I loved living in Dubai but now I'm sold on Abu Dhabi

Growing neighbourhoods, cheaper rents and less traffic – my first six months in the capital

Abu Dhabi's Yas Island offers plenty of greenery, quiet roads and excellent restaurants. Alamy
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There’s one main rule for writing on the internet: don’t poke the bears.

By that I mean, don’t be divisive. You can be forthright but don’t insinuate you’re right and others aren’t, and for the love of mercy don’t try sarcasm.

So when a simple question popped up as I made a rare venture on to social media, “Is Abu Dhabi better than Dubai?”, I thought I’d be in reasonable territory with a three-letter answer: “Yes.”

I didn’t even bother with an exclamation mark, too opinion-y I thought, best play it safe for the keyboard-bashing rabble in the group of British expats I joined years ago. Stick to a harmless full stop. No one ever went to war over a full stop.

Wrong. I had only hopped on to see if anyone was selling patio furniture, but once again, I found myself in hot water, inadvertently enraging society. If the comments were yelled at me in the street, passers-by would’ve probably thought I’d slapped their grandmothers based on the tone.

“Who do you think you are?”; “Awful!”; “You’re a nobody, not a big hitter.” I didn’t even know Facebook still had trolls, I thought they were all lashing out on X or Truth Social.

'I loved Dubai, but I'm getting old'

This week marks my six-month anniversary of living in the capital, and it’s true: Abu Dhabi is better than Dubai.

I’ll add the big fat caveat that it’s opinion, life is subjective, circumstances differ for us all et al.

When a curious soul piped up: “But what do you like better about it?”, my answer of: “The weather,” spawned a whole new propulsion of anger. That’s where sarcasm gets me.

I lived in Dubai on and off for five and a half years. And loved it. Jogging around the Marina like a big city cliche, JLT’s knockout casual dining, the hole-in-the-wall chaat spots in Bur Dubai, art weeks at Alserkal Avenue, the buzzing and unique brunches, Kite Beach’s whipping breeze and weekend gigs where, even as an ageing rocker grieving the total collapse of punk, I could have a little mosh. The list goes on.

Even my first taxi ride in Dubai was a riot. While on the way to meet a friend, without a Sim card having landed merely hours before, I’ll always remember the driver insisting he knew where Media City was, before eventually pulling over, picking two other people up, dropping me off on a dual carriageway and taking them to Jumeirah. I may have been lost, without a phone, 5km away from where I should be in Internet City and Dh35 ($9.50) poorer, but ah, the memories.

It’s no longer a one-horse race for those looking to move to the UAE. Abu Dhabi is increasingly on people’s radar

But that was then, and this is now. The Marina is heaving, a quick jog is more like running a slalom of tourists. Brunches are wildly busy and start with a three-course serving of heavy traffic, queues and sulking influencers. Even the back and neck are knackered, so head-bopping along to a bit of Rage Against the Machine by a cover band is a no-go.

Cosmopolitan capital without the chaos

In Abu Dhabi, life is quieter. But not as quiet as it used to be – the only person at the buffet kind of quiet – and the pace is relaxed. Aside from a couple of chokepoints, traffic is a doddle. I don’t need to book the day off to brave driving downtown.

Abu Dhabi is cosmopolitan not chaos, like most capital cities. Things actually move during rush hour. Plus I can still be lazy and arrive at the pool in the afternoon without the fear of not finding a free lounger.

Rent prices for my bracket are cheaper. Al Raha Beach, Reem Island, Yas Island and the Corniche offer plenty of excellent apartments, while homes in Al Reef or Raha Gardens are currently about 20 per cent less than similar styles in The Springs in Dubai.

With a baby on the way, ChatGPT suggests I start thinking about proximity to nurseries and schools instead of beach clubs and the pub. Real friends assure me schools are also cheaper and there’s less competition for places. Some also claim babies are expensive, so it’s best to watch the pennies now.

There are plenty of places to scratch the cultural itch in Dubai, but Abu Dhabi brings out the big guns. It’s not merely Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque and Louvre Abu Dhabi; it’s the simply brilliant Mina Zayed, which is like Alserkal except you can eat fresh fish and it’s by the sea, the flourishing Cultural District and the new Baps Hindu Mandir temple.

Driving down Khalifa Al Mubarak Street is so good, with its trees, stately homes and low to no traffic, I would happily do it for fun. While Yas Island is quickly turning into a one-stop destination for entertainment and Broadway-style theatre shows, circus acts, the Formula One (and its head-boppable gigs and free cycling around the track), the UFC and the first comedy week are merely a few of the stellar events hosted there.

Two of the world's best cities, one hour apart

From the outside looking in as a western expatriate, it’s clear that it’s no longer a one-horse race for those looking to move to the UAE. Abu Dhabi is increasingly on people’s radar when the chance to move here arises.

Ultimately there are two main factors at play for why I prefer Abu Dhabi. The first, I am getting old. That’s my fault. And the second takes a little more explaining.

We’re blessed to have two of the world’s best cities to choose from and they’re only an hour’s drive apart. They’re increasingly climbing the indices of global studies or reports – such as management consultancy Kearney’s Global Cities Index (Dubai 23rd, Abu Dhabi 66th); the Smart City Index (Dubai 12th, Abu Dhabi 10th); property consultancy Savills world’s best cities for remote workers (Dubai first, Abu Dhabi fourth); Visa’s best cities for singles to travel to or live in (Dubai seventh, Abu Dhabi fourth); on it goes.

Choosing between the two is difficult – but when push comes to shove, when I have to, there is undoubtedly one effective way to decide.

This week, following the record downpours, friends showed me the aftermath in Dubai. Outside my window, an hour down the road, it was dry and relatively sunny with no abandoned cars. We did lose a couple of trees and the neighbour’s washing that was drying on the balcony is probably in Oman by now, but avoided the worst of it.

The science backs me up, too. The National Centre of Meteorology revealed how much rain had fallen across the Emirates. In Jumeirah, roughly where I used to live, 168mm of rain was recorded. In Al Shawamekh, roughly where I live now, 110mm fell, or 40 per cent less.

Not so sarcastic, after all.

Published: April 19, 2024, 6:02 PM
Updated: April 22, 2024, 3:31 PM