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Abu Dhabi vs Dubai: A British expat compares the emirate cities

Lindsey Parry is an expert on expat life, having lived abroad for more than a decade.

Since moving from London to Dubai in 2006, Lindsey and her husband have also spent several years living in Brisbane, Australia and are now settled in Abu Dhabi, where their son was born in 2015. Her blog, Arabian Notes, is a great source of advice and information for anyone thinking of relocating to the United Arab Emirates.

Here she describes why she prefers Abu Dhabi to Dubai, the hardest parts of moving away from home and offers advice for those moving abroad.

Why did you first decide to move to Dubai, and what inspired your later move from Brisbane back to the UAE?

“I was working in London and reading the industry newspaper one day when I saw an advert for a job in Dubai that seemed to suit me down to the ground. I’d always wanted to live overseas so I applied for it and the next thing I knew I was on a plane to Dubai to start my new job — and new life!

“Having lived in Dubai for almost five years, we then made the move to Brisbane, where my husband had spent time growing up. It quickly became apparent that the grass wasn’t greener though, as the years away from our respective countries (mine being the UK) had changed us. For a number of reasons, including cost of living and work opportunities, we struggled to settle in to life in Australia. We decided Australia wasn’t going to be for us in the long term as we’d originally planned and set our sights on looking for new challenges back in the UAE.

“Before long, my husband was offered an opportunity we couldn’t refuse, this time in Abu Dhabi, and after 18 months in Australia we were back on another plane to live in the UAE capital.”

Overview of downtown Abu Dhabi Overview of downtown Abu Dhabi

Photo by Lindsey Parry

What would you say is the best part of international life in the UAE, and how does Abu Dhabi compare to Dubai?

“The best part of living in the UAE is the quality of life and the opportunities that life here affords us. Other bonuses are the good weather (if a touch on the hot side for a large part of the year!), central location for travel and access to affordable services — dry cleaning pick-up and delivery anyone?! It’s small things like these that make a very big difference.

“After having lived in Dubai previously, when I heard my husband had a job in Abu Dhabi I hoped we’d be able to live in Dubai again with my husband commuting to work. That just wasn’t going to be possible, so we moved to Abu Dhabi, but after a very short space of time I quickly realised its charms and differences; and now I tell anyone who asks that I much prefer Abu Dhabi to Dubai!

“Abu Dhabi is a much calmer, more traditional city and more family and community led than Dubai. There’s more focus on a good work-life balance here in the capital.

“Dubai is great for shopping and it’s great to have it down the road, but I’m much happier now in Abu Dhabi. We loved Dubai and it’s great when you just want to have some fun, but all the action can get a bit much after a while.” 

What was the worst part, or the biggest initial challenge about moving abroad?

“There’s not too much of a culture shock here in the UAE; it’s a pretty easy place to settle into. I think the hardest part is taking the leap of faith in the first place to do it! Missing family and friends and missing out on important occasions back home is probably the hardest bit of all, as that never changes no matter how long you’re away — unless you can convince them all to move overseas with you too! 

Was there anything that came as a surprise about living in Dubai or Abu Dhabi?

“The level of luxury and wealth that is present here can be quite surprising at first. It’s definitely a bit of an eye-opener. It’s something that is on display everywhere, from clothing and handbags to custom cars and gold licence plates to grandiose sprawling palaces and even just your local pub is often much fancier than at home!

“It’s also very safe here, which can be quite surprising given the portrayal of the Middle East in the media. I was never in a position to feel unsafe in a city like London, but the UAE is noticeably safer and more comfortable from that perspective.” 

Do you feel that there's a strong international community in the UAE?

“I think it depends a little on the individual and on where you're working as to whether you are given the opportunity and whether you create the opportunity to mix with locals. It’s definitely easier to meet expats as we make up around 80% of the population of the country, but that also means it’s a pretty cosmopolitan place and mixing with people from a vast number of nations on a daily basis is just the norm.

“How much you immerse yourself in the local culture depends on the individual really. It is there for the taking if you’re interested to uncover and find it, but it’s also very easy to live quite a ‘western’ life here and stick to the malls and places that may feel more comfortable to some. Word of mouth is also a huge thing here, so scratching the surface to get beyond those trappings of modern city life is not always easy or obvious until you get to know people.”

Beach view of downtown Dubai Beach view of downtown Dubai

Photo by Lindsey Parry

If you could have one wish granted in relation to your life abroad, what would it be?

“To have family closer by. Expat life can be hard and isolating at times and although your family are only at the end of the phone, it can be really tough when you could do with a little help or a babysitter and there’s no one within reach to help. There is just no match for having family down the road.”  

Tell us a bit about becoming an expat blogger: why did you decide to start blogging, and how does it feel to be a bit of a 'community voice' for people who live and work internationally?

“I decided to start blogging because I felt I had something to say, I’ve always loved writing and I noticed myself ‘writing’ or recounting tales and experiences in my head, so I decided I should start recording them somehow. I didn’t have any ideas about what the blog was going to be, it just sort of evolved along the way!

“I now receive a lot of requests for information and for help from readers around the world who are looking at visiting or moving here so that’s been quite unexpected, but it’s good to be able to help people where I can, and often their questions inspire new posts so it works both ways!” 

Expats are apparently more prone to mental health issues because their support network and familiar things are often absent in their new home. What advice would you give for maintaining good mental health while living abroad?

“Keep in touch with those most important to you at home. Some friendships will inevitably suffer with the distance but the strongest ones will always survive and be there for you.

“It’s important to keep in touch with your oldest and closest friends as they’re the people who know you the best and are often the easiest to talk to about anything. But it’s also important not to neglect the fact that you do have a new life, to get out there and create a support network of friends around you who are in the same position and can understand the challenges of your new life. You do get to meet some amazing people, many of which will become your new ‘family’.” 

Are there any extra challenges involved in raising a child as an expat in the UAE?

“Definitely. For starters, private schools are the only options for expats so the high cost of education is one disadvantage. But I do think that kids here are exposed to many more opportunities than they may ordinarily have at home. One thing that does represent a challenge when living in a country with so many opportunities is having kids understand that the kind of wealth they see on a daily basis is not the norm.

“Things like extravagant birthday celebrations and party bags with excessive and expensive gifts can represent a challenge when trying to raise a child as you would back home, and there is a certain pressure to do these things — no one wants their kid to be the one in the class who had the rubbish party! But that’s where exposing kids to life back home and other real-world experiences is important, as is choosing likeminded people as your closest friends.”

What key piece of advice would you give to someone who was thinking about relocating to the United Arab Emirates? 

“Just do it! It’s the same way I always answer this question, but you’ll never know if you don’t go! And worst-case scenario, if it doesn’t work out or you don’t enjoy it, you’ve lost nothing by going back home. At least you can say you did it and you won’t always wonder, 'what if?'.” 

Moving to a new country can be a challenge as there’s so much to think about, from finances and family to education and health care. Ensuring you stay physically and mentally healthy while you’re there is essential — though many people leave health insurance until they’re ill, which can result in excessive costs and bad health outcomes. Aetna International provide high-quality international health care (from health and wellness benefits to international Private Medical Insurance) for expats like you — giving you access to health care whenever you need it, wherever you are.

It’s important to note that health insurance is mandatory for expats living and working in the emirates, so why not get a quote and see how Aetna International can help keep you healthy in your new home?

Further reading about expat experiences abroad:

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