The expat lifestyle in Abu Dhabi has achieved nearly mythical proportions; many foreigners moving here conjure images of paradise and a life characterised with lavish luxury.
And for a good number of expats it’s true that life in the emirate is centred on shopping, relaxation and socialising. For many, material wealth is much easier to come by in the emirate and, initially, finding new cause to swipe the credit card is invigorating.
Malls abound, an energised nightlife beckons and with such a large community of foreigners, there always seems to be something exciting happening.
That said, for others with less lucrative salaries or for those who no longer value the pull of the spend, it's necessary to be a little more inventive when it comes to living the good life, especially in summer when the oppressive heat eliminates any opportunity for outdoor fun.
Shopping in Abu Dhabi
There is no doubt that the shopping in Abu Dhabi is excellent. Plenty of souks (markets), malls and airport duty-free shops exist in and around the city.
Souks are the place to go for oriental carpets, gold and antique jewellery, electronic gadgets, designer clothes, cosmetics, spices and souvenirs. Great shopping locations include the Souk at Central Market, the Fish Souk in the Mina Zayed Free Port, the Al Mina Fruit and Vegetable Souk or the modern adaptation of a marketplace at Souq Qaryat Al Beri. Typical gifts for family members back home include traditional coffee pots, Bedouin jewellery and antique chests.
Shopping malls open around 10am most days, and close late, even past midnight in some cases. In Abu Dhabi alone, there are more than 10 separate malls or centres, each with familiar Western outlets and cinemas. The two largest are Marina Mall and Abu Dhabi Mall. The famous Abu Dhabi Shopping Festival, held in March each year, offers amazing bargains and shopping prizes that lure visitors from all over the world.
Nightlife in Abu Dhabi
The nightlife in Abu Dhabi is surprisingly lively, even if the city claims a reputation as being more 'family friendly' than neighbouring Dubai. As most expats will quickly realise, there are two centres of the Abu Dhabi social scene: malls and hotels. Malls are places to see and be seen, to go to the cinema, or to shop. Hotels have everything else, and all under one roof: happy hour, dinner, drinks and nightclubs.
Local nightclubs tend to feature international DJs as well as traditional Arab singers and belly dancers. Expats can also look out for regular live music, happy hours, quiz nights and ladies' nights to spice up the regular routine.
While hotel bar house bands tend to be the most consistent form of music and theatre in Abu Dhabi, there are some world-class acts that come and go with some regularity. After the summer, the Abu Dhabi Classics season brings in orchestras from around the world, such as the Berlin Philharmonic and the BBC Symphony Orchestra, among others.
Every mall has a cinema showing box office favourites from Holly(and sometimes Bolly)wood, and the New York University Abu Dhabi Institute also hosts occasional film screenings that would appeal to a more high-brow crowd. This is in addition to their extensive programme of public lectures given by visiting and local authors, politicians, musicians and scholars from across the academic spectrum.
For expats who tire of the clubs and restaurants in Abu Dhabi, Dubai is only 90 minutes away. The nightlife scene is bigger and wilder in Dubai, and plenty of hotels offer weekend specials for those in need of an escape.
Eating out in Abu Dhabi
Abu Dhabi is home to a wide range of international cuisine, top-notch restaurants and delivery options.
As a general rule, the best (and most expensive) restaurants in Abu Dhabi are in hotels. They're also the only restaurants allowed to serve alcohol.
Local cuisine largely consists of rice and lamb dishes accompanied by salads, hummus and bread on the side. As Islam frowns upon the consumption of pork, very few restaurants serve the 'other white meat'.
Bear in mind that during the holy month of Ramadan, Muslims and even some expats fast. One is not permitted to eat or drink in public during the day for the duration of the holiday. Many restaurants remain closed until evening, although those in the larger hotels still serve food.
Lunchtime dining during this period takes place behind covered windows in order to show respect. As take-away meals are allowed, many restaurants remain partially open to provide this service, or else do home deliveries. The sale of alcohol is also impacted during this period, with some restaurants not serving it at all for the duration of Ramadan.
That said, it's a great time to try local food as come Iftar (breaking of the fast), big hearty meals are often the norm. Lots of restaurants re-open after sunset during Ramadan, and the family-oriented vibe can make this a great month to eat out.
Meeting people and making friends in Abu Dhabi
Perhaps one of the most daunting parts of moving to a new country is figuring out where and how to make new friends. This can be an intimidating task, but opting into a group or club is a great way to meet people with similar interests in an environment that makes it easier to break the ice. Here are a few clubs to get started with.
Simply known as The Club, this ultra-exclusive society gives members a host of top-notch facilities, not to mention plenty of opportunities to mix and mingle with fellow members. The Club's grounds have just about everything one could need, from swimming pools and beaches to restaurants and on-site shopping. There's even an art gallery, theatre and library, while those looking for a bit of exercise can head to the gym or partake in activities like diving, football, tennis and climbing.
Abu Dhabi Strollers is based in Zayed Sports City and is one of Abu Dhabi's most popular amateur clubs, uniting football lovers from across the world. The club gets together to kick a ball around every week of the year, with each session being regularly attended by around 70 participants. There are also fun social events and outings aplenty, so that members can get to know each other both on the field and off.
A government initiative, the UAE Volunteers website lists volunteer opportunities of all descriptions, making it easy to pick and choose a cause based on one's interests. The benefits of giving time and energy to a good cause are manyfold, from the positive feelings that come from simply doing a good deed to providing an opportunity to meet others with similar passions. The website is available in both English and Arabic.
►For more on entertainment options for the little ones in the emirate see Kids and Family in Abu Dhabi.
"I love how diverse Abu Dhabi is – it is home to many nationalities so you never really feel out of place. Whatever your interest is, you can easily find something new to learn or to discover, and you meet people from all paths of life." Read more about Marina's expat experiences in Abu Dhabi.
"The thing I like most about Abu Dhabi is that it is a very safe city. There is so much to do in the UAE and I get to meet people from all over the world." For more insights, read Marike's expat interview.
Are you an expat living in Abu Dhabi?
Expat Arrivals is looking for locals to contribute to this guide, and answer forum questions from others planning their move to Abu Dhabi. Please contact us if you'd like to contribute.
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