Abu Dhabi, although often thought of as Dubai’s less glamorous neighbour, is, however, the epitome of a modern Middle Eastern city – vibrant, cultural and lively.
Its strategic importance is significant as it houses the government of the UAE. Furthermore, Abu Dhabi holds nearly 9% of world oil reserves. Naturally, a large proportion of expatriate workers are employed in the oil and gas industry.
The indigenous Emiratis make up only 30% of the population, and there are a significant number of other Arabs from the region. There are also large South Indian and Filipino contingents, as well as a percentage of western expats from the UK, Europe and beyond.
The plethora of nationalities, in what essentially is a small central area, gives a certain individuality to such a young city.
Indeed, the city is an ideal place to bring up a family, and enjoy the nicer things in life in a modern, culturally focused environment. For those into the hustle, bustle and bright lights, Dubai is only a 90 minute drive away.
Whether you move to Abu Dhabi temporarily or on a more permanent basis, the nuances of this peaceful Middle Eastern city will remain part of you for many years.
Climate: For a large part of the year, the weather is idyllic. There is sunshine all year round with temperatures most agreeable during the cooler months between October to April when the temperature ranges between 25 and 35 degrees Celsius.
The summer months can become particularly unbearable with temperatures hitting the high 40s. However, the humidity in these months is the killer factor reaching 90% or more on a regular basis – glasses steam up and the shirt sticks to your back within minutes.
Nevertheless, all buildings have some form of air conditioning, and so the extremities can be more or less avoided. The sun can be extremely bright in this part of the world and a good pair of sunglasses and sunscreen are highly recommended.
Needless to say, rain is not a common occurrence and is a hotly discussed topic if ever there is a single drop.
Getting around: Most western expatriates opt for their own vehicle here in Abu Dhabi, although parking in some areas, as well as the erratic driving, can be a stiff test of one’s patience.
Cars are relatively cheap, and with the coming and going of the expats, the second hand market is booming. Although there is a semi formal bus system in place, the schedule can be haphazard and poor and those without cars opt to take the gold, white and green taxis which swarm the city at all hours.
A taxi fare across town rarely costs more than 5 dirhams (80p) which is sometimes worth the cost for the entertainment value of the journey alone! Furthermore, it is imperative to know the nearest landmark of your destination, or else you’ll end up aimlessly making a round tour of the city.
Since there is no train system in place in the UAE, the only way to get to other cities is by road. The journey to Dubai is a well travelled route, with the Sheikh Zayed Highway notorious for accidents due to reckless driving.
There are three ways to get to Dubai: taking an unofficial minibus at 20Dhs – a rather uncomfortable experience; an air conditioned bus at 35Dhs, which leaves at regular intervals; or taking a ‘shared taxi’ where 4 people split the 200Dhs cost. The latter two are both very reliable means of transport, but only depart once the vehicle is full.
Renting a car is also an option here. If you are visiting, you will need to provide a copy of your passport and your ‘home’ driving licence. However, once you have obtained residency, you must obtain a UAE driving license. For UK citizens, this can be transferred automatically. However, some other nationalities must take the obligatory driving test.
Accommodation: Unlike Dubai, expats are not allowed to purchase their own place. Most expats here either have an allowance for accommodation or have a contribution built into their salaries.
Abu Dhabi apartment rents have soared in recent years due to population growth coupled with a lack of new buildings and thus rents are on average about 15% higher than those of Dubai. A typical two bedroom apartment currently costs about 60,000Dhs/year to rent and three bedroom villas start upward of 100,000Dhs.
However, location is critical. The closer you are to the Corniche (the main road next to the sea), the more you are likely to pay, and if you choose to live further away from the main city and general amenities, substantial discounts can be obtained.
The lure of laziness is tempting. Many, who would not have contemplated having one, end up taking a maid full time. A maid service can cost anything from 500 to 1000 Dhs a month which can be particularly useful if you have a number of kids to look after. Part time maids usually charge 15Dhs per hour, plus their taxi fare, for those homes requiring just a scrub.
Culture: Women are free to do most things they would do back home. Common sense prevails, and it would be considered offensive to walk around town in skimpy attire. However, this is certainly not a society where women must cover themselves fully in the ‘abaya’ (although there are numbers of women who do cover themselves fully or partially).
For the most part, women can carry on their lives as they would do back home. (For reference, women are allowed to drive and work) Also, it is a lot safer, despite the wayward stares of the males.
Entertainment: The weekend takes different forms depending on which company you work for. Many people will only have the Friday off, whereas others have, in addition, half of Thursday, the whole of Thursday or Saturday.
Moreover, some companies start work as early as 7 a.m. to finish at 3 p.m. while others insist on a split shift. It all takes a while to get accustomed to, but once you do get used to it, you will quite easily learn to fit your leisure time around it.
Whether you are a pubber and clubber, a golfer, a cinema goer or a karate king, there are facilities to cater to your free time. Essentially, you can do whatever you could do in the West, but with a little more sun to boot.
In addition, offroading, dune bashing and sand surfing are additional pursuits that you can take up in the desert.
There are numerous restaurants across the city, from high end international eateries to regional specialities cafes to your fast food joints.
Food is a hobby around here and all tastes and pockets are catered for. You can spend anything from 15Dhs on a filling South Indian meal to 300Dhs (£45) on a culinary masterpiece. In general though, eating out is relatively cheap compared to the UK.
The nicer beaches and pools are located within the hotels. Many western expats join the health clubs associated with the hotels which are usually packed during the weekends. The cost to visit these beaches can cost upward of 35Dhs per day for those not part of the clubs.
Although alcohol is prohibited in Islam, it is available at many of the licensed outlets which tend to be hotels.
To purchase alcohol at the few off licences that exist, non Muslim expats need to obtain a liquor licence, which will permit them to purchase a fairly substantial stash of booze per month for personal consumption. However, bear in mind that there is a zero tolerance of drink driving here and imprisonment or deportation are likely penalties.
Shopping: Another favourite pastime out here is shopping. Whether your wardrobe is a testament to Bulgari or Hugo Boss, or you prefer the tailor made touch, you can get it all here, at reasonable prices.
Gold, Persian rugs and intricate ornaments are all traded heavily in the various downtown shops. Everything is imported here, so whether you want US brands or intricate Indian carvings, they can all be found with a little searching.
There are four main supermarkets offering any food product you can think of from all corners of the globe. Whether you are an aficionado of camel milk, Oreo cookies or Jaffa cakes, you can get it in Abu Dhabi.
To make life a little easier, if you run out of any foodstuffs, a call to your friendly corner shop will result in it being brought to your door within minutes.