Moving to the United Arab Emirates

Little more than a collection of fishing villages, ancient ruins and sand dunes barely a century ago, the UAE has risen to become one of the world’s top destinations. Nowadays the UAE is synonymous with limitless luxury and apparently inexhaustible wealth. A lot of this comes from their immense reserves of oil, but that is far from the region’s only claim to fame. Rather, it is their approach to ambitious building projects, futuristic cities, and exceptional consumer opportunities that keeps people coming back, or settling there for good.

The UAE is comprised of 7 states, each of which were once independent ‘sheikdoms’ ruled by an individual Sheikh. Though all of the states have their own unique identity, it would be wrong to suggest they are all equally popular. Whether this is the dominant statuses of Dubai and Abu Dhabi, or whether the other five are just waiting to be discovered, we can’t say for sure. What we do know is that almost 10 million people combined visit Dubai and Abu Dhabi every year, making them by far the region’s busiest states.

Try if you can though, to look past the imposing skylines of Dubai and Abu Dhabi and you will discover a breathtaking world of adventure, culture and peaceful reflection.

History of the UAE: from humble beginnings to global dominance

References to people living in the UAE go back as far as the times of Sumer, which itself is among the world’s first ever recorded civilisations. They (the Sumerians) mentioned trade with the ‘Magan people’, who belonged to the mysterious Magan civilisation that scholars still can’t decide exactly where it was located. Before this, evidence of stone tools suggests human habitation dating back almost 125,000 years, which is the earliest example of modern humans outside of Africa anywhere else in the world. In fact, the discovery is particularly significant because it sets the date of human migration out of Africa back even earlier than first thought. Examples of humans living in the area diminish between 68,000 and 8,000 BC, but this was due to uninhabitable conditions created by the glacial maximum period.

By around 5,000 BC, humans had fully settled the region and blossoming Bronze Age settlements became the norm. Examples of these Bronze Age cultures are apparent in the numerous distinctive tombs dotting the desert landscapes, though some are part of military complexes and are thus inaccessible to the general public. You can still see fine examples of this in other locations however, such as the distinctive ‘bee hive’ tombs of Jebel Hafeet.

The UAE as an Islamic region didn’t materialise until the 7th century, during the religion’s earliest days of expansion. Even then, what we know as the UAE today was still a disparate collection of regions united by faith, but not as a single entity. It was the advent of British expansion into the region and the subsequent conflicts that lead to the Trucial states. They were so-called because of the treaties made with the British government in the 19th century. Eventually, six of the seven states created the UAE in 1971, with the final state (Ras Al Khaimah) joining in 1972.

Where to move

As many other destination guides will tell you, it’s no secret that Dubai and Abu Dhabi dominate the priorities of visitors. That being said, the UAE has plenty to offer the intrepid explorer, if they’re willing to take the plunge. For all seven states, there are a number of different residence visas for those wanting to work. Which visas apply to your situation are dependent on your job situation and home country. Wherever you go, remember that getting full and complete health insurance is not just smart, it’s legally required.  All the States offer unique cultural experiences, great weather (as long as you like the heat!) and very low income tax rates.


The city everyone pictures when they think of the UAE. Its towering skyscrapers, sail-shaped hotels and palm tree islands exemplify the ambition of the UAE to be a dominant force in the world. Think of any activity you want to do; Dubai probably does it and does it better than others.

Abu Dhabi

Widely considered Dubai’s ‘lesser cousin’, Abu Dhabi is anything but. In many ways, the city’s vast array of entertainment and cultural options eclipse Dubai. Don’t miss the Heritage Village for a unique chance to see what a traditional desert town would’ve looked like. If you’re going to Abu Dhabi with children, then a visit to the fantastic Yas Waterworld is sure to put smiles on faces.

The rolling desert sands of Al Dhafra set the backdrop for some of the most exciting off-road driving experiences anywhere. The sand dunes are simply breathtaking and if you want a true Arabian adventure, visit the oasis town of Liwa. The town borders the Rub Al Khali (Empty Quarter), which is the largest uninterrupted sand mass in the world.


Sharjah borders Dubai and is a great destination for expats looking to avoid the intensity of the nearby metropolis. The region has a stronger focus on traditional culture, with plenty in the way of art and heritage too. For exquisite paintings of the Arab world, visit the Sharjah Arts Museum.


It might not attract the same attention of some of the UAE’s other states, but Ajman has plenty to offer fans of nature, history and tranquillity. Desert safaris are a top choice and there’s nothing quite like riding a camel into a sunset retreating behind dunes. For wildlife, the Al Zorah Nature Reserve boasts an astonishing variety of birds feeding amongst the mangrove trees, including pink flamingos. The Ajman Museum is a decent (and cheap) activity for anyone interested in the region’s history. Even if you’re not, the variety of centuries-old artefacts and weapons are worth seeing.


Fujairah very much feels like an ‘old world’ part of the UAE, thanks in part to its plethora of desert fortresses and timeless markets. Particularly worth visiting is the Al Bidya Mosque, the oldest of its kind in the UAE. You can also get a taste of what it would’ve been like to defend a desert fort with a visit to Bithnah. Constructed in 1735, Bithnah Fort was essential to protecting the UAE’s eastern region. You’d be hard pressed not to take pictures of the dramatic mountain landscape flanking this fascinating building.

Ras al Khaimah

Active travellers will be in for a treat with Ras al Khaimah’s excellent mountain hiking opportunities. Jebel Jais is the standout feature and visiting is definitely recommended if you want to experience some incredible vistas of the desert below. Don’t miss out on the chance to ride the world’s longest zipline either, where you can reach speeds of up 150 kilometres an hour; it is certainly not for the faint hearted!

Umm al-Quwain

With a population barely pushing past 60,000, Umm al-Quwain is also the UAE’s least visited destination. There are plenty of interesting things to do though, such as the Dreamland Aqua Park, which is the UAE’s largest water park. Traditional activities such as falconry and camel racing are good choices too, as is visiting a dhow boat building session.

Things to do in the UAE – our local guide

UAE is filled with almost every activity under the sun, but choosing where to go really depends on what you’re looking for. Here are Santa Fe Relocation’s top things to do in the UAE:

Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque

A definitive example of modern Islamic architecture. 1,000 pillars elevate more than 80 marble domes, with inlays of floral designs, semi-precious stones and gold transforming the mosque into an awe-inspiring spectacle.

Louvre Abu Dhabi

History buffs should make this museum a must-see on their itinerary. The building is focused on an innovative approach to telling the story of human artistic expression. This innovation comes from a unique form of curation; rather than display objects according to their country or civilisation, here they are shown by theme and time of creation. What this does is portray the human story by highlighting common threads in our art, showing the similarities in a way that connects us all.

Burj Khalifa

How could we not include the tallest building in the world? Whereas the Shiekh Zayed Grand Mosque is religious building at its most grand, the Burj Khalifa is global ambition personified. Don’t visit Dubai without booking a tour, which includes a trip to the observation deck (again, the tallest in the world) on the 148th floor (555m). If possible, try to get tickets 30 days in advance as it is very popular attraction. You can purchase ‘fast-track’ passes on the day, but these are generally much more expensive than tickets bought online.

Dubai Mall

Dubai’s opulent consumerism might not be for everyone, but if exploring one of the world’s largest shopping centres sounds like heaven, then definitely pay a visit to its eponymous mall. More than 1,300 shops highlight the very best of shopping opportunities, with luxury brands represented everywhere you look. Expensive shops are far from the only reason to visit, with a wealth of entertainment options as well. Check out the aquarium’s collection of over 33,000 animals, or take to the slopes of the Middle East’s first indoor ski resort.

Where to live

Deciding where to live in the UAE can be complicated and a lot depends on your reasons for moving there. Most people move to the UAE for work, which is made all the more attractive by the low taxes on income earned. Because of this, Dubai and Abu Dhabi are where you’ll find the largest expat populations working in the UEA. However, there are opportunities to live in other great expat destinations. Take Sharjah for example; it is close enough to Dubai that people can still commute to work, whilst taking advantage of the lower cost of living.

Buying property in the UAE as an expat is unusual because of the high down payment rates. This has made renting significantly more popular. Be aware however, that rent is quite high and chances are you’ll be using around 40% of your monthly income to cover it. Despite the high rent, the cost of living in the two biggest cities, Dubai and Abu Dhabi, is lower than many other major cities around the world. At the time of writing (early 2019), they are still outside the top 50 most expensive cities in the world.  For expats moving to the UAE the competitive rental costs combined with the great salaries on offer makes both of them attractive places to live and work.

On average, the monthly rental for a 2-bed apartment in Dubai is about dh7,400 (£1,541), with similar prices reported in Abu Dhabi. Sharjah is much cheaper, with an average rental cost for a 2-bed apartment standing at around dh3,000.

Family life and education

International schools for expats are thankfully abundant in the UAE, with a wide selection available to choose from. They are generally focused in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, where the largest expat populations reside. For the past few years expat children have been allowed to attend local UAE schools, but unless you’re hailing from an Arabic speaking country, your child might struggle with the curriculum.

Some international schools cater to specific nationalities, such as the UK, USA, India, Germany and France, for example. It is worth trying to see if you can get a school specific to your child’s nationality, but there are plenty of high quality international institutions regardless. Many parents however, actually prefer that their child sticks to a well-known curriculum, such as the International Baccalaureate.

You should be aware that the most prestigious international schools can be difficult to get a place in, so think about starting the application process as early as possible. Various factors need to be considered; the price of the school, the curriculum offered, the school’s age (which generally means the school is more established), and the age of the pupils attending.

If you need help finding an international school, we are more than happy to offer our school search service. With it, we can connect your child to the school that best suits their unique educational requirements. .

Getting around

Travelling around the UAE is best served in taxis, which compared to many other similarly developed countries are quite cheap. Buses are plentiful as well, offering air conditioning and great routes.  Many travel between the states, making them a convenient choice for long distance journeys across the UAE.

Currently, only Dubai provides a metro and tram system. It covers over 80 kilometres, making it a great choice for people looking to get around Dubai without having to catch buses, or hire a taxi.

How can we help with your move to the UAE?

We are leading experts in the global mobility industry and have over 120 years’ experience moving people to destinations around the world. Through our range of exceptional moving services, we remove the hassle from moving to make it a pleasure, not a pressure. For your convenience, we connect you to a single point of coordination to ensure a seamless moving journey.

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