The United Arab Emirates is a federation of seven emirates on the eastern side of the Arabian peninsula, at the entrance to the Persian Gulf. It has coastlines on the Gulf of Oman and the Persian Gulf, with Saudi Arabia to the west and southwest, and Oman to the southeast and also on the eastern tip of the Musandam Peninsula as well as an Omani enclave within its borders. It is a country rich in history and culture and an easy starting point for travels in the Middle East.
The United Arab Emirates is a modern and dynamic country. To some, it is an advanced and clean country, to others a touristy "Disneyland".
For most Western tourists, the UAE offers an environment that is extremely familiar. The malls are extraordinarily modern, filled with virtually any product available in the West (save sexually explicit material; movies are censored, as are, to some extent, magazines). The less well known side of the UAE includes remote, magnificent desert dunes on the edge of the Empty Quarter and craggy, awe-inspiring wadis in the north-east bordering Oman.
Alcohol is widely available at many restaurants and bars in Dubai and in the tourist hotels of every other emirate save Sharjah. There is a legal but roundly overlooked requirement to have a licence to buy alcohol. The alcohol license is proof that the bearer is a non-Muslim. A passport will not suffice. However, you can purchase alcohol duty-free at the airport to bring into the UAE. Sharjah emirate is completely dry. An alcohol license is required in the emirates of Dubai, Abu Dhabi, and Ajman; the remaining emirates of Ras Al Khaimah, Fujairah, and Umm al Quwain do not require any type of license. The requirement is sometimes overlooked at certain stores.
The roads and other public facilities are modern if, at times, extremely crowded. Supermarkets offer a vast assortment of products from Europe and the U.S., depending on the shop, along with local and regional items. Major international chains such as Ikea and Carrefour have a presence and fast-food chains (nearly all from the U.S.) such as McDonald's and KFC operate widely. On the other hand, there are still a few crowded traditional souks filled with products from around the world, rug stores. These can be hard to find for the average traveler, as the malls tend to gain an overwhelming amount of attention. (Please note that contrary to what is printed in guidebooks, the souks in Abu Dhabi were torn down in 2006 and no longer exist. The souks in Dubai are still wonderful to explore, though).
The Emirates is a federation of seven emirates, and as a result the rulers--or Sheikhs--of each emirate can radically affect the way of life in his respective Emirate. For example, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashed al-Maktoum of Dubai is very modern, so Dubai is forward-thinking and cosmopolitan. The ruling sheikhs of Ajman and Sharjah are more conservative, thus the rules there are more strict concerning religion, alcohol, drugs and general living conditions.
The United Arab Emirates is a federation of seven different emirates, each with its own king (or Sheikh). Each emirate retains considerable autonomy, most notably over oil revenues. In theory, the President and Prime Minister are elected by the Supreme Council, which is composed of the kings of each of the seven emirates. However, in practice, the king of Abu Dhabi is always elected President while the king of Dubai is always elected Prime Minister, making the posts de facto hereditary.
The country is extraordinarily dry, getting only a few days of rain a year. Despite that, Emiratis use water at an alarming rate: there are broad swaths of grass in the major public parks, for example, and landscaping can be extensive in the resorts or other public places. The majority of this water comes from desalinisation. Visitors do not pay for their water use. The weather from late October through mid-March is quite pleasant, with high temperatures ranging from around 27°C ( 85°F) to lows around 15°C ( 63°F). It is almost always sunny. Rain can happen between November and February, and can cause road hazards when it does. In the summer, the temperatures soar and humidity is close to unbearable — it is widely suspected that the officially reported temperatures are "tweaked" to cut off the true summer highs, which can reach 50°C, or around 120°F, or even higher!
The population is incredibly diverse. Only some 20% of the population of the Emirates are 'real' Emiratis; the rest come from the Indian Subcontinent: India, Pakistan, or Bangladesh (some 50%); other parts of Asia, particularly the Philippines, Malaysia, and Sri Lanka (another perhaps 15%); and "Western" countries (Europe, Australia, North America, South Africa; 5-6%), with the remainder from everywhere else. On any given day in, say, Dubai or Sharjah, you can see people from every continent and every social class. With this diversity, one of the few unifying factors is language, and consequently nearly everyone speaks some version of English. Nearly all road or other information signs are in English and Arabic, and English is widely spoken, particularly in the hospitality industry. On the other hand, there are elements that would be unsettling for overseas travelers, such as fully veiled women, but as this is "their way", tourists should show respect and will be offered the same in turn.
The festival of Eid ul-Fitr is held after the end of Ramadan and may last several days. Exact dates depend on astronomical observations and may vary from country to country.
The weekend in the the U.A.E. for most government and public services as well as businesses runs from Friday to Saturday; for many, Thursday may be a half day (although most often work all day Saturdays). In nearly every city, commercial activity will be muted on Friday mornings, but after the noon services at the mosques most businesses open and Friday evenings can be crowded.
The major exception is during the fasting month of Ramadan, when the rhythm of life changes drastically. Restaurants (outside tourist hotels) stay closed during the daylight hours, and while most offices and shops open in the morning from 8AM to 2PM or so, they usually close in the afternoon while people wait (or sleep) out the last hours of the fast. After sundown, people gather to break their fast with a meal known as iftar, often held in outdoor tents (not uncommonly air-conditioned in the UAE!), which traditionally starts with dates and a sweet drink. Some offices reopen after 8PM or so and stay open well after midnight, as many people stay up late until the morning hours. Just before sunrise, a meal called sohoor is eaten, and then the cycle repeats again.
The seven emirates (imarat, singular - imarah) that make up the UAE are:
The largest of these by far is Abu Dhabi, while probably the most well known is Dubai.
Citizens of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) do not require a visa.
Citizens of most industrialized countries will receive a 30-day visa on arrival in the United Arab Emirates free of charge. This can be extended for up to 90 days after arrival for a fee of Dhs 500. The countries are listed below:
Australia, Andorra, Austria, Brunei, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hong Kong, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Malaysia, Monaco, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, San Marino, Singapore, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, United Kingdom (except BN(O) passports), United States of America and the Vatican City.
Several other countries are eligible for free hotel/tour-sponsored tourism visas. See UAE Interact for the latest details.
All other nationalities will be required to apply for a visa in advance, which will require a sponsor from inside the UAE. Your travel agent will usually be able or arrange this for you if you book your hotel through them.
Israeli citizens are banned by the UAE government from entering the country. However, despite much online misinformation to the contrary, as of 2008 Israeli visa stamps are — by official policy — quietly ignored.
If you are traveling from India (not sure of procedure from other countries), please get a stamp of 'OK to Board'. Most of the times, it is arranged by your travel agent. In case he hasn't then as soon as you get your Visa; take your Visa, Passport and Ticket to your Airlines office and get the stamp of 'OK to board'. Without this you might not be allowed to travel to UAE.
Each non-muslim adult can bring in four items of alcohol , eg four bottles of wine, or four bottles of spirits, or four cases of beer (regardless of alcohol content).
The UAE takes an infamously strict line on medicines, with many common drugs, notably anything with containing codeine, diazepam (Valium) or dextromethorphan (Robitussin) being banned unless you have a notarized and authenticated doctor's prescription. Visitors breaking the rules, even inadvertently, have found themselves deported or jailed. The US Embassy to the UAE maintains an unofficial list of what may not be imported.
Don't even think about bringing in narcotics: possession of even trace amounts leads to a minimum of four years in jail.
The main hub for air transport in the United Arab Emirates is Dubai airport, which is served by several major airlines, most notably Dubai-based Emirates . Direct flights connect Dubai to Johannesburg, London, Sydney, Melbourne, Karachi, Tehran, Riyadh, Bombay, Hong Kong, Paris, Zurich, Frankfurt, Madrid, New York City, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Toronto, São Paulo and many other major cities in Europe, Asia, Australasia and Africa.
After Dubai, the airport at Abu Dhabi has the next best international connections. Abu Dhabi-based Etihad Airways now offers direct flights from New York, Toronto and many other airports in Europe and Asia. Other major airlines serving Abu Dhabi include British Airways from London-Heathrow, KLM from Amsterdam, Lufthansa from Frankfurt and Singapore Airlines from Singapore and Jeddah.
For low-cost flights, Air Arabia has set up a hub at Sharjah airport (which is very close to Dubai), and flies there from many cities in the Middle East and India.
There is road access to the United Arab Emirates from Saudi Arabia in the south and Oman in the east. All highways in the UAE are in excellent condition, but there is a huge amount of traffic between Sharjah and Dubai, as well as a 4 AED charge to cross the Salik toll gate. A prepaid license card is required for this.
There is a large network of dhows which transport goods throughout the Gulf and India. It may be possible to buy passage on one of these boats. They call at all coastal cities in the UAE, including Dubai and Abu Dhabi.
Distances in the UAE are relatively short and no rail service exists for the moment, so getting around by road is the only way to go. The roads are generally in excellent condition; however, signage is poor in some of the emirates.
Public transportation within cities remains rudimentary. Dubai is building an extensive monorail and train system, but the other emirates offer very little public transportation. Intercity bus services are fast, comfortable and reasonably frequent.
In the cities of Dubai, Abu Dhabi, and Sharjah, taxis are widely available. They are relatively cheap in Abu Dhabi and Sharjah. A ride to anywhere within the city of Abu Dhabi will cost approximately US$2, as they charge solely by distance traveled. A night surcharge of US$3 may be added after 10PM, depending on your driver.
The UAE has a modern road system. Renting a car or driving in the UAE requires an international driver's license, which is simply a translation of your standard license and can be acquired at a local automobile association. If you have UAE residency status, you must obtain a local driver's license. This can be a simple process that must be completed at their version of the Department of Motor Vehicles and can be done in 20 minutes, but only if you are from a specific list of countries (predominantly Western). If you are from an Asian country, you currently have to undergo 40 classes at a local driving school and get through a pretty tough license exam. This is changing, though, and it may apply to all nationalities soon. Car rentals are slightly cheaper than in the U.S. There is a flat fee per day for renting a car, which is based upon the car's size. Petrol (gasoline) is, by the standards of both the U.S. and Europe, inexpensive. The road system is based along British or European standards, with a plethora of roundabouts and highly channelized traffic. But the signs are readily understandable and are, in most places, clear and coherent. Drivers in the UAE, particularly in the urban areas, tend to be highly aggressive and often use tactics that range from the stupid to the disastrous. This may perhaps stem from the traffic, which can be extremely congested in the urban areas, or from other factors.
People in the UAE drive extremely fast and some are completely reckless: overtaking by the right is the rule, speed limits are ignored by many--including heavy trucks. Last-second line change seems to be a national sport. The UAE has the third-highest death rate from traffic accidents in the world (just behind Saudi and Oman). Be especially careful when you spot a tinted-window SUV at night: due to the black windows, the driver won't see you if s/he decides to change lanes. Theoretically forbidden, the practice of tinting windows over 30% is widespread among young Arabs, and is generally associated with poor driving skills and fast driving.
Note that by law, any accident between a local and a foreigner is always considered to be the fault of the foreigner, regardless of whose fault it actually is.
There are now some good local city maps, particularly for Dubai (the Explorer series of books). Be aware that construction is on-going, sometimes rapidly changing the road networks, so maps capture only a "point in time." Sharjah remains poorly mapped. Recently a web site (http://www.ae.map24.com/) offered the first decent online maps of the UAE. Google Earth does offer solid satellite pictures but at a level of detail good mainly for broad reference purposes. The lack of good map or signage makes the use of a compass or GPS sometimes useful if you want to get off the highway.
Desert safaris or "wadi bashing" are good attractions in the vicinity of Dubai, but great care needs to be taken while choosing a hired vehicle; it should be a 4WD. Desert safaris are also generally pre-designed with travel agents and can give you good deal as well on quantity.
The official language is Arabic, but it is safe to say that the majority of the population doesn't speak it (Iranian, Indian, Asian and Western expatriates are more numerous than Arabs in Dubai, and usually have very limited knowledge of Arabic). English is the lingua franca. As the UAE was a British protectorate, most locals would have learnt English in school and would know at least basic English.
Other languages widely spoken in the UAE include Hindustani (Hindi & Urdu), Malayalam/Tamil, Farsi (Persian), and Tagalog (Filipino). Most people possess at least a basic command of English, though it is not uncommon to meet people whose English is limited.
In Dubai, most shops, hotels, and commercial businesses conduct business in English. Generally speaking, Arabic is spoken by government departments and the police; however, in Abu Dhabi and in the Northern Emirates, Arabic is much more widely spoken.
One of the main focuses of tourist life (other than shopping) is the beach. The waters of the UAE, although definitely more cloudy in recent years due to heavy coastal construction, are still, for those from less torrid climes, remarkably warm, clean, and beautiful. There are long stretches of white-sand beaches, ranging from completely undeveloped to highly touristed (even in cities like Dubai). The snorkeling and diving can be magnificent, especially along the eastern (Indian Ocean) coast. Vast swaths of desert stretch to the south of the major urban areas, offering dramatic views and terrifying rides in fast-driven safaris. The mountains are dramatic, steep rocky crags, and a visit to them (for example, the town of Hatta) is well rewarded with amazing views. Women wearing bathing suits will draw unwanted attention at the public beaches; it is advisable to pay for a one-day entry pass to a private beach at a hotel.
Ski Dubai in Dubai Emirates Mall opened in December 2005. It is the world's third largest indoor ski slope, measuring 400 metres and using 6000 tons of snow. Ski Dubai resort is the first UAE indoor ski slope to open, and more are planned. No equipment is needed--skis/snowboards, snowsuits, boots and socks are all included in the price (the socks are disposable). You may want to buy a cheap pair of glove liners and a hat from their souvenir store.
The Marina Mall in Abu Dhabi is scheduled to open an indoor ski slope as well in 2007 - 2008. A ski slope in Ra's al Khaimah is also in the works.
The currency is the United Arab Emirates dirham (AED, local abbreviation dhs). Conversion rates are 3.68 AED for 1 USD, 4.5 AED for 1 EUR and 6.8 AED for 1 GBP. The Dirham is pegged to the USD, so rate variations with this currency are unlikely. Notes are in denominations of 5, 10, 20, 50, 100, 200, 500, and 1,000 dirhams. There is a one dirham coin with sub-units of 25 and 50 fils coins (100 fils = 1 dirham). There are 5 fils and 10 fils coins but these are rarely seen (and provide an excuse for traders to 'short change').
Cash and travellers' cheques can be changed at exchanges located at the airports or in all the major shopping malls. ATMs are numerous and generously distributed. They accept all the major chain cards: Visa, Cirrus, Maestro etc. Credit cards are widely accepted.
Basic commodities used to be cheaper than in most western countries, although this is changing rapidly (Dubai has moved up the ranking to be the 25th most expensive city to live in; Abu Dhabi is close behind). Hotels rates are not cheap--there is a shortage of hotel rooms available, especially in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, which keeps the hotels often at above 90% occupancy. Vast numbers of new hotels are scheduled to come on line during the next five to ten years, but as tourism is on the rise, it is unlikely that prices will come down. All things touristy also tend to be rather expensive. Rents in Dubai are starting to compete with cities like Paris or London, and other prices tend to follow. Some places have shared accommodations available and are quite reasonable.
One of the things the UAE is most famous for is shopping. There are no sales taxes in the UAE, but it is very difficult to find any real bargains anymore as inflation is at an all-time high. If you are interested in shopping, you can't leave the UAE without visiting Dubai. Dubai boasts the best places for shopping in the whole of the Middle East, especially during the annual shopping festival, usually from mid-January to mid-February.
Dubai and, to a lesser extent, Abu Dhabi offer a vast spread of food from most of the world's major cuisines. By Western standards most restaurants are quite affordable although it is easy to find extremely expensive food too. Traditional Shawarma and other Arabic cuisines are readily available and are quite cheap and delicious with medium spicy flavour, with controlled calories. Grilled chickens are available at most of the hotels on the road which can be relished with other accompaniments like Khubz (Arabic Bread), hummus, etc.
Dubai has a burgeoning nightlife scene and even formerly straitlaced Abu Dhabi has loosened up and tried to catch up. Alcohol is available in alcohol stores, 5-star hotel restaurants and bars in all emirates except Sharjah, where you can only drink in your home or in an expat hangout called the Sharjah Wanderers. As a tourist, you are permitted to buy alcohol in bars and restaurants to drink there. If you are a resident, you're supposed to have a alcohol license (never asked for in bars) which also allows you to buy alcohol at alcohol stores (they do check).
During Ramadan, no alcohol is served during daylight (fasting) hours. Dubai and Abu Dhabi permit bars to serve alcohol at night, but bands stop playing, background music is off or quiet, no dancing is allowed and nightclubs are usually closed. On certain holy days in the Islamic calendar, no alcohol is served publicly in any of the UAE.
Do not under any circumstance drink and drive in the UAE. If by chance you are in an accident, this becomes a card for going directly to jail — especially during Ramadan. Taxis are widely available if you have been drinking and are a much safer and wiser option given the insane driving habits in the region.
For the visitor, the UAE has one of the most spectacular ranges of tourist accommodations in the world. There are staggeringly beautiful, modern hotels, which can be staggeringly expensive, along with more modest housing. Low-cost accommodations are available but, as anywhere, vary alarmingly as to their condition.
There is an impressive number of super-luxury hotels, most notably the sail-shaped Burj al-Arab (Tower of the Arabs), a Dubai landmark popularly known as a "7-star hotel" — a nonexistent category, but still opulent by any standard. The Emirates Palace in Abu Dhabi also aspires to the same standards, at a fraction of the price.
The crime rate is extremely low in the United Arab Emirates, although of course one must use common sense.
There are a couple of things you should be aware of are to do with drug laws in the UAE. Some common painkillers in western countries are illegal narcotics in the UAE like codeine. Don't bring any with you unless you carry a copy of your prescription or you may join others who have received jail sentences. In contrast, antibiotics are freely available over the counter at pharmacies. If you receive a prescription for controlled drugs in the UAE, such as some painkillers and antidepressents, be sure to keep the copy of the prescription with you when traveling out of the country.
Another trap for the unwary is that if you are suspected of being under the influence of drugs or alcohol, a blood test can be taken, and if it shows evidence of substances that are illegal in the UAE, then you will probably end up in jail even if the substances were ingested in the country that you were previously in. In addition to testing your blood, they will likely check your belongings. People have been jailed for possession for finding microscopic specks of drugs on them with highly sensitive equipment. Considering that most US currency and the currency of many other nations has been shown to be tainted with microscopic amounts of cocaine, the only thing you can do to keep yourself out of jail is to avoid appearing suspicious in the first place.
General medical care in Dubai, Abu Dhabi, and Sharjah is quite good, with clinics for general and specialized care widely available, including some which are now open 24 h. Hospitals in the major centers are well-equipped to deal with any medical emergencies. There is an ambulance system in all major population centres; however, coverage can be patchy in the more remote areas. Ambulances are designed for transportation rather than providing care as first responders, so don't expect top-flight on-site care. The main government hospital in Abu Dhabi is quite good; in Dubai, The government hospitals are Rashid hospital, which has a new Trauma Centre and Dubai Hospital which are very good. Welcare Hospital American Hospital Zulekha Hospital NMC Hospital, and Belhoul Hospital in the private sector all have a good reputation. The country is free of malaria and prophylaxis is not needed. In Sharjah, the Kuwaiti (Goverrnment) Hospital accepts expatriates. The private hospitals in Sharjah are the Zahra hospital, Zulekha Hospital and Central Private Hospital. Prices including healthcare are generally cheaper in Sharjah and although all hospitals meet the Ministry of Health standards the Central Private Hospital and Zulekha Hospitals are considered more affordable.These are your best bets (pay extra to the ambulance or taxi drivers to take you to one of these hospitals in UAE); it may save your life.
The water is safe to drink in the UAE, although most people prefer bottled water for its taste. The food is clean and in most restaurants is served to Western standards, particularly in tourist areas; however, hygeine can be an issue in some establishments outside, particularly roadside stalls. That said, food poisoning does happen, so use your common sense!
The heat in summer can reach 50°C (122°F), so avoid outdoors activity at the height of the day and watch out for signs of heat stroke. Be sure to drink lots of water as dehydration happens easily in such heat. If travelling off road (most of the country is desert), ensure you carry sufficient water to allow you to walk to the road should vehicles become bogged.
Although the UAE is somewhat more accommodating to handicapped travellers than other countries in the Mideast, it would nonetheless be a difficult country to navigate in a wheelchair. Curbs are high and there are few, if any, ramps or other accommodations. This includes an almost complete lack of handicapped-friendly bathrooms.
Emiratis are a proud but welcoming people and, when not in their cars, are generally extremely civil and friendly. Like most peoples of the world, they welcome visitors who are willing to show some amount of respect and can be extremely generous. (Some expats and visitors do not understand that revealing clothing can be quite offensive to some people, even if nothing is said to the offenders.) Their culture is unique and can be highly conservative, but overall they are quite attuned to the ways, customs, events, media, and manners of the world.
Local men usually wear a "Kandora", a white robe and a head gear. Local women wear a black robe and a black head scarf
The UAE is more conservative than most Western societies, though not as much as some of its neighbors. Travelers should be aware and respect the more traditional outlook in the UAE, as there are behaviors typical in the West (for example, making "rude and insulting gestures") that will result in arrest in the UAE. On the other hand, Western travelers will find most of the UAE quite comfortable.
Although women are not legally required to wear the hijab, most revealing fashions such as tank tops and shorts should be avoided. Below-the-knee skirts are somewhat more acceptable, although you will still incur stares. However, there are quite a few tourist or expatriate-dominated zones where even "provocative" dress may be seen, although not necessary respected. These include many areas of the Emirate of Dubai and, for example, beach resorts in Ajman or Fujairah. Public nudity anywhere is strictly forbidden and will be punished. Sharjah is the most conservative of the Emirates with public decency statutes (i.e., forbidding overly revealing clothing or certain kinds of beach wear), but few of them are enforced (although that varies).
The Emirates are not gay-friendly, and consensual homosexual activity is potentially subject to the death penalty. However, discretion is the key: like many things in Emirati society, what happens behind closed doors is - well - what happens. On the other hand, it is not uncommon for Emirati men or women to show physical affection--Emirati men often kiss one another's noses in greeting and women greet one another with cheek kisses and may hold hands or link arms.
The country code is 971. The mobile phone network uses the GSM technology (as in Europe and Africa) and use is widespread. There are internet cafes in the major towns. The format for dialing is: +971-#-### ####, where the first "#" designates the area code. Key area codes include Dubai (4), Sharjah (6) and Abu Dhabi (2). Calls to mobile phones use the operator's area codes: (50/56) for Etisalat and (55) for Du. Like other countries, when dialing locally, "00" is used to access an international number (and followed by the country code) and "0" is used to access a national number (followed by the area code).
Internet cafés are fairly common in the larger cities, and web censorship is at times odd but rarely obtrusive. Users should be well aware of the fact that any website that contains the Israeli domain .il is blocked. Not much information is known of how to bypass this blocking for people who need to visit Israeli websites. Instant messaging and voice-over-IP services like Skype sometimes work. The government owned telecommunications operator blocks access to these services to varying degrees. The blocking does not always stop calls and may vary depending on the network used. It also appears to be able to block Skypeout calls whilst allowing Skype-Skype calls. Even if the services are not blocked, connection speed can be an issue.
Most people use a VPN Service to bypass local Internet restrictions in UAE.