adapt to a new curriculum, don’t sweat it.
As of the 2017/18 school year, there are 78 schools in Dubai – nearly half the total – which offer the British curriculum, while 34 teach kids what they would be learning in American schools.
Your family will be able to learn all about the Emirati culture (including getting used to hearing the call to prayer six times a day), but will still be able to enjoy western traditions. Easter and Christmas are proudly celebrated in the UAE, complete with Christmas trees and mall Santas.
13. Is there a lot of family-friendly entertainment in the UAE?
There are plenty of fun activities for all the family to enjoy, including some top-level sport. Abu Dhabi’s Yas Marina Circuit holds an annual Formula One race, football and cricket are extremely popular, and you absolutely have to take the kids to see some camel races in Abu Dhabi or Al Ain – especially since they often feature robot jockeys.
You can go camping in the stunning natural surroundings of Fujairah beach, or Liwa in the Empty Quarter, which is home to the kind of sand dunes familiar to Star Wars’ Luke Skywalker and Rey. Speaking of films, you can see all the latest releases, so there’s no fear of missing the latest Marvel blockbuster. Some flicks have been banned in the UAE in recent years, such as Black Swan, Love and Other Drugs and Fifty Shades of Grey, but it’s rare, and generally doesn’t apply to films you’d take your kids to.
14. Is it too hot in the UAE?
Temperatures typically reach 45°C in the summer, but can go down to a more manageable 10°C in the winter, depending on where you live. In Dubai, the temperature rarely drops below 15°C all year round, and has been known to hit a sweltering 49°C. This can make summers tough, but thankfully, there’s air conditioning wherever you go – including bus stops.
The constant heat does also mean that you and your family can visit the plentiful Emirati beaches at any time in the year. That’s right: whenever you fancy it, you can go and work on your tan, build sandcastles, or even try out some watersports. Just remember your sun cream.
While you're living in the UAE, be sure to try some local cuisine. It's delicious
15. When it comes to food, the UAE has its own unique flavour
Prepare yourself for brunch. We told you about the UAE’s plethora of brunch choices earlier, but it deserves to be mentioned again, if only to make sure you’re ready for the concept of double or even triple brunch. That’s right – some people repeatedly jump from one brunch to another once Friday and Saturday roll around.
The other ubiquitous part of Emirati cuisine is the national fruit: dates. The UAE produces more than 530,000 metric tons of fresh dates each year, so you’ll see them being sold everywhere and incorporated into many local recipes.
16. Get ready to explore global cuisine
As well as regional specialities, you’ll also have access to every type of dining experience, from high-end food to fish and chips. And don’t worry about bacon or ham hocks being forbidden in Islam, as pork is available in a special section of most supermarkets.
Because of its diverse population, the UAE is home to all the dishes you’d expect to find in a big city – Indian, Italian, French, Japanese, and so on – while also satisfying true foodies’ appetites with high-quality Arabic and Middle Eastern cooking. Immerse yourself in the Abu Dhabi and Dubai lifestyle, and see what real falafel, curry and hummus taste like.
17. You’ll be living in an Islamic country
The state religion of UAE is Islam, which impacts every part of life in the country – from the law itself to the six times a day you’ll hear the call to prayer.
Your colleagues and friends in the UAE may well have different cultural expectations when it comes to drinking, relationships, and clothing, to name a few. Some of these differences are enshrined in law. The UAE’s legal system incorporates Sharia Law, which means that offences like insulting Islam or consuming alcohol if you’re a Muslim person are liable to get you deported, flogged, or worse.
18. Ramadan will affect you, regardless of your religion
Be prepared for the month-long fast of Ramadan each year in the spring, during which time everyone is banned from eating, drinking or smoking in public. This includes you, making it one of the most important things to know about the UAE. You can eat at work, but do so away from people, in a private section of the office.
On the plus side, each night, you can join in as people break their day-long fast at the incredible night markets in Abu Dhabi and Dubai. As well as delicious food, the markets also create a smorgasbord of art, fashion and fun.
19. Living in the UAE means living under an absolute monarchy
While you may think you’re used to living under a monarch if you’re from the UK, Queen Elizabeth II doesn’t have anything on the seven rulers of the UAE. Each of the emirates is overseen by a tribal leader, called a sheikh, who has absolute power over his people and passes down his title from father to son. Together, the sheikhs make up the Federal Supreme Council (FSC).
The seven members of the FSC elect the president and prime minister, usually giving them to Abu Dhabi and Dubai’s sheikhs, respectively. Unlike the country you’re probably coming from, the UAE is certainly not a democracy, and its authorities don’t take kindly to criticisms of this fact.
20. Is the UAE a safe place to live?
A US government report from December 2018 found that the UAE has the lowest threat level possible. And in the opinion of hundreds of Numbeo users, the level of crime is “very low” all over the country.
In 2018, the UAE government reported that the rate of premeditated murders was down to 0.3 per 100,000 people, leading deputy chairman of police Lt-General Dahi Khalfan Tamim to call the UAE “the safest [country] worldwide,” according to Gulf News.
21. So who should move to the UAE?
The UAE is a challenging place to live if you’re a woman or part of the LGBT+ community, with many of the country’s laws restricting your freedoms. However, if none of these identities apply to you, you will find an accepting, welcoming place which is home to dozens of different nationalities from across the globe.
As long as you have a salary which allows you to enjoy all that the Gulf nation has to offer, and you can respect the country’s laws and religious customs, the UAE will be a wonderful home to you and your family. Head on over to our International Container Shipping Costs page, and see how much it would take to set you up in paradise. Or, to start receiving quotes for shipping to the UAE, simply fill in this form and our professional suppliers will get back to you!