Part 1 – Abu Dhabi vs Dubai – Which Emirate is for you?

Dubai has always been the forerunner in expat destinations in the United Arab Emirates, as well as a tourist hotspot in the GCC. However, it’s neighbour has more than enough opportunities to tempt new talent and offers a different pace of life. Check out our 2-part series on these two Emirates and see which one suits you more.

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By Melanie Clarke

May 05, 2022

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If you’ve ever thought about moving to the UAE, you’ve probably asked yourself the question – Abu Dhabi vs Dubai? As we have offices located in both Dubai and Abu Dhabi, which are both staffed by expats, we’ve asked their thoughts and opinions on the pros and cons of each of the Emirates they’re based in. This real-life experience can really help those looking to relocate to the UAE decide which location is the right one for them!

Quick facts

Dubai

Area: 4,114 km²

Founded: 1833

Population: 3,331,420

Average salary (2021): 109k AED

Average temp. in Summer: 35.5°C

Average temp. in Winter: 19°C

Abu Dhabi

Area: 972 km²

Founded: 1971

Population: 1,450,000

Average salary (2021): 101k AED

Average temp. in Summer: 35.5°C

Average temp. in Winter: 18°C

How is the pace of life in each of the two Emirates?

The pace of life in the UAE in general is much more relaxed than what most are used to in the west; it can be quite a culture shock for many and something it takes time to acclimatise to. This is especially true when it comes to bureaucratic processes, which tend to take a while to be completed!

Life in Dubai

It’s safe to say that the pace of life in Dubai is generally much more fast-paced and lively than the other Emirates. It’s night life is infamous, and the opportunities for shopping at it’s seemingly endless processions of shops is a huge draw for many.

This has built up around its expat community and there always seems to be something going on. Many large corporations and events, as well as global superstars regularly choose Dubai as their stage, which attracts audiences from all over the globe, adding to the bustle of the place.

As well as residents going about their daily lives, over 15 million tourists flock to the Emirate on a yearly basis. There’s plenty to attract them, including the virtually guaranteed good weather year-round, sandy beaches, the best shopping experiences, delicious food and the hugely diverse experiences on offer.

When I moved to Dubai in 2007, that was where everyone wanted to be and would commute the 60-90 minute trip each way every day (that’s a lot over here), rather than live in Abu Dhabi. Before I had kids, I liked that Dubai was also a lot more fast-paced and had a lot going on socially. The analogy most people use is that Abu Dhabi is the father and Dubai the rebellious teen.

Chris Miller

Former Country Manager at Vital Certificates

Life in Abu Dhabi

If a slower-paced lifestyle is more your thing, Abu Dhabi could be the option for you. Although it’s the capital, it definitely has more of a relaxed, family-focused feel in terms of its culture than it’s busier neighbour. It’s more community-led and there is a strong friendly atmosphere to the place.

It can take a while for new expats to get used to how things are done, especially if you are used to a fast-paced environment, but once you acclimatise to the slower pace, you will realise it’s a much better way of doing things!

Although there isn’t quite the same level full-on of glitz and glam as Dubai, there are still many large global events happening in Abu Dhabi to keep things interesting; the Formula 1 race for starters! But overall, it’s rich, more traditional and peaceful personality is better preserved in this Emirate. You can go out and enjoy yourself in the buzzing nightlife but still wake to the tranquil charms.

Abu Dhabi also attracts it’s fair share of tourists, though it doesn’t quite match that of it’s neighbour, averaging around 11 million visitors per year. The additional visitors don’t do anything to detract from the pace of life (you won’t feel overrun with them at any point as in some major capitals!), and sharing this wonderful place with tourists gives the economy a realty boost.

What is there to do in your free time?

It’s safe to say that whichever Emirate you choose, you’ll never be bored. You’ll just need to decide which would cater best to how you like to spend your free time; a leisurely afternoon with a picnic on the beach, powering a buggy across the wild dunes, or an evening on the piste at a year-round indoor ski slope.

Things to do in Dubai

There is no shortage of things to do in Dubai, so even if you’ve lived in the Emirate for a long time, there will always be something new to discover; this is aided by the fact that the Emirate is constantly developing and expanding seemingly day-by-day!

If you want to enjoy a varied day out, Dubai’s huge Global Village is the ideal destination. Consisting of 26 pavilions, you can do some shopping, see a show, catch some of the daily entertainment or sample a wide variety of foods. A whole host of countries and regions are represented, delivering a colourful variety of things to sample. This attraction is only open in the cooler months, so make sure you plan a visit during the season.

Deep inside a mall which grows from the desert sands sits, quite unexpectedly, the world’s third-largest indoor ski slope. This is suitable from everyone and the ideal way to mix it up if you fancy doing something out of the ordinary! Ski Dubai also has late-night openings on certain nights of the week, so everyone can fit some time on the slopes into their schedule.

If you’d rather be outside in the dunes, there is a range of Buggy Safari activities you can enjoy, or go camel trekking if you’d prefer a slower more relaxing pace. The views of the metropolis from way out in the timeless desert is a memorable experience in itself!

We can’t talk about Dubai without the malls; the shopping experiences on offer are world-famous. The 65 retail complexes are like indoor cities in their own right, catering for everything you could want in one place. The most famous is undoubtedly The Dubai Mall, which is the second largest in the world ( with over 1,200 shops) boasts an aquarium, cinema, ice-rink, opera house, and Virtual Reality park as well a massive range of eateries.

Things to do in Abu Dhabi

Whether you want to enjoy family walks at one of the many beautiful parks, days on the picturesque white sandy beaches or go for something a little more exhilarating like water sports, there is always something to do in Abu Dhabi.

All ages are catered for and you’ll never be short of fun actives to enjoy with your family, such as Reem Park which includes a huge range of activities including a skate park, paddle boarding, lawn sports and pedalos.

abu dhabi vs dubai emirates

If you’re a speed freak who wants to spend the day getting your blood pumping, check out Yas Marina Circuit. You can book an experience day where you can get behind the wheel of a high-end sports car and burn up the track. If you’re not quite ready for the mach speed experience, there is a go-karting track which can be enjoyed by both adults and kids alike.

Although Dubai is the mall capital, Abu Dhabi can still hold its own if you need to hit the shops. There are a handful of huge complexes where you can find an excellent range of brands and well-known retailers, so you can find what you need without needing to leave town.

You’ll never run out of things to do, and you can be sure that whether you’re young and looking for excitement, or a young family or looking for something more relaxing to enjoy, there’s always something new to discover.

What is the expat community like?

The UAE itself is home to over 200 nationalities, with expats making up roughly 80% of the population. This makes it one of the highest expat populations in the world! Most of them live in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, making them a both a vibrant melting pot of cultures.

Expats in Dubai

With such a variety of people, you’ll make friends with individuals from all corners of the globe and from all walks of life. This is undoubtedly one of the best things about life in Dubai, as the variety of cultures makes for a colourful and exciting experience day in and day out.

Although everyone is undoubtedly busy, seemingly constantly running 5 errands at a time, everyone is friendly. After all, you’re all in the same boat as a foreigner in this expat capital! It’s not necessary to speak fluent Arabic, as the majority of people in the city will speak English, but knowing some basic phrases will likely get you brownie points. This is especially true when you need to deal with Arabic-speaking government officials!

“Everyone says hello, is always very helpful and tries and help in any way they can. I guess the one thing we’ve found here is that everyone is very supportive and there is almost a mutual understanding that everyone has been through this process at some point before, which is a great safety net for people heading out here. There are multiple Facebook Groups and the like that are dedicated to Expats, which are great for getting advice from those who’ve been here a while.”

Christian Gallagher

Business Development Manager at Vital Certificates UAE

A lot of the expat culture revolves around socialising, especially the infamous Friday brunch scene. In fact, there are countless articles ranking the best places to enjoy your Friday brunches in Dubai, as it’s such an established occasion. Most venues require a single payment, which covered all of your food and drink during your meal (which often lasts anywhere up to 5 hours!). This is definitely noted as a contributory factor for the “Dubai Stone” which most expats claim to gain shortly after relocating.

Expats in Abu Dhabi

Expat life in Abu Dhabi is very community-led and expats integrate seamlessly into the lifestyle here. Life is similar to Dubai with expats coming from all corners of the globe, but keep in mind that Abu Dhabi is a little bit less developed than Dubai when it comes to things to do and ways to spend your free time.

What else is there to know?

Well that covers the introductions to life in both of these Emirates, but there’s still more to look at when comparing life in both locations. There’s a lot more to consider, especially if you have family relocating with you, as well as general living expenses.

Read part 2 to find out more about life in the Emirates, including costs of living.

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Melanie Clarke

Melanie is a Marketing Coordinator at Vital Consular. Before taking up a Marketing role, she spent 3 years building up a rich knowledge of global legalisation processes on the operations team. When she's not working, Melanie enjoys attending music events and pursuing many creative interests including screen printing and merchandise design.

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