The next installment in the Expat Interview Series! I’ve reached out to expats in different countries to hear why people might choose to move abroad, and how they do it. If you want to know more about moving to a particular country this is the place. If you’re interested in taking part or want to see a certain place featured let me know!
I once made a fleeting (read: 12 hour) visit to Abu Dhabi when I was travelling from Thailand to the UK, and the little I managed to see really intrigued me. I found it hard to put my finger on the pulse on the place and see what it was really like, which is why I’m excited to share this interview with Keri from Our Globetrotters, an expat who lives there. Read on for more insight into what moving to Abu Dhabi, what it’s like to live there and insider tips for visitors!
Tell us about yourself
I’m Keri, an expat since birth I guess, born to British parents in New Zealand but raised in Australia. I grew wings in my early twenties and shifted my accounting career to London, then hubby and kids came along and of course, any plans turned on their head.
My husband took a job offer in Abu Dhabi shortly after our second child was born and that’s where our expat journey truly began.
What made you decide to move to Abu Dhabi?
Although we were technically expats in England as well, having British roots and a familiarity with the language, customs and a big network of friends, it didn’t truly feel like an expat posting.
We had an amazing life in London, working and travelling fairly solidly for nearly a decade. Children really do change everything and we had to admit to ourselves that a two bed flat in inner London, working ridiculous hours wasn’t going to cut it for long for family life.
We made the decision to call time on our overseas experience and head home as soon as the 2012 Olympics were finished. But the job market in Australia was completely flat, and it would take both of us going back to work full time to make ends meet.
Then out of the blue hubby got a phone call about a job in the UAE. It wasn’t on the radar but we had nothing to lose at this point having already sold our home and ordered our shipping container to transport our lives overseas. We at least knew where it was on a map and had visited relatives there before!
Within weeks of my sons birth we found ourselves on a relocation visit (and running for a rushed passport at Australia House!) during my maternity leave – in the peak of summer during Ramadan – so we knew exactly what we could be in for.
The big question mark was whether we were prepared to sacrifice moving home, closer to family and friends to start a new life from scratch. Parenthood is a scary journey as it is, let alone doing it alone. But we were all set for an adventure and took the plunge.
At this point, I had decided not to immediately return to full-time work. Not long after moving we found out we were to be a family of five, so it fairly cemented any decisions in this regard. I turned my passion for writing into a blog, and since then I’ve been on the journey of learning about social media, freelance writing and the murky world of influencers. It’s a far cry from my London accounting career, but 6 years in now, we are still very happy with that spur of the moment decision to test out expat life and get on that plane.
Tell me about the cost of living
The cost of living in Abu Dhabi is not as bad as people imagine. The killer is rent, so always try to have housing negotiated separate to your take-home salary. The other big cost if you have kids is schooling, as expats must use the private system, so again, try and get this packaged.
We wrote extensively about expat remuneration packages and considerations for families in Abu Dhabi here.
Most Western expats drive their own cars, so vehicle ownership costs and fuel may be a lot cheaper than your home country (depending on where you are from!). Groceries are as you would expect with quite a bit of variation between your cheap and premium supermarkets with imported brands.
There’s always the temptation to live a lavish lifestyle with so many top restaurants, beach clubs, spas, shopping malls and fun weekend activities to choose from, but you can live fairly frugally if you choose to. Dining out we find is the greatest cost – hence we don’t do it much! But you can save by getting the Entertainer App, this has hundreds of 2-for-1 vouchers.
Like any tax-free expat posting, always keep your savings, spending, and emergency buckets separate. There’s no compulsory pension system so keep that in mind and plan for your next step.
How did you find the job seeking process?
There is a huge variety of different roles expats can take in the UAE, though many roles and salary levels are determined by nationality (they are trying to stamp this out in job advertising but it still blatantly exists).
It is more likely for senior management and roles that need an explicit qualification or skill set that you will be headhunted from overseas or moved internally by your organisation, rather than applying for a job within the UAE.
For spouses, things can get a little trickier, though certainly not impossible. Pretty much all workplaces operate in English which opens up opportunities. Note that any female working needs a permission letter from her husband – yes, for real! One of the quirks of living in an Islamic culture.
Many families will have a second income earner who doesn’t get a full-time income but works for example in a school or admin type position. In these sorts of roles you can expect to get paid much less than you might in an equivalent role in a Western country.
Do you need a visa to live in Abu Dhabi?
Anyone wanting to live in the UAE they will need a Residents Visa. The main worker of the family will get an employment visa, then all their dependents get their residency through their sponsorship (this can include domestic workers).
Although in theory you can do “Visa runs” every month and remain on a Tourist Visa (free on arrival for many countries), you will not be able to access schooling, health care or take out a tenancy contract without the Residency Visa and an Emirates ID card.
The other method is to set up a free zone company which can include a Residency Visa for company directors. This is the route many entrepreneurs take when looking to establish themselves in the UAE.
What’s the social scene like? How easy is it to make friends?
As a new parent when I moved here I found it very easy to make friends. Mum groups lend themselves to the expat life and on the whole, I found people I meet to be very welcoming and encouraging. There is a distinct feeling of comradery, many of us have given up careers to make the move and “we are all in this together!”
Making good friends has taken much longer. My husband has work friends. I have mum friends. The two don’t always equate to great family friendships. And the hardest part of expat life, good friends then leave.
One of the early steps I took was to join the committee at Australian social club Aussie Abroad. Although I was one of the younger ones, I have developed great friendships and networks from within this group, and it pretty much guarantees we have a social event every month.
We are not at all into the party scene, but there is a nightlife here (albeit nowhere near as big as neighbouring Dubai!) The Friday brunch scene is big though and makes for great family entertainment. There are plenty of sporting clubs you can join up to as well.
Like anywhere, pick something you are into and you’re bound to find there’s a group of like-minded people out there – if not make one! Meet Up is popular for finding these groups.
What’s the best thing about living in Abu Dhabi?
The type of lifestyle we are able to live. I am an avid traveller, so living near two of the world’s greatest airline hubs in Dubai and Abu Dhabi is great.
We are also able to afford to send our children to a private British school through our salary package, and live in a nice house with home help and drive nice cars. These are all things we would not easily be able to afford in the UK or Australia and keep up the same lifestyle (i.e., we’d both need to work full time with little spare change left over after living costs).
I am incredibly fortunate that by changing career I can now work from home and still be there for school times and bedtimes, with the flexibility of child care at home. This is something I don’t think I would have ever explored doing without undertaking the expat experience – I was very career driven.
Whilst the weather can be a big off-putting factor for people considering a Middle East posting, I look at it very much in reverse that 6 months of the year we are blessed with stunning warm sunny weather and have a very outdoorsy life.
What’s the hardest thing about living in Abu Dhabi?
It’s not an overly difficult expat posting with many great conditions but the bureaucracy at times can really get to you. The summer heat can be really oppressive. And if one more person tells me I will be there tomorrow, inshallah….. but the quirks are relatively small compared to the benefits.
Freedom of speech and the judicial system, however, are always points of concern for me.
How is your new home different from your old one?
It’s without a doubt very different from what we would experience raising a family in Australia or England, though, at the same time, everyday life feels quite “normal”. We still get up early for school runs, sit in traffic, running mum’s taxi service while hubby works hard, travels a lot and pays off the mortgage.
The assimilation into a Muslim culture was much easier than we thought. In fact, impacts very little on our day to day life. You get very used to the sound of the call to prayer, and you just naturally dress more conservatively and mind your manners. It’s not hard to display respect and keep many aspects of your life private.
It’s made me feel more conservative when I head home though and see what people wear and how they act and behave in public! It’s a very multicultural country in so many regards with such a large and mixed expat population (the local population in comparison is tiny, something around 12%) so it makes you mindful of many different cultures and behaviours (good and bad).
If we had just one day in Abu Dhabi what should we not miss?
There’s a really stellar line up now of top tourist attractions in Abu Dhabi. You absolutely cannot miss the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, and culture buffs will be dead impressed with the new Louvre Museum on Saadiyat Island.
For an action-packed day, you will want to head to Yas Island with its hugely impressive line up of theme parks – Yas Waterworld, Ferrari World, and Warner Bros World.
Finish your day off with an evening desert safari, an opportunity to try a number of adrenaline sports or more sedate camel riding and traditional music and dance with henna and shisha.
When you think of your expat home, what comes to mind?
The misconceptions! People still look at us after all these years with a fascination that we could possibly live in the Middle East, as if everyone walks around in bhurkas and wears a suicide vest. This is totally wrong!
Can you share your best local/insider tip about where you live?
Download the Entertainer App and buy the Abu Dhabi bundle – I promise I’m not a sales person – just genuinely we have saved so much money over the years using this to plan out nights out and weekends!
And during the set-up phase, buy furniture second hand. There are many expat buy and sell Facebook groups to pick up a bargain, often people are only here for short stints and can be selling stuff near new condition. That and accept your house is going to look like an Ikea catalogue!
If you could give one piece of advice to people looking to live in Abu Dhabi what would it be?
Come in with an open mind and a lot of patience. The setup time seems ridiculously hard, and especially if you arrive in the summer, quite oppressive. Once you are in though, and the paperwork side of things is done, cash flow under control, it is an immensely enjoyable place to live and appreciate the expat experience.