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Living in the UAE

Prices for Expat Essentials in the UAE

There’s said to be an Arabic proverb along the lines of: 'Wealth comes like a turtle and flees like a gazelle.' The latter definitely applies to life in the UAE: there are unlimited opportunities to splurge on, but some essentials — especially housing and education — are rather expensive as well.

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In addition to accommodation, utility costs, and phone bills, a decent healthcare plan is one of the essential investments for expatriates in the Emirates. Unlike Emirati citizens, expats don’t benefit from the UAE’s public healthcare system and its medical facilities — except for life-threatening medical emergencies.

To make sure that the UAE’s huge foreign workforce has some sort of healthcare coverage, Abu Dhabi introduced a law making it compulsory for employers to take out a private health insurance plan for their expat employees. A similar law is still being rolled out in Dubai. These insurance contributions will be deducted automatically from your salary.

However, there’s a catch — or two, if you have family. The mandatory health insurance plans only ensure a basic standard of care. In most cases, they cover medical emergencies, surgery, consultations with a general practitioner, referrals to a specialist, tests to diagnose an illness, and the subsequent treatment. Your employer may be generous and sign you up for a plan with extra perks, such as dental care, but that’s not a given. Offering health insurance coverage that includes your dependent family members is also the exception rather than the rule.

Health First: Why You Should Invest in Private Health Insurance

Quite a few expats prefer to opt for private healthcare coverage both themselves and their family members. It’s unfortunately hard to give an exact quote here. The costs of private health insurance with access to private clinics and hospitals across the UAE generally depend on your age, the number of family members to be enrolled in the plan, any pre-existing conditions, and the kind of benefits you want (e.g. dental care, pre-natal and maternal care, etc.).

However, do make sure that all your dependent family members living in the UAE have some basic healthcare coverage from a private insurance provider. Otherwise, you might have to pay the medical costs for out of your own pocket in case of emergency!

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An International Education for Expat Kids — At an Astronomical Price?

Expats with children also need to take the costs for their children’s schooling into account, and these are by no means negligible. Public schools and universities are free for Emirati students, but expat children have to pay tuition fees, while non-native speakers have to deal with Arabic as the language of instruction in public institutions.

Therefore, most expat families raising children in Abu Dhabi or Dubai send their kids to international schools. Most of them are private fee-paying institutions with a very wide range of prices. International schools that follow a British, US American, or IB (International Baccalaureate) curriculum tend to be the most expensive, whereas schools for South Asian students are often much more affordable. The average annual tuition fee across the UAE amounts to about 20,000 AED.

To quote a few examples: The American School of Dubai has some of the highest fees in the entire country, with an annual tuition fee of more than 110,000 AED for high school students, while kids in the same age range need “only” 81,400 AED a year to attend the American Community School of Abu Dhabi. So-called third-country schools, where the language of instruction isn’t English, are normally a lot cheaper, though not exactly cheap. The German International School of Dubai requires a tuition fee of 66,400 AED per year for older students in grade 11 or 12, whereas the German school in Abu Dhabi demands up to 40,000 AED in yearly tuition fees.

Additional costs, like registration fees, security deposits, bus transportation, textbooks, school trips, or extra-curricular activities aren’t necessarily included in that amount. While fewer expat packages include school fees nowadays, it might still be worth asking your employer about an extra allowance to cover some of the costs.

Cheap Gas to Guzzle: Driving in the Emirates

Regardless of whether you have brought along your family to the UAE, you’ll always need to cover the costs for food and transportation. As might be expected, gas is fairly cheap in the Emirates: have a look for yourself on the Ministry of Energy website. At the time of writing, in the first quarter of 2016, one liter of unleaded gas or diesel cost less than 1.50 AED.

However, importing your car to the UAE can involve considerable costs as you have to pay for both shipping and customs duties. Some expats have access to a company car, though, and upscale compounds may offer free or inexpensive shuttle services. If you can’t afford having your vehicle shipped to the UAE or even buying a second-hand car on location, you might have to make the trade-off in paying a somewhat higher rent for a place close to public transport.

Gold Card Passengers or Second-Class Rides: Public Transport Fares

Public transportation in the UAE is fairly affordable. A ride on the Dubai metro costs up to 5.80 AED for frequent travelers with a pre-paid Nol Card, while a tram ticket is 3 AED per journey. The largest part of Dubai’s public transport network consists of bus lines, with a regular trip through more than two fare zones costing 7.50 AED. Prices are generally more expensive for tourists and short-term visitors, as well as first-class passengers with a Nol Card Gold, but there are discounts for students and senior citizens as well.

Passengers in Abu Dhabi solely have to rely on the extensive bus network, with a flat fare of 2 AED per ride within the city limits. Even taxis have quite reasonable prices if you don’t use them for your daily commute: the fare starts with a flat tariff at around 5–12 AED in Dubai and maybe 4–5 AED in Abu Dhabi, with a fee of up to 3 AED per kilometer.

A Shopaholic’s Dream: Food and Leisure Expenses

For your daily grocery shopping, there are several international supermarket chains in the UAE’s many malls and shopping centers. Their prices are comparable to what you might pay in the metropolitan regions of the US or the UK: there’s no VAT in the Emirates (yet), but most of their goods have to be imported.

If you’d like to save some money on shopping and leisure, avoid both international stores like Carrefour or Waitrose and global fast food chains like McDonalds or Starbucks. Produce and poultry from the Middle East is also generally cheaper than imported food from overseas. For everyday items, such as a liter of milk, a loaf of bread, or a kilo of apples, check the latest pricing lists as published on Numbeo.

Preparing home-cooked meals will save you a good deal of money. If you’d like to splurge in your leisure time, the sky’s the limit.

A cappuccino will you set you back by at least 20 AED. For a cocktail downtown, you’ll have to fork over 50–60 AED, more than for a single movie ticket (35–38 AED). And a three-course Italian wining and dining experience for two requires between 450 and 550 AED. Considering the many five-star hotels and luxury brands well represented in the UAE, you can easily max out your credit card on an assortment of treats.

Updated on: June 17, 2019
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