Making the move to Abu Dhabi? Here’s what you need to know
Erez Greenberg| Jun 12, 2023
Abu Dhabi has become a major target for young expats hoping to transform their professional lives. It was even ranked on the top ten best cities for expats.
That’s no surprise. Abu Dhabi’s business environment supports young startups and offers the work flexibility so many young professionals are searching for these days. In fact, the city was ranked number one for business efficiency in the MENA region, according to the Ease of Doing Business Index.
On top of that, Abu Dhabi is just plain fun to live in, with a variety of enjoyable downtime activities to choose from including active parks, zoos, and a vibrant nightlife.
Today, Abu Dhabi is filled with employers looking to hire fresh talent. In fact, according to a survey conducted by job site Bayt.com and market research agency YouGov, two-thirds of UAE organizations are planning to hire new employees this year.
So, if you’re considering making a shift to working abroad, Abu Dhabi may be a great choice.
But how do you go about making the move? In this post, we outline a step-by-step guide for expats on moving to Abu Dhabi, including visa requirements, work, housing, and everyday life.
As Abu Dhabi is currently expanding and diversifying its economy, a variety of industries are in growth. The demand for technological roles seems to be growing exceptionally fast. These include jobs related to web design, cybersecurity, digital transformation, and many related fields.
In terms of what you can expect in salary range, this will of course differ by industry and role. A backend developer, for example, can earn a monthly salary of around 18-27 thousand AED (around $4,900-$7,400). A product manager, meanwhile, can earn about 20-35 thousand AED per month (around $5,400-$9,500).
Whatever industry and role you choose, remember that it pays to do your research beforehand. There are a lot of opportunities in Abu Dhabi, and you don’t want to miss out on them.
Bonus pay policies also vary. While most companies say they’re planning this year to give annual bonuses based on job performance, 26% say they aren’t.
Getting a work visa
If you want to live and work in Abu Dhabi, you’ll need a residency visa and a work permit. Work visas usually last around 2-3 years depending on the sponsorship. Getting a residency visa means you can legally live in Abu Dhabi, open a bank account, acquire a driver’s license, and enroll your children in private schools, among other benefits.
The easiest way to get a residency visa is often through a company that sponsors you. Once you sign a contract to work at the company, the company can issue a work permit. The work permit allows you to stay for two months until your employer has finalized your residence visa.
A coveted type of residency visa is the golden visa, which can give you a residency and work permit for around 10 years. This permit is given to individuals who have what’s considered exceptional talent or skill. Examples include entrepreneurs, top athletes, and specialists. The process of getting a golden visa may be more complicated than other types of residency visas.
Abu Dhabi employs a Compulsory Health Insurance scheme (CHI) in which all employees, including expats, are required to be enrolled. The scheme generally applies to health care needs like X-rays and laboratory tests, certain prescribed medications, medical exams, maternity care, and dental care. The extent of the coverage depends on factors like the employee’s salary and designation.
The employer or sponsor is in charge of ensuring that the expatriate obtains health insurance coverage. No permanent residence or renewal of residence is given to employees who aren’t enrolled in the CHI.
In February, Abu Dhabi launched new flexible health insurance plans for expats in an effort to appeal to foreign investors and entrepreneurs considering relocation. These options will provide insurance at competitive costs, and include total or partial coverage of urgent, expensive, or outpatient treatments.
Eligibility for these plans includes a monthly income that exceeds AED 5,000.
Getting an ID
One of the first things you’ll need to do after you arrive in Abu Dhabi is get a valid ID card that shows your residency and visa status. To do that, first register with the Federal Authority for Identity, Citizenship, Customs & Port Security, known as ICP for short. The next step involves applying by paying the fees, getting fingerprinted, and receiving your ID card.
You can either apply for the ID card on the website or through the agency’s app – ICP UAE Smart.
Choosing where to live
There are plenty of great neighborhoods for expats in Abu Dhabi – it all depends on what you’re looking for. Yas Island, for example, is known as a trendy spot with lots of clubs, restaurants, and tourist appeal. Meanwhile, Al Khalidiyah is a neighborhood that’s gained a reputation for having both a modern and traditional feel. It also offers lots of great schools and nurseries to choose from.
The important thing is to evaluate what you seek most in a neighborhood. There are plenty of online groups with helpful expats who’ve been there a while and are happy to share their local experience.
When it comes to how much you’re likely to pay for rent, the numbers can be rather shifty because of market fluctuations.
Still, as of this writing, rent for a 695sqf one-bedroom, one-bathroom apartment in Yas Island can cost around 50k AED ($13,600) a year, while a 650sqf apartment with one bathroom and one bedroom in Al Khalidiyah is more affordable; about 30k AED ($8,200) a year.
Another important note: for the most part, landlords expect tenants to pay rent for the year up front. However, you may be able to negotiate multiple payments – usually through a broker.
Expenses to expect
In addition to VAT taxes (about 5%), Abu Dhabi has what’s called an excise tax – an indirect tax levied on goods that are seen as unhealthy or harmful to the environment. This tax can range from 50 to 100 percent. Examples include energy drinks and tobacco products.
Interestingly, as part of its efforts to support small businesses and startups, the UAE has a zero-tax policy on taxable income below $102,000. On top of that, people aren’t taxed for personal income that’s generated outside the country – whether it’s personal income, real estate, or investments.
In terms of what’s considered appropriate to wear when you’re out and about, you’ll find that the answer will vary.
For the most part, while short and tight clothing is technically allowed, it tends to be frowned upon. Covering your arms and legs is especially important when you’re visiting government offices, or during Ramadan.
Clothing norms are more liberal in places like health clubs, malls, and resorts. Swimwear such as full-pieces, swim trunks and two-pieces are also permitted at private clubs and beaches.
There are lots of ways to get around Abu Dhabi. A go-to method tends to be taxis. You can either flag them down on the street or book them through apps like Uber and Careem.
City buses run around the clock. Purchase a pre-paid card and scan it when boarding and exiting.
And let’s not forget good old walking. Getting around on foot can actually be quite fun – especially in downtown Abu Dhabi, which features beaches and boardwalks.
Pubs and alcohol
If you’re hoping to grab a drink in Abu Dhabi, keep in mind that alcohol is only permitted at licensed venues and in people’s private homes. With that being said, in 2020 the city lifted the rule that required expats to have a special license to purchase alcohol.
So that’s one less card you need to worry about.
Speaking the language
Finally, while the majority of locals and expats speak English, new residents are advised to learn or brush up on their Arabic speaking skills. Since it’s the official language of Abu Dhabi, being able to communicate in Arabic can help speed up the integration process.
So, yalla, start learning.
Abu Dhabi as a growing international business metropolis
Abu Dhabi has been doggedly focused on transforming itself into a breeding ground for innovation, economic growth, and creativity.
The results have been undeniable.
If you are an entrepreneur, an investor, or a young professional itching to upturn your career, Abu Dhabi is quite an attractive option – far though it may be from wherever you call home.