“How much is the cost of living in Dubai?” is one of those questions like “how long is a piece of string?”

The answer always has to be prefaced by two words: – it depends. But it depends on what? First of all, you need to have your basic needs for food, shelter and transport and possibly your children’s education, met by your income and these costs will vary enormously, depending – that word again – on your individual circumstances.

Housing

Some of the rental housing choices available in Dubai will literally take your breath away – if you aspire to live in an apartment in the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa, for example. As at the time of writing this, a 1639 sq. ft., 2 bedroomed apartment in the Burj Khalifa can be rented for AED 300,000 per year. That’s just over US$80,000 or UK£53,500. Using the broadly accepted guideline that your accommodation should amount to no more than 20% of your annual salary, you’d need to be earning US$400,000 (or its equivalent in other currencies) to comfortably afford something like this, and all the good life trappings that you’d expect to go along with it.

But, small apartments can be had for as little as AED38k a year in less desirable locations such as Al Waqaa. In desirable locations costs are very different. A villa with 4 or 5 bedrooms could fetch between AED 250,000 and AED 350,000 in the Arabian Ranches, while the Palm’s villa prices can easily exceed AED 1,000,000: that’s per year, to rent. For more information see our House Hunting in Dubai page.

You can familiarize yourself with asking prices, locations and housing types via Dubizzle.com’s classified advertisements. Customize your search by adding factors such as your budget, size or type of dwelling needed and location to the filters on the left hand side of the web page.

One final caveat: Dubai’s rents dropped dramatically, following the economic slowdown in 2008. The prices you are seeing on Dubizzle as of April 2013 still represent relatively low asking prices. While the Burj Khalifa itself might not be going any higher, now that it is complete, the annual rent on the apartment that I used an example at the beginning of this section is bound to go higher, along with rents in all Dubai’s other desirable locations.

Food

If you are used to living in a major European or North American city, then Dubai probably won’t have too many nasty surprises in store for you. In fact, if you are adventurous enough to try a few “off the beaten path” eating experiences, the surprises are likely to be of the pleasant kind, both culinary and financial.

To begin with, Dubai has a number of major supermarket chains that you will very quickly become familiar with. Names like Carrefour, Spinneys, Waitrose, Choithrams and Géant will soon become second nature to many and feel like home away from home to expats from the UK and continental Europe. You’ll quickly establish your own particular favourite and the merits of who does what best are standard topics of conversation amongst expats. This is probably as good a time as any to introduce Dubai’s best-known online forum for pretty much any topic where that little bit of extra, first-hand knowledge is required – Expatwoman.com. Men, do not be put off by the name: this is the place where the knowledge is shared.

So how much do staple food items cost? Probably about the same, a bit more, or a bit less than in the UK or New York. On the one hand, there’s no VAT/IVA/GST added, but all the familiar items on the shelves have to be transported a lot further in order to end up in your shopping trolley.  Here are a few examples from a recent weekly shop in Dubai Mall’s Waitrose Supermarket: 260g of Australian lamb leg steaks: AED 16; a box of Twining’s Chamomile Tea Bags: AED 11.95; a packet of Ryvita Crispbread: AED 12.25; 250g Lavazza coffee: AED 36.75; 450g of baby leaf spinach: AED19.00.

Use the following currency converter, or another of your choice, to see how prices like these stack up against a similar shopping list back home.

As far as vegetables are concerned, locally grown (yes, the UAE has a burgeoning market-gardening industry) are much cheaper than imported. Regionally grown fruit and vegetables will be cheaper than their counterparts imported from Europe, North America, Australia or New Zealand. The same applies with meat products. Saudi-grown chickens are a lot cheaper than imported organically raised poultry from France, so you have to be the judge here. You can get the best quality food, all be it with a huge number of food miles, but it costs. Similarly, some of the supermarkets listed above will certainly cost you more than others for an identical shopping list of items.

As a ball-park figure, a family of two adults and two children, even teenagers, should be able to eat a good variety of staples and treats for around AED 1000 to 1200 a week. Some Dubai expatriate readers will look at that figure and see it as impossibly extravagant, whilst others will insist that a weekly shopping bill is likely to be twice or three times that figure.

Eating Out

As with the two sections on accommodation and grocery shopping above, the range of possibilities and costs is staggering. Go to a high-end restaurant, add a bottle or two of wine to the food you have ordered, do the responsible and sensible thing and take a taxi home afterwards and the bill for your night out can easily exceed AED 2000+. A figure like that may horrify some, or pleasantly surprise others. It all depends on where you have come from and what your expectation of a good night out should cost. As a rule of thumb, alcohol can very easily double the bill and that does not necessarily signify an excessive amount of drinking.

Dubai’s weekly “what’s on and where” magazine, Dubai Time Out also has a useful website and the restaurant section, filled with reviews, will give you a very good idea of what’s available, where it is, and maybe most importantly, what a typical night or afternoon out is going to cost.

Like Dubizzle.com, you can set the filters on the left side of the page to narrow your search according to parameters like area, type of cuisine and price.

To summarize, eating out in Dubai can cost a lot, a modest amount or very little. To see just how little, set the Time Out restaurant filters for cuisine: Indian, area: Karama, and the price could be: AED 1-50.

Transport

I won’t repeat material already covered in some detail in other parts of this guide of Living in Dubai, but when it comes to pulling up to the pump, get ready for one of the nicer surprises. Regular, unleaded 91 octane gas (or petrol) costs just AED 1.72 a litre. Get your calculators out and work out how that compares with your various homelands. So the next thought that may well cross a few of your minds will be “How much will a (car of your dreams) cost? Again, you will need to do the math with XE.com or a similar converter, but I suspect many of you will be pleasantly surprised again.

Some websites publish list-prices of new vehicles, while others prefer to get you into the showroom, or ask you to email for a quote. One that does list prices is the Dubai dealership for Toyota, so you can check out local prices for Toyota and Lexus models.

You’ll need to do some navigating inside the sites, but you will soon get to “prices and specifications” of the model that interests you. The ubiquitously popular Toyota Landcruiser, in all its levels and trims starts at AED 185k, while the equally popular Corolla range kicks off from AED 60.5k.

You can do the same thing for almost all makes and models, without the hard sell here.

There is also a thriving used car market, with all the usual “buyer beware” cautions; however, a growing number of the dealerships are offering late model cars – those which have full service histories with the dealership – and on these they offer 12 month, new car warranties. You may pay a little more than on the open market, but you get a fair amount of peace of mind in return. You can get an idea of used car prices from these two links:

http://www.autotraderuae.com/

http://dubai.dubizzle.com/classified/autos4x4s/

Schooling

This is an interesting topic in its own right, but the scope of this article is to look at costs, not to discuss the quality of what you are paying for. If the latter is a major concern, then the forums on Expatwoman.com should give you plenty to think about. More information is available on our article – Moving to Dubai.

But how much does it all cost? Expatwoman.com has compiled a list of costs at some of the more popular schools in Dubai. These figures are for the current academic year. The DubaiFAQs site offers some fairly solid reading, with lots of recent history relating to fees and fee rises. There are also some useful links to topics such as the Directory of Private Schools in Dubai, Education in the UAE and the UAE Schools Directory at the bottom of the page. Read all about these matters and more here.

Medical Insurance

One further issue is medical insurance. You must have insurance. Some companies do allow you to choose your own medical insurer and offer a set amount as a contribution. Others insist on employees using their group scheme.

Generally, there will be a company policy that you will be signed up to.  There may be different ranges of policy with the same insurer that you can choose from and, of course, these different policies come with different price tags.

For a reasonably comprehensive medical insurance policy that, in theory, allows for medical treatment worldwide, you can expect to pay AED10K a year. However, this should be factored into your salary or actually paid for by your company.

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