What to expect if you are moving your family to Abu Dhabi
As well as being avid world travellers, the Globetrotters are growing up as expatriates, living in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) capital, Abu Dhabi, for the past decade.
We have put together for you here a collection of our favourite articles on our expatriate life here in Abu Dhabi, and the UAE.
For visitors to the UAE or ideas on things to do with kids in Abu Dhabi, don’t miss our on our destinations page “Discover the UAE” which is packed full of advice and reviews for exploring this fascinating – and perhaps surprisingly – very family-friendly corner of the world.
We first published this guide in 2016, and have updated it in 2023 with the latest information about expat life in Abu Dhabi post-pandemic
Practical Information about Abu Dhabi
The population in Abu Dhabi
Abu Dhabi is the capital city and largest Emirate of the 7 Emirates that make up the “United Arab Emirates“. The country is still very young, federating in 1971.
The city has grown vastly over the past five decades and is now estimated to be home to nearly 2 million with over 150 nationalities – in fact, the native Emirati population is estimated to be only 11.5%, with the vast majority of the residents expats – most from places like India, Pakistan, the Philippines as well as other GCC countries.
The US/European expat population is estimated to be a similar size to the Emirati population, most with white-collar jobs and living tax-free – one of the huge draw cards to expatriates living in the desert.
The climate in Abu Dhabi
Subtropical and arid, meaning pretty much year-round sunshine. The winter months from November to April are wonderful and mild, with a real focus on the outdoor lifestyle. Summers can be hot and unpleasant for some; daytime temperatures can reach 50°C/122°F, and life pretty much moves indoors.
See our essential guide to Abu Dhabi indoor activities here.
Expatriates are free to dress to the weather (women do not need to be fully covered) but do exercise some respect and save your beachwear for the beach only. Note air conditioning inside malls and hotels in the summer can be freezing; still pack your cardigan!
You’ll find a good guide to UAE dressing etiquette here.
The Cost of Living in Abu Dhabi
The cost of living versus your home country can be really variable depending on where you are coming from!
Head over to our Expat Money Matters page for more cost of living articles and things to look out for, particularly when eyeing up a Family Expat Package.
Generally speaking, petrol is cheap (well, it was prior to 2022!), utilities reasonable, eating out is on the pricey side and rents are extraordinarily expensive!
VAT of 5% was introduced in January 2018 and has caused some price inflation.
Dining out at hotels incurs additional taxes equalling 25%, and alcohol for home consumption (non-muslims) now incurs 30% tax – though licensing for drinking alcohol has been dropped.
Schooling costs can also add up as expats must be schooled privately.
Want to know more about schooling in Abu Dhabi? We wrote this really handy guide for new parents moving to the UAE
Remember, while tax-free residency can be a huge drawcard, you need to take good care of your finances at home to avoid double taxation or being lumped with a tax bill on your return.
The luxurious lifestyle that is possible can also lead some to overspend; plan wisely if you want to come out of your Abu Dhabi experience with some cash!
Where should expat families live in Abu Dhabi
Facing the Arabian (Persian) Gulf, the city is essentially broken into two parts; “on island” and “off island”.
There is no real city centre with many office buildings and government departments now well spread over Abu Dhabi, so our best suggestion is to live somewhere convenient for both work and schooling.
For families, generally speaking, off-island housing is newer and larger and becoming increasingly popular with supermarkets, schools, nurseries and other facilities.
Raha Beach is popular if you want to live in a waterfront front community, whilst Raha Gardens, Golf Gardens, Sas al Nakhl, Mangrove Village and Al Reef are all popular developments as well to suit varying budgets.
Villas on Saadiyat Island are larger with gardens to match (and price!), or look at newer developments on Yas Island – Yas Acres and Yas West.
The other “off-island” area to consider, though many would say is still part of the city is Al Reem Island. You can find not only apartments here but duplexes and townhouses.
Looking for temporary accommodation while you move? See this detailed guide to apartment hotels in Abu Dhabi
There are still plenty of family-friendly options on island that will suit too, mixed between villas (stand-alone houses), townhouses and apartment living.
Families looking for space may be interested in newer developments, Bloom Gardens and Mangrove One, close to Brighton College, or central, but older developments Al Karama and Mushrif Gardens, are close to the British School Al Khubairat.
If it’s spectacular city apartment views you want, consider World Trade Centre and along the Corniche.
Remember everything when choosing a home in Abu Dhabi is a compromise between budget, location and facilities. What you gain in spacious, convenient high-rise living, you may give up in parking spots and traffic.
See more on the compromises you need to look for in an expat remuneration package HERE
Culture & customs in the UAE
Islam is the national religion, with the vast majority of the population (local & expat) Muslim. All Muslim public holidays are marked, and particularly Ramadan will impact on all residents.
The country is accepting of all other religions, and there are many churches and temples. You will become accustomed to the sounds of the call to prayer six times a day!
Christian events such as Christmas and Easter are openly marked, particularly in the hospitality and retail sectors – you won’t go short of a Christmas tree and a Santa sighting!
You can see our full guide of what to expect at Christmas time here.
The official language is Arabic, but with the huge expat and tourist population, English is the most widely spoken. And yes, you can drink alcohol in Abu Dhabi if you are a non-Muslim.
You can read more on customs, culture and what to expect as a family in our guide “15 Important facts to know before visiting the UAE with kids”
Abu Dhabi Family Resources
The great thing about moving to a new city like Abu Dhabi is that it’s full of families.
Children can be the cornerstone of breaking into a new conversation, making new friends and learning the ins and outs of a new city as an expatriate.
The first thing I would do is grab yourself a copy of Yalla magazine – available in shopping malls as well as all leading schools and nurseries in the capital – (or if you’re still looking from overseas, check them out online – yallauae.ae). They have a really detailed directory from tots through to teens on clubs and events that happen around town for families.
There are also two new apps on the market vying for the family entertainment market called Qidz and Kidsapp – download both if you’re moving here, and we’ll see where they go!
Try joining Facebook groups such as “Abu Dhabi Bumps & Babes” or for older children “With the Kids” to connect to other parents.
General Resources for Living in Abu Dhabi
To get yourself prepared for a move to Abu Dhabi, get yourself a moving guide!
The Abu Dhabi Residents Guide by Explorer was like our bible when we first moved to Abu Dhabi – full of information from where to buy things to health, education and work practices.
Do note that anything claiming to be a current city map can become outdated very quickly! New roads are continuously being built; old ones are closed, and one-way systems are magically put in place. Don’t rely on GPS, though – that can be just as outdated!! Waze is the most popular traffic navigation app.
Globetrotter articles for further inspiration
Here are a collection of posts from our everyday life here in the UAE
- Abu Dhabi’s best brunches with kids
- Best indoor spaces for families in Abu Dhabi
- Best outdoor parks and spaces in Abu Dhabi
- Best water parks and splash parks in the UAE
- Best serviced apartments for longer term hotel stays
- Leisure time – See our full collection of Staycation and resort reviews here
As well as our own extensive collection of travel-related articles for the UAE, we encourage readers to join our online conversation. We have a Middle East Family Travel group for exploring the UAE and beyond.
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