United Arab Emirates
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 seven emirates (imarat, singular - imarah) that make up the UAE are:
The United Arab Emirates is a modern and dynamic country. To some, it is an advanced and clean country, to others a tourist "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). Alcohol is widely available at many restaurants and bars in Dubai and in the tourist hotels of every other emirate save Sharjah. However, you must obtain a liquor license (US$50) in order to buy a full bottle at a liquor store. The liquor license is proof that the bearer is a non-Muslim. A passport will not suffice. However, you can purchase liquor duty-free at the airport to bring into the UAE.
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 such as Ikea and Carrefour have a presence and fast-food 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 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 (pronounced: "shake")--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 modern. The ruling sheikhs of Ajman and Sharjah are more conservative, thus the rules are more strict concerning religion, alcohol, drugs and general living conditions.
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--India, Pakistan, or Bangladesh (some 50%); other parts of Asia, particularly the Philippines, Malaysia, and Sri Lanka (another perhaps 15%); and "Western" countries (UK, Europe, Australia, USA, 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 the language is widely spoken, particularly in the hospitality industry. On the other hand, there are elements that would be jarring for overseas travelers, such as fully veiled women.
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 8 AM to 2 PM 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 8 PM 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.
Citizens of most industrialized countries as well as all Gulf Cooperation Council countries will receive a 60-day visa on arrival in the United Arab Emirates. The precise list:
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 (including HK/China overseas passports), United States of America and the Vatican.
Several other countries are eligible for free hotel/tour-sponsored tourism visas, see UAE Immigration  for the latest details.
Israeli citizens are banned by the UAE government from entering the country. Despite much online misinformation to the contrary, Israeli visa stamps are usually quietly ignored.
The main hub for air transport in the United Arab Emirates is Dubai, which is served by several major airlines, most notably Dubai-based Emirates Airline. Direct flights connect Dubai to Johannesburg, London, Sydney,Melbourne,Karachi,Tehran,Riyadh, Bombay, Hong Kong, Paris, Zurich, Frankfurt, New York City and most major cities in Europe, Asia, Australasia and Africa. Etihad Airlines now offers direct flights from New York City (JFK) to Abu Dhabi. British Airways also offers direct flights from London (Heathrow) to Abu Dhabi.
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.
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 used to be poor in some emirates.
By public transport
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.
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. Renting a VW Golf/Rabbit in November 2006 cost US$50 per day. Mileage is not charged. 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 (the local license test is a joke) and fast driving.
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.
Other languages widely spoken in the UAE include Farsi (Persian), Hindi/Urdu (Hindustani), Malayalam, 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 meters and using 6000 tons of snow. Ski Dubai resort is the first UAE indoor ski slope to open (www.skidubai.com), although others 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 on 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 to ranking as the 25th most expensive city in which to live; 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, this means it is unlikely that prices will come down. All things touristic 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 skyrocketing. 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 liquor 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 liquor license (never asked for in bars) which also allows you to buy alcohol at liquor 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 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.
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 too-revealing clothing can be quite offensive to some peoples, even if nothing is said to the offenders.) 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 world.
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 travelers will find most of the UAE quite comfortable.
Although women are not required to wear a burka, 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. Many Arab and Asian men show physical affection by holding hands with one another as a sign of friendship. Such behavior by Westerners though (particularly men) would probably draw unwelcome attention. It is considered rude for men and women to hold hands.
The crime rate is extremely low in the United Arab Emirates, although of course one must use common sense.
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, for example, codeine. Don't bring any with you unless you carry a copy of your prescription. People have received jail sentences for making this mistake. 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 another country.
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 hours a day. 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, Welcare Hospital and American Hospital are your best bets (pay the extra 300dhs to the ambulance drivers to take you to one of these hospitals in Dubai; it may save your life). The country is free of malaria and prophylaxis is not needed.
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 good sense.
The heat in summer can reach 50 degrees C (122 degrees F), so avoid outdoors activity at the height of the day and watch 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.
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) 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 cafes are fairly common in the larger cities, and web censorship is at times odd but rarely obtrusive. 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. They also appear 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.