Welcome to the UAE: a guide to university life in the Emirates
How to find a place to stay, get around and immerse yourself in the culture of your new home
The long, hard years of late-night study sessions and high-pressure exams have finally paid off - now it is time to embrace the university challenge in a brand new land of opportunity.
Starting out as an undergraduate is a huge moment in any young life, particularly if you are travelling abroad to continue your academic path.
The UAE is a prime destination not only for workers but for students, too, who are eager to broaden their horizons and immerse themselves in a new culture, as well as soak up the all-year sunshine.
The learning process isn't just confined to the lecture halls, however, as there is plenty to educate yourself about when it comes to your new home.
Thankfully, help is at hand with The National's step-by-step guide to student life in the Emirates, complete with some tips from those experiencing it for themselves in Dubai and Sharjah.
What laws and customs do I need to be aware of?
The UAE is a Muslim country and new residents should be aware of laws and customs they must adhere to.
Public display of affection should be kept to a minimum and you should also dress conservatively when in public.
The UAE has strict privacy laws, with hefty fines and even jail sentences handed out for taking pictures of people without their consent.
It is important, however, not to be swayed by any misconceptions about the country before you move. If you are respectful of the values of the country, you will find it easy to settle in.
The country is a cultural melting pot of dozens of different nationalities, whose distinct beliefs and faiths are respected.
“It is very important to respect the law and the culture of the UAE. Be sure to read more about the cultures and traditions of the country before you arrive to avoid unknowingly disrespecting their cultures and values,” said Eman Mahmoud, a 21-year-old student living in Dubai.
Although drinking alcohol in public in Dubai is prohibited, there are hundreds of licensed bars and restaurants in the emirate - many within hotels - while residents can also obtain licences to purchase alcohol to consume at home.
Where should I live?
Finding a place to live will be top of the to-do-list for newcomers.
Many students live on campus in accommodation provided by universities, but for those keen to strike out on their own there are a wealth of options.
The cost of living in dormitories varies from one university to another, depending on what type of room you choose to stay in.
“I stay in a semi-private room at the American University of Sharjah, which means I share a bathroom with my roommate, and it costs me around Dh12,000 per semester,” said Zeina Saleh, a 20-year-old studying at the American University of Sharjah.
“The price depends on your choice of dormitory. You could stay in a shared room, where you stay in one room with a roommate, and pay a lot less than that.”
For those keen to cut down on travel costs by being close to their university, Academic City in Dubai is an attractive proposition. The sprawling district is home to dozens of universities serving thousands of students. Rent here are relatively low, typically ranging from Dh25,000 for studios to roughly Dh55,000 for two-bedroom apartments.
If you are keen to spread your wings and live away from the academic bubble, areas like Deira, Bur Dubai, International City, Dubai Sports City and Discovery Gardens provide affordable rents, with a chance to snap up a one-bedroom property for about Dh50,000 a year.
It is a good time to be in the renters market, too, as average rents have fallen by 21 per cent since 2017 in Dubai.
How easy will it be to make friends?
Moving to a new country can be a daunting prospect, but it can provide a common bond for students across the globe keen to build friendships.
The most common place to make friends as a student is during your university’s orientation and during your classes.
“The people I met during my university’s orientation are my best friends now, three years later,” said Mohammed Bazzim, a 22-year-old student in Sharjah.
There are many different ways to make friends as a student in the UAE including college classes, volunteer experiences and group projects in college.
“I spend a lot of time on campus, so I met many of my current friends through classes and group projects,” said Mr Bazzim.
One of the most effective ways to make friends as a student is to be active in your university’s community. Participating in clubs and attending events organized by your college provides a great opportunity to start a conversation and introduce yourself.
If you are eager to expand your social circle outside of university, online groups such as Meetup, which arrange activities to bring people together, and Meet the Locals, set up by two Emiratis in an effort to break down barriers between UAE citizens and residents, are a crucial resource.
Will I need to get a car?
Having your own vehicle, of course, affords you greater independence, but there are many ways to get around.
One of your first steps should be to download ride-hailing apps such as Uber and Careem. Taxis can be ordered quickly and tend to arrive within minutes. Both Sharjah and Dubai are also well served by publicly-operated taxis, which are metered and reasonably priced.
If you are moving to Dubai, the metro is a reliable, quick and efficient way to navigate the emirate.
A big part of the metro’s appeal is the price. Travelling within one zone costs only Dh3 in standard class, while a trip on the whole line will set you back just Dh7.50.
There are currently 49 stations, covering a green and red line connecting the city, serving hundreds of thousands of passengers every day.
Stuck in a jam: how do I cope with the Sharjah-Dubai commute?
Many students will choose to live in Dubai while studying in Sharjah due to the relatively short distance between the emirates.
It is a decision that many residents make, meaning the roads are often clogged with drivers making a daily commute between the emirates.
If you live in Dubai and study in Sharjah, you can avoid the worst of the traffic by signing up for as many early classes as possible.
“Driving to Sharjah is difficult for me because I live in Dubai and I get stuck in traffic jams. I overcame it by registering for early classes before rush hour,” said Ms Mahmoud.
The launch of a ferry service linking the emirates offers a viable alternative to hitting the road.
The vessels run 42 times daily between Al Ghubaiba on the Creek to Aquarium Marine Station in Sharjah and will have the capacity to serve 1.3 million passengers a year, Dubai’s Roads and Transport Authority said.
A journey takes 35 minutes and costs Dh15 in silver class and Dh25 for gold class. Children under the age of five and people with disabilities travel free. Each ferry has capacity for 125 passengers.
Can I enjoy the weekend without breaking the bank?
While you might need deep pockets to eat out at some of the flashier restaurants in Dubai, there is no need to feel short-changed by your weekend activities.
A trip to the cinema, a visit to the mall or a day out at the beach, especially in cooler climes, are just some of the ways to catch up with friends and take care of the dirhams.
“My friends always go to Dubai at the weekend. We tend to visit Dubai Mall and Mirdif City Centre for movies. In Sharjah, we either cruise around with friends for stress-relief or have a snack at Al-Qasba beach,” said Ms Saleh.
If you have your sights set on shopping in Sharjah, head down to Sahara Mall, City Centre Sharjah or Sharjah Shopping centre.
For a more traditional experience - and a bit of bargain bling - plot a course for Central Souk in Sharjah.
The UAE has its fair share of pristine beaches, too, where you can happily laze without fretting about the bank balance.
“My friends and I always go to Kite Beach (in Dubai) when we have nothing to do. It’s amazing to swim and play volleyball on a hot summer morning, and is great to have a picnic at night when the weather gets colder. The best thing about it is that it is free,” Ms Saleh said.
Inside knowledge: top tips from UAE students
Where can I find some cheap eats?
The UAE is home to a rich array of restaurants to suit all tastes, and plenty that fit the bill for those working with a tighter budget.
“I love Uptown Mirdif because I can always find a good place to study and eat there without spending a lot of money,” said Ms Mahmoud.
For curry lovers, the Karama district of the city plays host to a multitude of authentic eateries supplying a rich taste of Indian cuisine for prices that will keep you coming back.
If you are in Sharjah, visiting Muwaileh Road - affectionately known as Karak Road by Sharjah students due to the generous servings of the beloved tea on sale here - should be high up on the to-do list.
This street is packed with restaurants and cafeterias offering a diverse selection of good value food and beverages.
“Karak road is literally our life. On some days we eat all our meals there. Whether we are broke or have money, this is where you will find us,” said Ms Saleh.
“We also regularly go to Matajer in University City. It is a mini mall that has everything we need, especially places to eat or have a coffee and a supermarket.”
“One of the most delicious shawarma sandwiches in Sharjah can be found in Al Laffah restaurant in the city. When we are bored, we get our sandwiches from there and have a mini picnic at Al Qasba beach.”
Get your driver’s licence
This is a particularly good idea for those planning to study in Sharjah and live in Dubai. The cost of regular taxi fares will soon mount up, so getting your own set of wheels is much better for your finances in the long term.
“it was getting tiring and expensive to get to Dubai but everything got easier when I got my licence,” Ms Saleh said.
Cook at home
Constantly eating out or ordering in is not only potentially bad for your health, it is damaging to your finances.
“Start cooking your own meals, it will save you an incredible amount of money. You will gradually start having more money to spend on your hangouts with friends and for shopping,” said Ms Saleh.
Updated: September 25, 2019 09:53 AM