Abu Dhabi vs Dubai: What People Think vs The Truth

I hear a lot of things from people who don’t live in Abu Dhabi about what people think about the city, and more often than not their ideas couldn’t be further from the truth. So here it is – Abu Dhabi vs Dubai: what people think vs the truth.

1. What people think: rent is cheaper in Abu Dhabi than Dubai

The truth:
Nope. Rent is actually much more expensive here in Abu Dhabi, a fact people are often surprised by. Surely since Abu Dhabi is much older and much less built up than Dubai rent couldn’t possibly be more expensive, could it? Well yes, it could, and it is. Abu Dhabi may not be as built up as Dubai (which to many is a positive thing rather than a negative), and this means that with the constant stream of people still moving to the capital, there’s not as much excess housing supply as there is in Dubai. Less supply and more demand of course equals a pretty competitive market. That and the fact that the rent cap preventing landlords from increasing rent by any more than 5% per year was abolished in late 2013 meaning that many people have since been subjected to large increases on their rent that are entirely legal. According to the 2015 CBRE Global Living Report, rents in Abu Dhabi are the second most expensive in the world, with Dubai in fact not even making the top 10 and ranking as the 11th most expensive residential location in the world.

The Yellow Boats Abu Dhabi Dec 2015 Arabian Notes 3

2. What people think: Abu Dhabi is the poor cousin to Dubai

The truth:
Oh this is a good one. I suppose to be fair, Dubai has been hogging its fair share of headlines as far as the rest of the world is concerned and many people don’t realise it’s the capital city of the United Arab Emirates, or even still haven’t even heard of Abu Dhabi, but poor cousin – no. Just no. I assure you that despite initial appearances there is nothing poor about Abu Dhabi. According to KippReport.com, Abu Dhabi holds over 10% of the world’s proven oil supplies, 5% of natural gas and holds over $1 trillion worth of global investments. Whilst times are changing and oil prices are unsteady, that still amounts to a bank balance I’m sure many of us wouldn’t mind even a tiny share of. 

The Yellow Boats Abu Dhabi Dec 2015 Arabian Notes 2

You’ll see a lot more supercars on the roads in Dubai and a lot more flashy goods on display, but I’d describe Abu Dhabi as the unsuspecting Uncle you once found out was actually secretly a millionaire – the one who happily gets about in his jeans and jumpers from Marks and Spencer and drives the banged up old Ford. The people who really have the money are always the ones who spend it the least and never talk about it.

3. What people think: there’s nothing to do in Abu Dhabi

The truth:
Nothing to do? Really? How does the world’s fastest roller coaster at Ferrari World, Yas Waterworld ‘mega-waterpark’ or playing a bona fide Links course at Yas Links golf course grab you? Even if those aren’t your thing there is plenty more to do here in Abu Dhabi.

Yas Waterworld
Yas Waterworld

Kayak around more than 60,000 square metres of natural Mangroves or marvel at the World’s largest sand desert in the Empty Quarter. Visit Al Wathba Wetlands or immerse yourself in the culture and history of the country exploring Al Ain City. Visit the historical heart of the capital – Qasr Al Hosn, go shopping in any one of the numerous malls, try indoor skydiving at Abu Dhabi Country Club, spend a day on the beach, visit the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque. And once you’ve done everything on the tourist trail, get involved in the active social life of the city and discover even more regular events and happenings. The activities and entertainment may not be quite as plentiful as in Dubai, but to say there is nothing to do here is to not know the Emirate at all.

Qasr al Hosn fort
Qasr al Hosn fort

4. What people think: the weather is the same in Abu Dhabi as in Dubai

The truth:
Well, of course the weather isn’t too dissimilar since the two cities are only 120km apart, but in general, it’s much windier here in Abu Dhabi owing to the fact that the city, located on Abu Dhabi Island (locally known as ‘The Island’) is indeed an island and sticks out from the mainland. When comparing annual temperatures for the two cities you will often find that Abu Dhabi temperatures, although similar, are actually frequently a couple of degrees higher than in Dubai, but due to the wind it often doesn’t feel quite as hot.

5. What people think: Dubai has the best beaches

The truth:
Whilst Dubai does indeed have a great stretch of beach – the famous Jumeirah Beach, with a couple of exceptions, the majority of it is owned by the hotels so to get access to a great beach, you’ve got to pay the (often hefty) price of a day pass or become an annual beach club member to get access to the beach. Abu Dhabi actually has far more open beach than Dubai and to the city’s credit, they’ve managed it well so it hasn’t all been swallowed up by the big hotel groups. Abu Dhabi has the famous stretch of Corniche beach, much of which is public beach and will only cost you a few dirhams to get in.

Saadiyat beach
Saadiyat beach

But that’s not all, Abu Dhabi also has Al Bateen public beach which is completely open and free to access for all (it’s one of the unsung heroes and secret beauties of the city), there’s even a separate ladies beach at the far end if for whatever reason that makes you more comfortable. There’s also Yas Beach complete with its fandango new extension and the incredible natural beauty Saadiyat Beach all of which have great facilities and won’t cost you an arm and a leg to get in. Oh, and that’s all before you get yourself out on the water to explore the other islands of the Emirate and amazing remote natural beaches…!
Simply speaking, Abu Dhabi has fabulous beaches and they take some beating.

Al Bateen beach Arabian Notes 2016
Al Bateen Beach

6. What people think: Abu Dhabi is an old-fashioned grotty old urban jungle

The truth:
Well of course there are plenty of older areas in Abu Dhabi, although again, many people see this history as part of its charm (let’s not forget Dubai also has its fair share of older areas too!).  As far as the idea of an urban jungle goes though this couldn’t be further from the truth – Abu Dhabi is more traditional than Dubai and definitely more laid back – there’s still an emphasis on quality of life and maintaining a good work-life balance in the Emirate and the city is not as built up as in Dubai, though we do have plenty of sparkly new build hotels and residential accommodations here too.

Abu Dhabi city view Arabian Notes March 2016

I’ve heard some people go as far as to say that Abu Dhabi is an ugly city, and I suppose it all depends on your perspective – there are certainly some buildings that aren’t the most attractive (aren’t there in every city?!), but beauty is in the eye of the beholder and not everyone appreciates everything that’s new. I’d say Abu Dhabi has a distinct personality, but never ugly. As a city that revolves around a series of islands and with a large expanse of natural mangroves, you can’t deny that fact that it has some incredible vistas. Not to mention the world-famous Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque which is astoundingly beautiful. It’s often all too easy to see without really looking…

Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque Arabian Notes

7. What people think: Abu Dhabi is really hard to navigate

The truth:
I’ve been guilty of this thinking myself when I lived in Dubai and I used to travel down to the capital for meetings. I hated coming here  – the sign posting is bad and I nearly always got lost (back before we were saved by google maps on smartphones!). In reality, Abu Dhabi is a really easy city to navigate, after all, it’s not that big. It’s built on a clear grid system and basically has two fast roads that run down either side of the island towards the Corniche – Salam St on the Eastern side and Khaleej Al Arabi on the Western side with several slower roads running the same direction in between, two of the main thoroughfares being Airport Road and Muroor Road. The fact is, most places are pretty hard to navigate when you’re not familiar with the place, that’s all it is.

What are your thoughts? Is there anything else you’d like to add or any questions you want to ask? Let me know in the comments! πŸ™‚


  • Excellent article. I would also like to know about which city has the worse drivers…hahaha. Anything Abu Dhabi takes it.

    • I think it’s close… but for different reasons! I always thought Abu Dhabi was worse when I lived in Dubai, but now I live in Abu Dhabi it always seems much worse when I go through to Dubai! In Dubai there is much more volume of traffic of course and everyone seems so much more impatient which adds to the drama of it all!

  • I’ve just come across your blog via Instagram. I’m moving to Abu Dhabi with my daughter after Christmas. Your blog is fab, only read a couple of entries so far but already so helpful. Thank you ?

    • Oh I’m so glad you’ve found it helpful! Good luck with your move and please do let me know if there are any more questions you have that I can help with!

    • Hi there, thank you! Please do feel free to share any links to my posts and site of course πŸ™‚

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  • I’m hopefully coming over from UK to teach, it is a good opportunity to save money whilst I’m there with the tax free salary but I want to live a little too but obviously saving is important to me. Which would you say is best for cost and quality of living? Thanks 😊

    • Having lived in both I much prefer Abu Dhabi (although I never believed I’d say that until I actually moved here!), though your question is a bit more complicated to answer as it totally depends what stage of life you’re at and what you like to do, and what you’re looking to get out of living in the UAE. Lots of things are cheaper in Abu Dhabi, although it has literally just been announced today that taxi costs are rising this month to be the same as in Dubai, and rent is more expensive in Abu Dhabi. In my opinion it’s much easier to spend money in Dubai, and there’s always someone or something calling to spend your hard earned on. Abu Dhabi life is a bit more ‘normal’ and laid back, it’s the more traditional of the two cities in a sense. Dubai is definitely the party capital and has far more choice when it comes to upscale coffee shops and five star restaurants (though Abu Dhabi has more than you can shake a stick at too). Both cities ultimately have their pros and cons. I hope that helps!

      • Thank you so much for your answer! I am 27 years old and like to have nights out on weekends, though I’m not a big clubber just more bars and restaurants really unless a special occasion.. I would like to have a hobby over there and hopefully meet new friends whilst I’m there 😊

      • Well, Abu Dhabi has plenty of those but there’s definitely more going on in the nightlife stakes in Dubai, though it can be all quite high octane and non-stop! There’s plenty of concerts with big name artists visiting both cities (though I think Abu Dhabi gets most of the best ones now!). Young and singles do sometimes prefer Dubai as there is a higher population (and higher chances of meeting someone perhaps!) but both cities are vibrant with social communities and it’s easy to meet people. I personally found it easier to meet people I had more in common with and much quicker in Abu Dhabi (that more ‘normal’ thing) and found Dubai easy to meet people but took a long time to form friendships of any substance. Again, pros and cons of both 😊 I hope that helps you, and good luck!

  • Hi Lindsey

    so im planning to visit either dubai or abu dabi this coming november for my fiance’s Bday.
    im so unsure as to which location i should go to , was thinking of flying into abu dabi and staying in dubai since its much more fast past. or just completely stay in abu dabi. so confused at the moment. please help give me tips or if you have a better idea

    • Hi there, what a lovely idea for a birthday trip! As to which city you want to visit all depends on what you want to see and do, depending on how long you’re coming for maybe consider a couple of nights in both cities to get the best of both worlds as the two places are very different.

  • hi Lindsey, so I got into two schools 1 in Dubai and another in Abu Dhabi. I made a pro con list and I researched a lot of sites and I still haven’t decided on any. Both schools are good and beautiful. I read about racism in the UAE and I still don’t know if it’s true as I’m black from Africa. And I’m going to be living on minimum budget.

    • Congratulations on getting into two schools! It is a tricky decision and quite objective too, I think you have to go with your gut. Rent in Abu Dhabi tends to be more expensive than in Dubai, though other living costs can be lower in Abu Dhabi, including schooling but I think it’s quite a personal issue and will come down to the type of lifestyle you are looking for.

  • Dubai is known for luxury shopping, modern architecture and a lively nightlife scene. Burj Khalifa, with its 830m the tallest building in the world, dominates the skyscraper-filled skyline. Real Estate and tourism drive the economy, and there seems to be a never-ending development of innovative and over-the-top projects.

  • I found Abu Dhabi quite westernized. Also, I don’t know if anyone else noticed or feels this way, but I think the crowd in Abu Dhabi is far more elite than that of Dubai. Though I have nothing against Dubai, I wouldn’t fancy living there because I think it also has dense traffic compared to AD, so commuting time is more. Hence there won’t be time to do anything fun on weekdays anyway.

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