Accessing Healthcare in the UAE: What to Expect in Abu Dhabi and Dubai

A look at the differences and similarities between the two neighboring Emirates

Like the rest of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Abu Dhabi and Dubai have a comprehensive, government-funded health system, regulated by Health Authority Abu Dhabi (HAAD) and Dubai Health Authority (DHA), respectively. They also benefit from a fast-expanding network of modern, state-of-the-art private healthcare facilities. However, the two Emirates differ in terms of the ratio of government to private hospitals. This is 6 to 32 in Dubai, and 14 to 25 in Abu Dhabi.1

Due to higher salaries and better employment conditions, public and private hospitals and medical centers tend to attract most (and presumably the best) of the medical workforce available in the Northern Emirates.2 Together with advanced healthcare infrastructures and access to the latest health technology, this means that the quality of care and services delivered to expats and Emiratis is generally higher in Abu Dhabi and Dubai compared with the rest of the UAE.

But so are medical costs! This is partly due to the fact that Dubai and Abu Dhabi, like all the UAE, are encouraging private healthcare providers to take on a wider role than in the past; it’s a similar strategy to that adopted by many Western countries and those with a fast-rising middle class, such as China. So, for example, a short trip to a private doctor costs on average 208 AED ($56.63*) in Abu Dhabi,3 and 265 AED ($72.14*) in Dubai,4 according to the Expatistan Cost of Living Index.
Treatment is generally free for medical emergency care provided in government-funded hospitals, and any further medical intervention can be costly without health insurance in place. However, some public hospitals have started to accept health insurance cards and bill insurance companies for treatment.5 From 2017, health insurance cards will be accepted by all government hospitals across the Emirate.6

Compulsory health insurance

It is no surprise that health insurance is now mandatory for all citizens and expats in both Emirates. According to a new law, which was introduced in Abu Dhabi in 20087 and in the past two years in Dubai,8 all workers must have a health policy from their employers in place. They are, however, responsible for arranging their dependents’ coverage.9

Employers must provide their employees with at least the minimum level of cover set by the government,10 and any further coverage must be arranged with individual insurance providers. However, the amendments issued in June 2016 by Health Authority Abu Dhabi11 have introduced some differences between the two Emirates.

For example, unlike expat workers living in Dubai, those over 40 years old living in Abu Dhabi can have an optional co-payment of up to 50% of their insurance policy’s premium and are required to pay half of the insurance for their spouse and first three children. They are also required to pay all the policy’s premium for other dependents, such as their mother, father, and fourth child.12

The introduction of mandatory health insurance coverage in Dubai and Abu Dhabi is in line with other areas of the Middle East and many European countries, where working residents are obliged to have qualifying coverage. In the U.S., residents who can afford health insurance but don’t buy it must pay a penalty for any month they don’t have coverage, when they file their annual federal tax return.13

Improving access to healthcare

The DHA states that the general idea is that mandating health insurance coverage will help ensure that all expat and National residents will ultimately have access to high-quality healthcare.14 As the insured population increases, it is also expected that insurance will help reduce government healthcare spending. In the UAE, this is currently around $1,200 per person per year, according to a UAE-US Business Council study.15

The other good news is that compulsory insurance is bound to bring competition among private healthcare providers, which may prove beneficial to the large community of UAE expats who are looking for insurance policies that allow them access to the best hospitals and clinics at lower prices.

What about quality and convenience?

It is generally acknowledged that the quality of healthcare in Dubai and Abu Dhabi is broadly up to the standards of Western countries. But unlike in the U.S. and much of Europe, an often overlooked fact is that both local hospitals and international private medical centers in both Emirates offer the convenience of a wide range of primary care services, in addition to emergency treatment and specialist inpatient and outpatient care.


Consider, too, that a lot of effort is going into ensuring that state-of-the-art hospitals and clinics are built right where communities need them. A recent example is the opening in Abu Dhabi’s Khalifa City, in March 2016, of UAE’s largest private health facility “to answer residents’ need for a local hospital,” said Dr. Bavaguthu Raghuram Shetty, Executive Vice Chairman and CEO of NMC Healthcare, at the inauguration event.16

Value for money

An additional, perhaps unexpected, advantage is that certain surgical operations cost significantly less in UAE emirates such as Abu Dhabi and Dubai than in Western countries.  Speaking to Gulf News, Dr. Raza Siddiqi, Executive Director of the Arabian Healthcare Group, said: “We are able to deliver medical outcomes that are comparable to those in the U.S. and UK at one fourth the price.”17 For example, in the UAE a prostate operation costs between 15,000 AED ($4,084*) and 29,000 AED ($7,896*), compared with 39,000 AED ($10,618*) and 32,000 AED ($8,712*) in the U.S. and the UK, respectively.

And the reason for this, adds Dr. Siddiqi, is quite simple: “In the UK and the U.S., the cost of land, construction, equipment, [non-medical] manpower, and consumables is four-times more expensive compared to this region.”18

The bottom line

If you are thinking of moving to the UAE – Abu Dhabi or Dubai in particular – it’s worth researching both public and private facilities to see which ones can meet you and your family’s basic, specialist, and emergency care needs.

Disclaimer: The information included in this article is provided for information purposes only and it is not intended to constitute professional advice or replace consultation with a qualified medical practitioner.

  1. UAE-US Business Council, The UAE Healthcare sector, June 2014.
  2. The National UAE, Healthcare services are improving in the Northern Emirates, May 2016.
  3. Expatistan Cost of Living Index, The price of short visit to private doctor (15 minutes), September 2016.
  4. Expatistan Cost of Living Index, The price of short visit to private doctor (15 minutes), August 2016.
  5. The National/UAE, All health insurance cards to be accepted by federal hospitals in 2017, July 14, 2016.
  6. The National/UAE, All health insurance cards to be accepted by federal hospitals in 2017, July 14, 2016.
  7. The Telegraph, Expat guide to the UAE: Health care, September 2010.
  8. Gulf News, Dubai makes health insurance compulsory, November 2013.
  9. Insurance System for Advancing Healthcare in Dubai (ISAHD), Frequently asked questions, 2014.
  10. Dubai Health Authority (DHA), Health insurance law of Dubai, July 2015.
  11. Dubai Health Authority (DHA), Health insurance law of Dubai, July 2015.
  12. Health Authority Abu Dhabi (HAAD), Health Insurance Amendments 2016, June 2016.
  13. (Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services), If you don’t have health insurance: how much you’ll pay.
  14. Dubai Health Authority (DHA), Health insurance law of Dubai, July 2015.
  15. UAE-US Business Council, The UAE Healthcare sector, June 2014.
  16. WAM Emirates News Agency, NMC Royal Hospital opens in Abu Dhabi, March 2016.
  17. Gulf News, UAE gives patient value for money, April 2015.
  18. Gulf News, UAE gives patient value for money, April 2015.

*Based on September 2016 exchange rates.