'It felt like coming home': Why do so many expats leave Abu Dhabi only to move back?

It seems that the UAE Capital offers something special that is hard to find anywhere else

By Harriet Shephard

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From left to right: Louise Desfrenne and Marina Milic. Photos: Supplied
From left to right: Louise Desfrenne and Marina Milic. Photos: Supplied

Published: Mon 22 May 2023, 12:30 PM

Last updated: Sat 27 May 2023, 4:31 PM

The pandemic turned so many people’s lives upside down, including my own.

Managing to grab one of the last flights to the UK before the lockdown began in March 2020, I convinced myself that this was a sign that my time in the UAE had come to an end. So I got a new job and attempted to settle down.

But I really, really struggled, and it wasn’t just the amazing weather, tax-free earnings and beautiful beaches that I was ‘home’ sick for. I missed having friends from every corner of the world, the safety, the opportunities, and Abu Dhabi’s welcoming and inclusive community.

It was a case of reverse culture shock, and it didn’t improve. So, almost exactly a year on from when I left, I returned to live in the UAE Capital. It was the best decision I’ve ever made.

I’ve since discovered that my story is hardly unusual.

Below, four other Abu Dhabi residents share why they left the city, but then quickly felt compelled to return.

'It doesn’t matter where you're from or what your religion is, everyone is welcome here'

Marketing Director Louise Desfrenne, 28, moved to Paris in 2019 and returned in February 2023.

“I really didn't want to leave Abu Dhabi in the first place. But my boyfriend was living back in France and I felt like I wasn’t complete without him. I missed my family as well. But I came back because today’s Europe is not what it used to be. We are facing inflation and a cost-of-living crisis, and the major cities don’t feel safe. Someone once tried to steal my phone right out of my hand on the Metro in Paris. That’s one of the main reasons I wanted to come back, I always feel safe here."

“Of course, Abu Dhabi also has the sun, beaches and good salaries. The people here are so friendly too. It’s embarrassing to say but we French are not welcoming at all. I missed how international it is here. In Abu Dhabi it doesn’t matter where you're from or what your religion is, everyone is welcome. I love how we celebrate Christmas as much as Ramadan."

“Also, my job wasn’t challenging me anymore and I wanted to go back to tourism hospitality, and there’s nowhere better to do that than Abu Dhabi. I get so many more opportunities here that I wouldn’t have had in France.”

'I had become accustomed to the level of safety in Abu Dhabi'

Artist and editor Alexa Mena moved from New York City to study at NYU Abu Dhabi in 2013. The 27-year old’s attempt to return home in 2022 lasted only three months.

“I never imagined I’d still be here a decade after starting university, but the opportunities are so endless here, and so staying on for one year after graduating quickly turned into ten. In fact, the opportunities are one thing I love most about this city."

“When I did eventually move home, I lasted only three months. While I love New York, I had become accustomed to the level of safety in Abu Dhabi. Plus, even though I come from one of the most dynamic cities in the world, nothing tops Abu Dhabi’s diverse events scene or extensive cultural offerings. Although it’s a big city, it still feels like a loving community, and the leaders care about us, too. These are just some of the reasons I am proud to call Abu Dhabi home.”

'I missed how easy my life was'

Marketeer Marina Milic, 36, moved back to Serbia for seven months in 2015.

“I had no intention of coming back when I left. I had been working so hard in the Abu Dhabi hospitality industry for many years and I felt like I needed a break. However, much of the world was going into recession and it was very, very difficult to get work in Europe. I was desperate, and doing interviews for jobs I would never normally have considered.

“I didn’t apply anywhere in Abu Dhabi, but destiny clearly had different plans for me. A couple of people reached out with opportunities, and I realised I needed to come back. I missed Abu Dhabi deeply, and how easy my old life was. Although the second time round kind of felt like restarting, it was still like coming back home. Abu Dhabi has a special place in my heart and I’ve been here almost 13 years. I can't imagine would have happened if I left permanently because it’s such a big part of who I am. I’ve built my career here, and I’ve forged friendships that I know will last forever.”

'In Abu Dhabi, you are rewarded for the effort you put in'

Egyptian Ahmed Salah grew up in Abu Dhabi. The 32 year-old moved to Cairo for university and then came back after graduating.

“I went back to Cairo to go to university between 2008 and 2014. It was during the Egyptian revolution, and we faced so many disruptions to our studying and throughout the whole country. It wasn’t a pleasant experience for me. Egypt has a whole different mindset and system, and so I wanted to move back to Abu Dhabi as soon as I graduated. But then my dad retired and my parents moved back home too. I still remember him saying: “Forget about going back to Abu Dhabi. We're all going to stay together in Egypt”. I was so depressed, my grades went from straight As to Fs. I felt like I lost my purpose and couldn’t reach my goal of going home.

“After graduating with my engineering degree, I tried to look for a job in Egypt but it was very hard. The salaries were so much lower. In Egypt, it feels like you must give so much to get very little back, but in Abu Dhabi you are rewarded for the efforts you put in. Abu Dhabi is my hometown. I’m used to the safety, the cleanliness, and the clear systems. Things are much simpler here. I’m now working for Adnoc and Abu Dhabi has helped me fulfil my career goals.”

According to a report from the United Nations, the population of Abu Dhabi has boomed by massive 84,000 since 2020.

Currently standing at 1.567 million, the Abu Dhabi Vision 2030 economic plan predicts that it will rise to over three million by 2030.

Just as many new residents are drawn to Abu Dhabi for the job opportunities, sunshine and tax-free wages, long-term residents return because of the city's safety, high quality of life and its diverse and caring community.

No matter where you are from, whether it’s Europe, Asia, America or beyond, the UAE capital is a place that very quickly feels like home.

Even compared to New York, Paris and the most famous capital cities on the planet, it still draws people back. The fact is, once you have experienced the easy, multicultural and welcoming lifestyle of Abu Dhabi, nowhere else feels quite right.

It’s a place that is very, very hard to leave, and I feel so lucky to call it my city.


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