The Great Debate: Abu Dhabi vs Dubai

When we first moved to Abu Dhabi in Jan 2013, knowing that we had previously lived in Dubai for over four years, people were quick to ask us what we thought of it here and to impress on us just how different the two cities are. At the time, it was something that I found very confusing – how can life be so different between two cities that are so close geographically?! When people asked me how I found Abu Dhabi and if I thought it was different to Dubai I always answered the same way: “It’s a bit smaller than Dubai, a bit quieter and more traditional perhaps, but other than that the lifestyle seems the same”.

I’ll confess. When I first heard about my husband’s job in Abu Dhabi I didn’t want to come here. After having lived in Dubai for over four years and having made regular business trips to Abu Dhabi I thought I knew enough to know that Abu Dhabi was not the place to be. Or at least, not a place that I wanted to be. I wanted to come back to the UAE yes, specifically to Dubai – the place that we knew well and had loved previously, but faced with an amazing opportunity in Abu Dhabi – it was still exciting, but if I’m honest, initially a little underwhelming. Anyway, I was pleased that we had the chance to go back to the UAE at all so I pushed these thoughts aside and knew that we would make the best of our new life in Abu Dhabi.

I suppose I was nervous to come to Abu Dhabi. When we left Dubai in 2011, Abu Dhabi appeared to have very little to offer. There was none of the bright lights, things to do and fancy new hotels that Dubai has in multitude – and very little in the way of what appeared to be traditional souks and historic Arabian areas to explore. I hated my business trips to Abu Dhabi as despite having visited on a fairly regularly basis I could not seem to get my head around the road system in the unfamiliar city – it felt as though I entered and left the Island of Abu Dhabi from a different road each time – I just couldn’t seem to figure out a fail-safe route! And as bad as parking was in Dubai, it was 10 times worse in the heart of Abu Dhabi city. Everything just always felt so old (ironic for a country only 42 years old!), cramped and chaotic.
When we first landed in Abu Dhabi to live, we were taken by car to our hotel and I looked around as we drove down the island – things had definitely changed. I actually recognised a road or two, and there was a whole host of new buildings, hotels and unknown structures that had definitely not been there when we had left. I felt positive… Abu Dhabi had clearly been very busy, quietly getting on with building a new future – things were definitely looking up.

I loved Dubai when we lived there. It’s a bustling, 24 hour city where everything you want and more is on your doorstep. It is a fantastic place to live and can be a lot of fun. There’s heaps to do of every description and new activities and companies starting up and offering more every day – how can you ever grow tired of a city like that? Well, I guess like anything you get used to – you can grow tired of it. After a while it’s easy to take it for granted and to find fault – although that subject is probably getting off track slightly and might be better dealt with in another post at another time…

Abu Dhabi has grown on me more and more each day as I have uncovered things I didn’t know about the city, and steadily found the places that have become familiar favourites for eating, shopping and life’s other essentials (and frivolities!). I’d now even go so far as to say I love it here – and I much prefer it to Dubai!

In my opinion, Dubai is much more ‘in your face’ than Abu Dhabi is. Dubai shouts at you 24 hours a day, lights blinking and advertising sign boards try to lure you in with their glitzy, shiny façade. The traffic is heavier than in Abu Dhabi and constantly races – the pulse of the city rarely slows or misses a beat. Dubai is switched on and fully charged, all the time. My personal feeling was that if we weren’t doing something in Dubai – we were missing out. We would relax but the city and the pace of life never did. It also took a long time to make a solid, close group of reliable friends in Dubai. We found you really had to sort the wheat from the chaff – there are many people who come to Dubai seeking fame and fortune and find themselves happily caught up in the superficial side of life. It’s nice to have nice things of course, but I like to have friends who can hold interesting conversation and have more in common than the latest must have handbag. 

Visiting Dubai now is still fun, we know our way around (roughly, though it has also changed a fair amount in the two years we were away!) and we know where to find and look for the things we need or want. It’s like a familiar old friend that we’ve outgrown, and although it’s good to catch up from time to time we know it’s better at this point in our lives to have drifted apart.

Abu Dhabi has changed a lot since we left in 2011. The city is growing out and growing up. It is quieter than Dubai, and a bit more traditional and it has a definite sense and feeling of community where people speak to each other and help each other out. There’s much more focus on quality of life with the many parks, the Corniche and many of the beaches having been protected and turned into public spaces rather than having been claimed by international hotel chains. It still doesn’t compete with Dubai in terms of the number of hotels or restaurants but it doesn’t need to. Abu Dhabi has a host of fabulous new (and old) hotels that provide the wow factor and the luxury and gourmet experiences, but it also has a wide range of alternatives to suit all budgets and tastes. Unlike Dubai, the city does sleep – a little – but is still bustling with activity and a sense of being ‘real’ and genuine. I have also found the people that I have met here so far to reflect this also – making a new group of friends has seemed far less fickle and complicated than it was in Dubai.
Despite being the capital, Abu Dhabi is the less brash, less famous city of the UAE, but make no mistake – the city is a sleeping giant, working quietly and tirelessly on building its future to include the already well documented Abu Dhabi Formula One and the cultural districts where the Louvre and Guggenheim will live. The city is in a constant state of evolution, I just hope it manages to maintain what makes it so special. 

So, to conclude: When we first moved to Abu Dhabi in Jan 2013, knowing that we had previously lived in Dubai for over four years, people were quick to ask us what we thought of it here and to impress on us just how different the two cities were. People asked me how I found Abu Dhabi and if I thought it was different to Dubai. So has my answer changed one year on? Well, maybe a little, but not really. Abu Dhabi is a smaller city than Dubai (for the time being anyway), a bit quieter and definitely a little more traditional. Overall, the lifestyle between both cities seems much the same, but my feeling is that Abu Dhabi gives you more room to tailor your own lifestyle and is certainly more accepting of the choices you make. 

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10 Comments

  • Lindsey – I thoroughly enjoy reading your blogs – they always hit the spot – and none more so than this one! Great observations and perfectly articulated! One thing I would add , and I usually tell people when posed with similar questions about AD , another great thing about Abu Dhabi is that Dubai is only an hour down the road : readily available whenever you need a fix of ‘international metrolpolis’ or ‘life in the fast lane’ !

  • Hi I happen to find your blog by chance as I am in the middle of blogging about Abu Dhabi. Yes I like AD too and find lifestyles here are much better than Dubai if I may say so. I like peace and quiet but have a lot of opportunities of an action if I want to which AD can offer too. 🙂

  • So good to know!

    I have never been to Abu Dhabi and shared the notion that it was sure to be BLAH compared to the amazing and luxurious Dubai. Now I might check it out – perhaps apply to work there. Who knows what could happen 😉

    • Yes, you’ll be glad you did! Only people who don’t know Abu Dhabi well think Dubai is better, just ask any resident of our beloved capital! But shhhhh, don’t tell everyone! ????

  • I liked reading this blog of yours….I’m a doctor from canberra, australia who’s here for 2 weeks visiting my folks with my 4 year old daughter. This blog makes me think about how people tend to ask the same question in Australia….”so which city do you think is better??Melbourne or Sydney ( here melbourne obviously being the quieter sibling not so “in ur face” like Sydney)
    Anyways, i stumbled across your blog and find it really interesting…..there’s so much that i can associate with…i wonder if you have any views on real estate in abu dhabi/dubai??whether they’re worth considering as an investment opportunity??
    Keep up the good work
    Regards
    Mamdooh

    • I’m a fan of Melbourne since it reminds me more of my native Europe (including the changeable weather, haha) and even having previously lived in Australia I’ve never visited Sydney yet – we are making a trip next month in fact!
      In terms of real estate in the UAE I think it’s quite a personal thing and depends on the risk you’re willing to take and the capital you have to invest. For first time buyers or individuals with one property it may represent too high/too risky an outlay, but for those who have several in a portfolio already it could offer an interesting option and probably less associated risks. Property anywhere is usually a good investment and with the growth of the UAE in the coming years this is likely to be true here, though it really depends on your goals and how long you are willing to hold onto the property for – gone are the days of buying off plan and flipping them on completion to gain crazy returns in the short term!

Let me know your thoughts and comments here!