What Living in Abu Dhabi as an Expat is Really Like

What living in Abu Dhabi as an expat is really like

Today, the Living Abroad series takes us to the United Arab Emirates where we meet Jay, a Canadian expat who lives in Abu Dhabi with her husband, Joe, and their two children. Here, we talk about the challenges of learning Arabic, popular snack foods (ever hear of luqaimat?), and how living in Abu Dhabi has challenged her initial assumptions about the Middle East.

What living in Abu Dhabi as an expat is really like

Jay’s background: We moved to Abu Dhabi in August of 2016. from Stavanger, Norway.  Prior to that, we had been in Norway and Gabon. These days, I’m a full-time mom. But back in the day, I was a teacher.  I majored in English and taught middle school.  With my youngest now entering school, I’m working on my next steps and hoping to pursue some creative ambitions.

After living in Norway, Abu Dhabi was a relatively easy transition.  The service industry thrives here and the population is 90% expatriates.  Culturally, it has been really interesting experiencing the Middle East and it has challenged and changed many of my preconceived notions.

What living in Abu Dhabi as an expat is really like
What living in Abu Dhabi as an expat is really like

On the cost of living: The UAE is more expensive than the US in most regards. This is the place to make money (there’s no income tax) but it’s also the place to spend money.

On learning Arabic: I find Arabic incredibly difficult.  My son learns it in school and remote learning has really put me to the test. Most everyone speaks English here so there is rarely a time where we are not understood but I’ve picked up a few common Arabic phrases – khallas [“enough”], inshallah [“God willing”], as-salamu alaykum [“peace be with you”], and alhamdulillah [“praise be to God”].

On Emirati food: Because the vast majority of residents are expatriates and most of the restaurants are international, Emirati food is not particularly common.  The origins of many Middle Eastern dishes are often up for great debate but biryani (a rice dish), hummus, and kebabs are common and if you’re looking for something interesting, you can track down a camel burger.  Sweet shops and coffee places are abundant and often full of locals at all hours of the day. I like the luqaimat, a deep-fried ball of dough drizzled with date syrup.

On smoking hookah: It’s actually called shisha here! I think we did once when we had a friend visiting but it’s not something we seek out.  There are many shisha bars and cafes though and it’s certainly easy to find.

What living in Abu Dhabi as an expat is really like
What living in Abu Dhabi as an expat is really like

On the local fashion: Local women in Abu Dhabi usually wear an abaya, often black but not always, with a shayla, a thin headscarf. Fancy handbags and shoes are the norm. Men wear a long white robe called a kandora often with a white ghotra, a scarf-like fabric, on the head. 

In Abu Dhabi, I generally dress more conservatively than I would at home. I try to keep my shoulders and knees covered when I’m out in the city.  As you spend time here you realize where it’s more accepted to dress down (international hotels, certain housing complexes) and where it’s better to be more conservative (the post office, government buildings, schools). That said, things have changed a lot in the five years I’ve been here. I see women dress in all sorts of manners and it’s more accepted than it was when we first arrived.

What living in Abu Dhabi as an expat is really like

On raising kids in Abu Dhabi: It is interesting being a mom in Abu Dhabi because we live amongst so many different cultures. My children’s school has over 60 nationalities represented so we see a wide variety of families and values. The biggest contrast to other places we’ve lived is the amount of help and staff people employ here.  We are one of the few families I know that do not employ a full-time nanny. When I take my kids to the playground in our community, I’m often the only mom amongst the nannies. Also, kids stay out very late here! It’s not uncommon to see small children strolling the mall or in a restaurant at 10 pm.

On safety: Rules are strict in Abu Dhabi; it is such a safe place. We joke that you can leave your wallet on a table and come back the next day and it would still be sitting there. Street harassment is not a concern. I have never been harassed nor really felt unsafe (not including driving) in my five years here.

What living in Abu Dhabi as an expat is really like
What living in Abu Dhabi as an expat is really like

On living in Abu Dhabi during Covid-19: It has been interesting and occasionally frustrating. Rules come hard and fast and you don’t dare break them or criticize them.  Abu Dhabi itself has become a bubble even within the UAE. Other emirates, including Dubai, have taken a different approach and we now have a permanent border between Abu Dhabi and the rest of the country where you must show a recent PCR to cross back into the capital. The UAE had the second-fastest vaccine rollout in the world – I was fully vaccinated by the end of February – and has relied heavily on extensive testing. I’ve been tested nearly 15 times just because it’s necessary to enter buildings or return to Abu Dhabi. Certainly, there are times where rules don’t make sense or I wished restrictions would lessen slightly but it has also felt very safe.

On missing home: We’ve been gone for over 11 years now so there is not much, materialistically speaking, that we miss anymore.  But certainly, in light of the pandemic, we miss our family.  We haven’t been home in two years and it’s hard not knowing when we’ll be able to visit.  I also miss fresh air. The heat, humidity, and the sand of the desert just don’t bring the crisp, clean air. 

What living in Abu Dhabi as an expat is really like

On the best part about living in Abu Dhabi: I love the call to prayer. I love that I can get absolutely anything delivered. I love valet parking everywhere and beautiful hotels and restaurants.

On the worst part: It can be hard to reconcile that many of the things I love about living here come at a cost in terms of the service and manual labor. People are not treated equally here. Also, the summer heat – it literally feels like living in an oven.

What living in Abu Dhabi as an expat is really like

On living in Abu Dhabi long-term: We’ve been in Abu Dhabi for five years and feel fairly settled and comfortable.  I’d be okay staying for another year or two but my husband is starting to get itchy feet! Covid has definitely changed the game though so it seems like everything from borders to opportunities are all a lot more difficult.

Thanks, Jay! Your photos are gorgeous.

P.S. The full Living Abroad series and What Living as an Expat in France is Really Like.

(Family photos courtesy of Luma Photography.)

This post may have affiliate links, which means I may receive commissions if you choose to purchase through links I provide (at no extra cost to you). Please read my disclosure for more info.