The Difference Between Dubai and Abu Dhabi: Update

13 Jun, 2018 - Consumer & Retail
set up a company in abu dhabi


In 2015 I wrote an article detailing the differences between Dubai and Abu Dhabi. At the time the main differences between the two emirates were that Dubai made a name thanks to tourism and international business, and Abu Dhabi due to petrochemicals. Whilst this remains true, both emirates have developed their economies away from their traditional staples.

Abu Dhabi

Abu Dhabi is the capital of the UAE and is the largest of the seven emirates by land mass. The difference between Abu Dhabi and Dubai in terms of land is Abu Dhabi has a main city by the coast, and a second city (Al Ain), further inland. The difference between an emirate and a city is that the geographical borders of an emirate do not surround one area but instead all areas governed by the emirate. Sharjah for example is the only emirate to touch both the Arabian Gulf and Indian Ocean, but the two sections of land are not connected.

Currently the geographical scale of Abu Dhabi does not offer a great deal of help to the UAE. The vast majority of the emirate is made up of desert making the laying of roads and building of infrastructure difficult. There are roads connecting both Oman and Saudi Arabia to the south but these are used for cargo rather than general commuting. The average UAE resident, local and expat alike, will never drive to Saudi Arabia via the southern border.

Abu Dhabi’s population centre is on a group of islands on the Arabian Gulf coast. You may know the Arabian Gulf as the Persian Gulf, but locally we call it the Arabian Gulf; and when you are here you should too.

The Drive

Living and working in Abu Dhabi or Dubai is no longer a tale of two cities. Many people chose to live in one and commute to the other and development of the land between the two cities has grown to the point that a border is no longer obvious. On the Dubai side of the border is the Motiongate theme park, on the Abu Dhabi side Ghantoot Racing & Polo Club. The pair are linked by a few minutes drive.

There is no rail system linking the two emirates but much has been made of the prospect of Hyperloop: a ‘train’ which will move cargo at hundreds of kilometres an hour between Al Maktoum International Airport and Al Ghadeer. This 10km stretch of line will not impact the daily commute but is being seen as a trial run for future commuter use. It is the Hyperloop which serves as our first example of the difference between Dubai and Abu Dhabi.


It is not fair to say that Dubai has something Abu Dhabi does not but it is clear that both emirates send a different message. Dubai has used the technology message like no other city in the region. Dubai has a driverless metro system and a similar tram line. It has the aforementioned Hyperloop under development and has stated that flying cars will take to the skies. By 2030 the Roads and Transport Authority has said 25% of all individual journeys in Dubai will be on autonomous transport.

In the heart of Dubai’s financial centre there are 3D printed offices. They are not in use but serve as an example of the future. Dubai is investing large sums in solar energy, not only by building solar parks but by powering mobile phone charging stations, parking machines, and more, with individual solar panels. The majority of Dubai’s city is blanketed in free wifi, certainly all large indoor areas are. Dubai has embraced blockchain technology for documentation and has suggested it will have its own cryptocurrency by 2020. Dubai awards companies (from any country) with opportunities via its Future Accelerators Programme; something we’re proud to be involved with via our parent company OCO Global. Dubai wants the world’s best minds to develop the world’s most advanced infrastructure.


In contrast, Abu Dhabi has recently opened The Louvre Abu Dhabi. In Al Ain there is a world class wildlife reserve which works to preserve a number of local species. The main Abu Dhabi corniche (beach road) has been developed to allow families to enjoy the area with manicured lawns and picnic spaces. And the city is home to a number of art installations and heritage sites.

It used to be said that Abu Dhabi was the sleeping giant of the region. Oil and gas exploration has earned the emirate billions in revenues which is used to support the entire UAE rather than just the emirate itself. Abu Dhabi’s development of an international financial centre and vast swathes of land dedicated to real estate projects, tells us that the emirate was not sleeping; it was merely taking its time. And taking time segways this article nicely into the next main difference between the two emirates.

Doing Business

There is no difference between Abu Dhabi and Dubai in relation to the speed at which a business can set up and operate. The difference lies in the manner in which business is done.

Doing business in Dubai is very much like doing business in many cities because there are so many international firms with regional headquarters here. It is possible to pitch an idea, agree terms, and sign a contract with a large firm without coming into contact with an Emirati. Even if you meet an Emirati during this process the process itself is likely to be unchanged. Dubai has been influenced by global business culture to the point that the UAE places one spot below Germany in the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business Report for 2018, at position 21.

To do business in Dubai is similar to doing business in many places whereas doing business in Abu Dhabi takes time. People need to trust each other before they agree terms. A meeting in Dubai would be similar to meeting in the UK. A meeting in the UK is considered a pitch, a meeting in Dubai would be considered a prelude to a pitch. A meeting in Abu Dhabi is a meeting, it’s a cup of coffee and handshake. It could lead to a pitch for business but it most certainly isn’t one. In fact, if you meet an Emirati for the first time and the only thing you do is talk business the chances are you won’t get any.

But, and this is the arguably the best thing about doing business in the UAE (apart from sunshine, no income tax, glorious beach sunsets, and so on); once you have earned someone’s trust your foot is in the door. It is not unusual to receive the mobile number of a senior manager so you won’t need to hurdle the PA or receptionist. There’s no need to coordinate calendars or ‘pencil something in’, if you have a question you can use Whatsapp or send a text message. Despite a general feeling in the UAE of formality in almost everything you do, once you have scratched away that thin veneer the country is very friendly. In essence, that is what the BCB does. It gets you under the veneer.

If you’d like more information on setting up in either emirate or would just like to know what types of business are flourishing where, please contact us.

set up a company in abu dhabi