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Quick Facts
CapitalAbu Dhabi
Governmentfederation with specified powers delegated to the UAE federal government and other powers reserved to member emirates
CurrencyEmirati dirham (AED)
Areatotal: 82,880 sq km
land: 82,880 sq km
water: 0 sq km
Population2,445,989
note: includes 1,576,472 non-nationals (July 2002 est.)
LanguageArabic (official), Persian, English, Hindi, Urdu
ReligionMuslim 96% (Shi'a 16%), Christian, Hindu, and other 4%

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.

Regions

The seven emirates (imarat, singular - imarah) that make up the UAE are:

  • Abu Dhabi (Abu Zaby)
  • 'Ajman
  • Fujairah (Al Fujayrah)
  • Sharjah (Ash Shariqah)
  • Dubai (Dubayy)
  • Ra's al Khaymah
  • Umm al Quwain

The largest and wealthiest of these is Abu Dhabi, while probably the most well known is Dubai.

Cities

  • Abu Dhabi - The capital of the UAE
  • Dubai - The most common entry point for travelers, it is the transport and commerce center of the UAE.
  • Sharjah - A more budget destination, dusty and chaotic in places but with some charms.
  • Al Ain - Inland and close to the Omani bordertown of Buraimi, Al Ain comprises a triangle between the proper cities of Abu Dhabi and Dubai.
  • Ajman - The smallest emirate, One of The Budget destinations.

Understand

The United Arab Emirates is a modern and dynamic country. It is an advanced and clean country for its supporters or a tourist "Disneyland" that lost its Arab roots for its detractors, or perhaps a bit of both.

The UAE is more conservative than most Western societies, though not as conservative 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 travellers will find most of the UAE quite comfortable.

Although women are not required to wear a veil, most revealing fashions should be avoided. However, there are quite a few tourist or expatriate-dominated zones where even "provocative" dress is accepted. These include many areas of the Emirate of Dubai and, for example, beach resorts in Ajman or Fujariah. 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).

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). Alcohol is widely available at many restaurats and bars in Dubai and in the tourist hotels of every other emirate save Sharjah. The roads and other public facilities are modern if, at times, extremely crowded. Supermarkets offer a vast assortment of products from the U.S. and Europe, mainly from the U.K., along with, of course, local and regional items. Major international chains (nearly all from the U.S.) such as McDonald's or KFC operate widely. On the other hand, there are still crowded traditional souks filled with products from around the world, rug stores, or other traditional areas. These can feel be hard to find for the average traveller, as the malls tend to gain an overwhelming amount of attention.

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. Virtually any cuisine is available, and by Western standards most restaurants are quite affordable although it is easy to find extremely expensive food, too. Transportation can be something of a problem, as there is only rudimentary public transportation. This is changing in Dubai, which is planning an extensive monorail and train system, but the other emirates offer very little public transportation.

The main focus of tourst life 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.

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. A visitor is not restricted in water use in any way. The weather from late October through mid-March is quite pleasant, with high temperatures ranging from the upper-20s C (mid-80s F) to lows in the mid-teens C (low 60s F). It is almost always sunny. In the summer, the temperatures soar. (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 higher).

The population is incredibly diverse. Only some 20% of the population of the Emirates is from the Emirates; the rest come from the Subcontinent, Indian or Pakistan or Bangladesh, (some 50%); the rest of Asia, particularly the Philippines or Malaysia (another perhaps 15%); and British, European, Australians or Americans (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 the language is widely spoken, particularly in the hospitality industry. On the other hand, there are elements that would be jarring for overseas travellers, such as fully veiled women.

Renting a car or driving in the UAE requires only a license from the U.S. or Europe, and car rentals are standard priced. 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.

The Emirates are not gay-friendly, and any flagrant same-sex behavior will be punished. 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, such as, for example holding each other's hands. Such behavior by outsiders, though, (particularly men) would probably draw unwelcome attention.

The weekend in the the U.A.E. for government and many public services the weekend starts on Thursday and ends with Friday; for many, Thursday may be a half day. Many companies, especially those doing business with the rest of the world, have a Friday, Saturday weekend. Saturday and Sunday are normal work days. In nearly every city, commercial activity will be muted on Friday mornings, but by Friday afternoon most businesses have opened and Friday evenings can be crowded.

The Emirates is a federation, and as a result an Emir (a Sheik or Prince) can radically affect the way of life in his respective Emirate. For example, the Emir of Dubai is very modern, so Dubai is forward-thinking and modern. The emirs of Ajman and Sharjah are more conservative, thus the rules are more strict concerning religion, alcohol, drugs and general living conditions.

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 westerners do not understand that, say, too-revealing clothing can be quite offensive to some peoples.) Their culture is unique and can be highly traditional, but overall they are quite attuned to the ways, customs, events, media, and manners of the outside world.

Get in

Visas and Documentation

Citizens from different countries will have different requirements for entry into the UAE via Dubai.

If you are a citizen of one of these countries listed below, you do not need to apply for a visa in advance of travel - a visit visa is stamped directly in your passport by Immigration officials at the port of entry, and is valid for 60 days.

Countries eligible for visa on arrival:

Australia, Andorra, Austria, Brunei, Belgium, Canada, 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, United States of America and the Vatican.

Holders of British overseas passports issued in Hong Kong or China can obtain a visa on arrival at Dubai Airport.

GCC residents can also visit Dubai without applying in advance for a visa.

By plane

The main hub for air transport in the United Arab Emirates is Dubai, which is served by several major airlines, most notably Dubai-based Johannesburg, London, Sydney,Melbourne, Riyadh, Bombay, Hong Kong, Paris, Zurich, Frankfurt, New York City and most major cities in Europe, Asia, Australasia and Africa.

By car

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.

By boat

There is a large network of Dhows which transport goods throughout the Gulf region and as far away as Tanzania 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.

There are also ferry services between Iran and the UAE, notably between Bandar Abbas and Dubai, Ras Al Khaimah and Abu Dhabi.

Get around

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 safe and in good condition; however, signage is poor in some emirates (namely Sharjah).

There are now some good local city maps, particularly for Dubai (the Explorer series of books). Sharjah remains poorly mapped; however, 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 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. People in the UAE drive extremely fast and some are completely reckless: overtaking by the right is the rule, speed limits are ignored by all - including heavy trucks. Last-second line change seems to be a national sport.

However, compared to other countries of the region, UAE drivers are exemplary. Just be careful when you spot a tinted-window SUV at night: due to the black windows, the driver won't see you if 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 (the local license test is a joke) and fast driving.

Talk

The official language is Arabic, but it is safe to say that the majority of the population doesn't speak it (Indian, Asian and Western expatriates are now more numerous than Arabs in Dubai, and usually have very limited knowledge of Arabic). English is the lingua franca.

Other languages widely spoken in the UAE include: English, Hindi, Urdu, Phillipino and Farsi. 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 the Northern Emirates Arabic is much more widely spoken.

Buy

One of the things UAE is most famous for is shopping. There are no sales taxes in the UAE. If you are interested in shopping, you can't leave UAE without visiting Dubai. Dubai boasts the best places for shopping in the whole of the Middle East, if not the world, especially during the annual shopping festival, from mid-January to mid-February.

The currency is the Emirati dirham (AED). Conversion rates are 3.65 AED for 1 USD and 4.5 AED for 1 EUR. The Dirham is pegged on the USD, so rate variations with this currency are unlikely.

Basic commodities tend to be cheaper than in most western countries. However, hotels rates are not, and basically all things touristic tend to align themselves with western tariffs. Rents in Dubai are starting to compete with cities like Paris or London, and other prices tend to follow.

Sleep

The UAE has a full range of accommodations. There are several hostels, quite a few midrange hotels, and a remarkable number of pleasant beach resorts. (However, hotels in Dubai can be gathering grounds for prostitutes, and a bit of research should be done before purchase.) There is an impressive number of super-luxury hotels, most notably the world's only (self-proclaimed) seven star hotel, the Burj al-Arab (Tower of Arabia). Significant discounts can be obtained if the booking is made through a local corporation.

Stay safe

The crime rate is extremely low in the United Arab Emirates, so there is nothing in particular to be concerned about, just be vigilant

Stay healthy

The water is safe to drink in the UAE and 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. The country is free of malaria and prophylaxis is not needed.

The food is clean and in most restaurants is served to Western standards, particularly in tourist areas.

The heat in summer can reach 50 degrees C, so avoid outdoors activity at the height of the day and watch for signs of heat stroke. 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 a complete lack of handicapped-friendly bathrooms.

Contact

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-#0-### ####

Where #0 designates the municipality. Key municipalities include Dubai (040), Sharjah (060), and calls to cell phones (050). Like other counties, the initial 0 is removed from an area code when calling from outside the country.