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Expensive living in the UAE: myth or reality?

In recent years, there has been a widespread belief that life in the United Arab Emirates, particularly in Dubai, is almost the most expensive in the world, however, this is by no means true. According to the cost of living, the Emirates are not even in the top twenty of the world ranking (23rd place in the world), and therefore, life here is cheaper compared to such countries as Israel, Japan, South Korea, Singapore, the United States and many other countries in Western Europe. However, unlike the countries of Eastern Europe, Africa and South-East Asia, living here is much more expensive.

This material will provide an opportunity for the reader to learn more about what the income and expenses of emigrants living in the territory of this country are formed from.

Monetary income and expenditure in the UAE

Before assessing the cost of living in this Middle Eastern country, it would be worth saying a few words about its administrative-territorial structure. The UAE is a federal state divided into 7 states (emirates), namely:

  • Abu Dhabi;

  • Dubai;

  • Sharjah;

  • Ajman;

  • Umm al-Quwain;

  • Ras al-Khaimah;

  • Fujairah.

Dubai and Abu Dhabi, the capital of the Emirates, are the record holders in terms of expenditure and standard of living. Despite the fact that Dubai in the ranking of the most expensive cities on the planet rose from 31st place (as of 2022) to 18th (data for 2023), the main item of expenditure is still the rent of housing. This applies to all those who do not own their own real estate and property in the Emirates, in connection with which the lion’s share of earnings (more than 40%) is spent on renting living space. Of course, there are cases when a qualified specialist freely receives housing at the expense of a reputable company/organisation in which he works (more details will be given below in the note), however, not all UAE residents can count on such a scenario.

Prices for food, transport and car maintenance, clothing, communications, entertainment and other goods and services are also quite decent. For example, if you compare the cost of a loaf of bread in Dubai, London or New York, in the first case it will cost about 4.5 AED (£0.98), while in the British capital it would cost £0.6. In New York, a loaf of bread will still be more expensive than in the “Paris of the Gulf” – on average from 4.77 to 5.87 AED or from $1.3 to $1.6.

As for the cost of chicken in Dubai, it can also be found at a higher price than in London – 25 AED (£5.43 vs £4 per 1kg). Even in New York, the price for 1kg of chicken meat is 15.3 AED ($4.17) which is almost 10 AED cheaper.

If we compare the cost of maintaining a private car in Dubai, the price index is still lower than in the two aforementioned megacities. There is a simple explanation for this: fuel prices in the UAE are lower than in the United Kingdom and the United States, as the country has its own oil reserves and refineries, fully meeting its needs in this type of fuel.

Even an elementary lunch in some inexpensive place in Dubai will cost on average 42-45 AED ($11-12), while in London this figure is twice as high – just over £19 (about $25). In the same New York for an inexpensive lunch for one person will also have to shell out about $25, because the cheapest food or to be more precise – fast food (a bigmac with potatoes and coke) will cost $12, but such food will surprise few people, because it is available all over the world.

Speaking about clothes and shoes, the prices for them in Dubai are significantly lower than in Europe on average by 20-40%, while during sales this price difference can reach 70%. Moreover, in this city the assortment of clothes is quite extensive: here you can easily find any brand you like. Dubai Duty Free, the largest duty-free shop in the metropolis, is a pleasant surprise, and you can shop there around the clock.

The same applies to perfumes: on average, such products can be purchased 5-10 per cent lower than in European countries. Meanwhile, one of the cheapest perfumes in Dubai will cost about 367.2 AED or almost $100. In London, the cost of the cheapest perfume will be between 374-375 AED (over $100), which is not much, but still more expensive.

Comparison of monthly expenses in Abu Dhabi and Dubai

Despite the fact that Abu Dhabi is the capital of the UAE, prices in this Emirate do not bite as much as in Dubai. Perhaps, this could be clearly illustrated by the example of the cost of renting accommodation in these two major cities.

Cost of renting a home in the UAE for a year (in dirhams)
Abu DhabiDubai
Lease of a flat for 12 months90000 AED (about $24500).175000 AED (over $47500)
Renting a studio flat for 12 monthsFrom 40406.5 AED (approximately $11,000).From 55099.5 AED (approximately $15000).

As we can see from the first line, the difference in the cost of rent in both cities is quite significant — almost 2 times. All this is due to the fact that the housing infrastructure in Abu Dhabi is not so developed: there are no such tall buildings as in Dubai, due to which the cost of housing is much lower, which is not a bad advantage.

The same applies to finding accommodation: for example, to rent the same studio flat for a year in Abu Dhabi will require from 40406.5 AED (about $11000), while for Dubai the price tag starts from 55099.5 (about $15000), which follows from the second row of the table. Agree, the difference in both cases is also quite decent.

Now let’s move on to buying flats. The table shows the cost of a studio flat in one of the central districts of Dubai and Abu Dhabi:

Cost of buying a home in the UAE (in dirhams)
Abu DhabiDubai
From 532631 AED (about $145,000).From 598751 AED ($163000).

Thus, we can safely conclude that here, too, the difference is in the price.

Now, drawing a parallel between the average monthly expenses of one family in Abu Dhabi and Dubai, it should be noted that in the capital of the Emirates they barely reach 16529 AED (about $4500), and in the second case this figure exceeds 18367 AED (about $5000). In this case, the amount of rent for housing is also taken into account here. However, if we take into account the fact that wages in Dubai are higher than in the capital of the UAE, the costs may be higher.

The same applies to the cost of utilities: per family in Dubai per month comes out about 697.93 AED or 190 U.S. dollars, while in the capital of the Emirates bills for utilities come to somewhere up to 734.7 AED (10-12 dollars cheaper).

However, there are some services for which you will have to pay more in Abu Dhabi than in Dubai. Among them is home internet with a fairly high speed: in both cases it will cost about 367.4 AED or $100.

Also cheaper in Abu Dhabi and parental payment for kindergartens and schools. Thus, if in Dubai these costs are about 2755 AED ($750) per month, in Abu Dhabi they will be less on average by 550.9 AED or $150. The situation is similar with annual education in public schools: in Dubai for a year of education in primary schools will have to shell out 440796 AED (about $12000), and in Abu Dhabi you can afford about 36733 AED or about $10000.

Medicine in the UAE: is it free or not?

It is probably no secret that medicine in the Emirates, despite being one of the best in the world, is not cheap. This usually applies to visitors, but not to citizens of this country, for whom medical services are free of charge. However, there are still some privileges for foreign citizens – expats and tourists, who can get a bonus only in the form of providing them with emergency medical care on a free basis.

And now let’s move on to treatment in the UAE, which not everyone can afford. However it may be, medical insurance is a necessary thing, because without it not only will not be accepted for work, but will not be allowed into the country at all. Such a measure is distributed for everyone without exception. It is issued for 1 year, and its cost starts from about 7346.7 AED (about $2000). If the family consists of 4 people, the amount is doubled. The medical policy usually covers such standard services as:

  • an appointment with a general practitioner;

  • conducting analyses;

  • physiotherapy treatments;

  • labour;

  • minor surgical procedures.

One doctor’s visit in Dubai will still cost $10 cheaper than in Abu Dhabi – somewhere around 257.2 AED ($70) versus 293.9 AED (about $80).

Note: There are companies/organisations in the UAE where the employer undertakes to cover their employee not only for health insurance but also for many other expenses including rent, utilities and even reimbursement of transport costs.

How convenient is it to use public transport in the Emirates?

The transport infrastructure in Dubai is of a very high standard. The main modes of public transport include taxis, metro, buses, trams and water transport.

On the contrary, in the capital of the Emirates things are much worse. Of all modes of public transport, only buses can be used, while only Dubai has a metro from all seven Emirates. Most of the stations and tracks of the Emirati metro are elevated, not underground, and this is its distinctive feature. On average, a passenger ticket in Dubai costs about 5.51 AED or $1.5, while in Abu Dhabi it costs about 1.84 AED or $0.5, which is three times lower. As for the travel ticket, it is much more favourable in the capital: 74 AED or $20 against more than 294 AED or $80 in Dubai.

Taxis in Abu Dhabi are also a little cheaper than in Dubai: they cost less than 30 AED (less than $8), while in the neighbouring Emirate they cost just under 37 AED (less than $10). Although for those who have their own cars, driving on the streets of Dubai is more advantageous than in Abu Dhabi, as petrol prices are slightly cheaper there.

The distance from Dubai to Abu Dhabi is an hour and a half by car, although in the near future it may be reduced to about 60 minutes by train, as the construction of the railway network is in full swing (about 70-75% of the railway bed has already been laid). By bus you can get from one city to another for less than 26 AED (less than $7). Who knows, maybe in the future the UAE capital will finally have its own metro, because the idea of building a metro in Abu Dhabi has been actively discussed since the end of the noughties.

Drinks and food in Dubai and Abu Dhabi: price comparison

In addition to the many fascinating places that the Emirates boast, in particular Dubai, which is undoubtedly the calling card of this wonderful country on the Arabian Peninsula, the exquisite dishes of its traditional cuisine, among them:

  • fried shark;

  • al-madruba (boiled salted fish with spices and flour);

  • Manakish (melted cheese with olives and herbs, which is wrapped in pita or pita bread);

  • lamb kebab;

  • baklava.

The catering network here is quite developed: restaurants, cafes and bars can be found in different price segments. Let’s compare the prices for a typical business lunch in an inexpensive café in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, and also calculate the cost of a dinner in a prestigious restaurant.

Cost of one trip to a café in the UAE (in dirhams)
Abu DhabiDubai
Cost of a business lunch in an inexpensive cafe29.5 AED ($8)37 AED ($10).
Dinner for two at an upscale restaurant150 to 200 AED ($45 to $55).250 to 350 AED ($70 to $100).

Based on the data in the table, both establishments in the capital of the Emirates turned out to be cheaper in terms of prices than in Dubai. However, the price tag can easily reach the mark of 1000 AED (more than $270), so it depends on personal preferences of each person.

Now let’s do the same with the drinks.

Cost of drinks in the UAE (in dirhams)
Abu DhabiDubai
Cost of a cup of espresso coffee19 AED ($5).25 AED ($7).
A glass of freshly squeezed juice15 AED (just over $4)20 AED (about $5.5)
Fruit smoothieFrom 30 AED (over $8)

As you can see from the table, the demand for fruit smoothies is quite high, so fans of this pleasant and refreshing drink will have to pay at least 30 AED (more than $8) for it in both cities.

Tourists staying at the hotel can order a hearty, nutritious and rather inexpensive breakfast. It consists of:

  • scrambled eggs (two eggs) with beans;

  • bread and jam and butter;

  • coffee.

Total: 25 AED or about $7 per person, which is a reasonable amount for Dubai. In a cafe you can also have a nice lunch or dinner for the same amount, and a couple will pay 50 AED (almost $14). If you add a dessert and an appetiser to all this, you will get 80-120 AED (from $20 to $30).

And, of course, shawarma (well, how could you not have it, especially in the Middle East). It costs here on average from 12 to 15 dirhams (from 3 to 4 dollars). In the capital of the Emirates, the average price tag for all of the above will be 20-30 AED lower (from $5 to $10).

So, you have seen that the cost and standard of living in the United Arab Emirates, as well as in Dubai itself is indeed high, but, nevertheless, its cost is influenced primarily by the location of the person, the level of comfort, as well as his financial capabilities.

However, real estate is also an important factor here, because, as you know, renting, and even more so, buying a living space in the Emirates is an expensive pleasure, especially in Dubai and Abu Dhabi. But don’t get upset before the time: even if you are not able to afford luxurious apartments in the above-mentioned metropolises, it is not a problem: there is affordable housing in the suburbs.

Food is also an integral part that affects the cost of living in a given country, and so rather than eating out at expensive establishments and living large, it’s wise to buy groceries and cook for yourself what you like.

Still, the UAE is rightly a country of great opportunities, never ceasing to attract foreigners, above all for:

  • high level of security;

  • a highly developed infrastructure;

  • quality services;

  • high-paying jobs.

Having been there once, you will definitely want to return there again and again, and maybe even immediately apply for a visa for long-term stay in this country for employment purposes, especially if you are a qualified specialist who simply could not realise himself in his home country.

Frequently Asked Questions

In which cases are foreigners entitled to a ten-year resident visa?

Foreigners staying on the territory of the Emirates, can get a resident visa for ten years, but on one condition: it is necessary to carry out the purchase of real estate for the amount of a little more than 2000000 AED (from $545 000). It is also necessary to pay all fees and charges associated with this purchase.

How effective is the health insurance issued in the Emirates?

Obtaining medical services is sometimes an overwhelming burden for foreigners living in the UAE, even if they have a policy. Let’s say a person needs a more complex operation or a more effective examination, but these are not part of the standard set of services covered by the medical policy. The only way out in such cases is to find the necessary amount of money so that you can receive qualified medical care. So, if you have a policy, you will not be able to avoid paying extra for additional medical services.

What happens if expats don't renew their policy?

Failure to renew the policy is fraught with penalties for each month of stay. Thus, the monthly amount for not having health insurance is 500 AED (just over $136).

What are still the approximate costs per month per family in Dubai and Abu Dhabi?

The average monthly cost per family ranges from 16530 AED (about $4500) in Abu Dhabi to over 18500 AED (over $5000) in Dubai. When these costs are taken into account, the cost of renting a home is also included.

How do you get the right to transfer the property into your ownership after buying a home?

In order for the flat you have purchased to become your property, you must apply to the Dubai Department of Land (DLD). In addition to paying a commission of 4% of the value of the property, an additional administration fee of 4000 AED (over $1000) plus 5% tax is required.

What is the income tax for individuals in the UAE?

In the Emirates, individuals pay no income tax at all, so residents of this country are no exception here.

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