Moving to the UAE (discovering the 7 emirates)

In Tips by Steven Kane

The huge influx of people moving to the United Arab Emirates, has meant the UAE has rapidly developed into a leading expat location. Abu Dhabi ranks 1st for safety and Dubai ranks 7th in the 2018 world quality of life index issued by Numbeo.

Regardless of whether individuals are considering relocating to world renowned Dubai, the largest emirate of Abu Dhabi, or any of the smaller emirates, let’s look in a little more detail at the emirates which make up the UAE.

The United Arab Emirates was formed in 1971 and is composed of 7 self-governing emirates. The Emir of Abu Dhabi holds the post of President and the Emir of Dubai is Prime Minister.  Whilst Arabic is the official language, English is widely understood throughout many parts of the UAE.

The coast stretches over 650 kms along the southern part of the Arabian Gulf with approximately 90 kms of coast to the east, south of the Mussandan peninsular. The climate varies slightly across the seven emirates; Al Ain tends to be less humid and whilst Abu Dhabi has little rainfall, Ras Al Khaimah, further north, and Fujairah to the east experience more frequent showers.

Abu Dhabi
The city of Abu Dhabi serves as the countries capital. It is mostly located on an island joined to the mainland by 3 main bridges. In recent years suburbs of Abu Dhabi have developed such as Khalifa City and Raha Beach on the mainland and nearby islands such as Yas, Al Reem and Saadiyat.

The emirate of Abu Dhabi covers almost 90% of the entire country. As of 2015, 490,000 of 2,800,000 people residing in the emirate were UAE nationals. Expatriates who have moved to Abu Dhabi from a huge variety of countries make up almost 80% of the population.  Abu Dhabi International airport (AUH) is the main aviation hub and is the second busiest airport in the UAE. Passenger numbers at Abu Dhabi International Airport rose by 18% in 2015, with over 23 million travelers visiting and transiting during the course of the year.

The Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque took over 10 years to build and covers 240,000 square feet, allowing a capacity of over 40,000 people. Some of the landmarks and attractions in Abu Dhabi are, The Yas Marina Grand Prix race track, Yas Waterworld, The Emirates Palace hotel, Ferrari World, and Heritage Park.

The second largest emirate, Dubai, has developed rapidly to become the commercial centre of the UAE and a regional hub. Dubai shares borders with Abu Dhabi to the south, Sharjah to the northeast, and the Sultanate of Oman to the southeast. In recent years Dubai has increased the size of the emirate by over 200 square kilometres with the addition of reclaimed land and now covers over 4,000 square km.

Unlike Abu Dhabi which owns most of the UAE’s oil and gas reserves, Dubai has diversified from a dependency on hydrocarbons and to invest in tourism, real estate, technology, shipping and logistics plays a significant part of the economy.

In the last 20 years, Dubai has transformed its infrastructure, with bridges, highways, seaports, airports, public transport all being introduced and upgraded to cope with the rapid growth. In addition artificial islands, such as the Palm and the World have been created. Despite the 2007/8 financial crisis, Dubai has continued development including landmarks such as the Burj Khalifa – the world’s tallest building and Dubai Miracle Garden which is the world’s largest flower garden containing a total of 45 million flowers.

Dubai hosts a number of sport and leisure events such as The Dubai World Cup horse race, The Dubai 7’s rugby tournament, the Dubai shopping festival which lasts the month of January, as well as music concerts from the world’s leading artists. There are also food, film and cultural events during the year and of course, Dubai will host Expo 2020. It is fair to say, anyone moving to Dubai will find a huge variety of choice.

Considered the cultural centre of the UAE, Sharjah borders Dubai to its west and is the third largest emirate by size. Sharjah prohibits the sale of alcohol in restaurants and hotels, which has seen an increased number of Islamic tourists to the emirate.

The population in 2015 was reported to be approximately 1.4 million people with 87% of the population being expatriate, making Sharjah the emirate with the highest proportion of expats vs local Emiratis.

Like Dubai, Sharjah has focused heavily on commerce as a way of diversifying away from oil and gas. The cost of establishing a company in Sharjah is lower than any of the other 6 emirates and the Sharjah Airport International Free Zone plays home to over 6000 companies from over 90 countries. Hamriyah Free Zone also provides the opportunity to establish a 100% owned foreign-owned company.

Sharjah is rich with educational institutions, many of which are located in University City, including American University, Sharjah Women’s College, the University of Sharjah and International School of Choueifat.

The growth of the Buhairah Corniche in the last 15 years has seen the area flourish with upscale restaurants, entertainment and housing developments.


The smallest emirate Ajman (measuring only 270 square km), has a population of around 240,000 people and lies surrounded by Sharjah but with a small 4 km coast to the north. This makes up part of the Dubai-Sharjah-Ajman Metropolitan Area.

The Ajman creek has been developed to facilitate Ajman Free Zone which is home to 1500 companies. 15% of the countries manufacturing can be found in Ajman. Much of the land in the emirate is made up of warehousing and industrial areas.

Ajman was the first emirate to offer 100% freehold which led to a property boom in 2004, however, the financial crisis in 2008 slowed many of the projects. Despite this Ajman is about to open a new International Airport and a 25 million dollar Marina is already underway.

Unlike Sharjah, alcohol can be sold in clubs and hotels. The Ajman cornice is a popular venue for families in the evenings and also several hotels such as the Kempinski and Ajman Saray.

Umm al-Quwain
Home to around 80,000 inhabitants, Umm al-Quwain is the least populated emirate. With a tradition of boatbuilding and fishing Umm al-Quwain is probably the emirate which has seen the least amount of change over the decades. Off the coast lies several islands which are surrounded by sand and mud flats and mangrove forests which are home to a rich variety of marine life and seabirds including the third largest colony of Socotra cormorants in the world.

The old harbour contains skilled craftsmen who continue to build traditional Dhow boats. Visitors can also enjoy a visit to the Umm al-Quwain Fort and also the Dreamland Aqua Park which is the largest waterpark in the UAE.

Ras al-Khaimah (RAK)
Ras al-Khaimah is the northern-most emirate and borders the northern Omani enclave known as the Musandam. The climate here is a little more forgiving during the hot summer months with average temperatures a little lower than Dubai and Abu Dhabi. The more frequent rainfall and water from the Musandam mountains make the soil in Ras al-Khaimah the most fertile in the country.

The emirate has been ruled by the Al Qasimi family since the 18th century and the current ruler is Sheikh Saud bin Saqar Al Qasimi.

Like much of the UAE Ras al-Khaimah has developed real estate and leisure facilities especially along the western coastline such as Al Hamra village, golf course and marina, Bab Al Bahr and also Mina Al Arab which all offer luxury housing and retail outlets. There is even a Waldorf Astoria hotel in homage to the famous Manhattan hotel.


Unlike the rest of the emirates, Fujairah is located on the east coast and is surrounded by mountains as opposed to the desert. The drive to Fujairah, through the Hajjar mountains, is a must for anyone moving to the UAE. Hajjar means stone in Arabic and the journey through the stone mountains is spectacular.

Fujairah was part of Oman until it was annexed in 1850 by the Al Qasimi family who ruled Sharjah. It was finally declared independent from Sharjah in 1901 by Hamad bin Abdullah Al Sharqi and the Al Sharqi family have continued to rule Fujairah since then.

Fujairah has some attractive coastal areas and tourism and water sports is a growing industry. Other than that there are cement and mining factories, shipping and ship services, as well as a free zone which allows full foreign ownership.


Whilst many people move to Abu Dhabi or Dubai, there may be those who have the option of living in an alternative emirate. An improved climate and reduced living costs, especially house rent, can make this a tempting option especially if you are willing to accept a longer daily or weekly commute.

The northern emirates, especially Ras al-Khaimah and to the east, Fujairah, offer a different kind of lifestyle which appeals to many people who do not crave the thriving, busy pace of life in Dubai and Abu Dhabi.

So if you are relocating to the UAE, and your work arrangements make it a possibility, looking at an alternative emirate may be worth considering.