Miles of desolate sand dunes meet the turquoise waters of the Persian Gulf in the United Arab Emirates. Where the two meet, you’ll find the sci-fi landscapes of Dubai and Abu-Dhabi with glittering, city-sized shopping malls, skyscrapers and man-made islands. Many stop to marvel at the other-worldliness of these mega-cities. But don’t—the country has a lot more to offer as you’ll learn in this insider guide to the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
Located on the Arabian Peninsula in the Middle East, the country is actually a federation of seven emirates, each governed by an absolute monarch called a sheikh. Together, they make up the United Arab Emirates, a country of some 9 million people, the majority of whom are ex-pats. The UAE is bordered by Saudi Arabia to the south and Oman to the east. Qatar and Iran are across the Persian Gulf to the west and north, respectively. In terms of size, the UAE is about the size of Idaho.
Arabic is the official language of the UAE. However, in Abu Dhabi and Dubai, English is widely utilized in spoken and written form. The further away from these cities you get, Arabic will become the norm. Learning a few key phrases will be helpful if you plan to explore the desert or mountains.
Money and Tipping
The UAE dirham is the official currency. Credit cards are widely accepted in urban areas, but you’ll probably need cash if you plan to shop in the souks. Exchange cash or withdraw money using an ATM card at a Bureau de Change location, which usually offer better rates than banks.
Tipping is not expected, but it is appreciated in restaurants and hotels. Many high-end restaurants will add a 16 percent service fee, and it will be denoted on your bill. If the fee is not included and you received excellent service, feel free to leave a tip of 10-15 percent.
In Dubai and Abu Dhabi, expect to find virtually any type of cuisine you can imagine. Elsewhere, look for local flavors like camel that’s been stuffed with one lamb, 20 chickens, boiled eggs, fish and rice. Also try al machboos, a meat and rice dish flavored with onion and dried lemon, and al harees, a simple rice and wheat dish that’s cooked overnight in a clay pot and topped with ghee.
Weather and When to Go
The UAE is a hot, dry desert. Temperatures of 118° F in the summer are not uncommon, and the country sees only about 13 days of rain annually. From a weather standpoint, November to March is generally most pleasant time to visit, with temperatures ranging from the mid 50s to mid 70s, but it’s also the high season when are hotels are the priciest. March to May is still pleasant enough to be outdoors, especially on the beaches. You’ll find deeply discounted rates between June and September, but you probably won’t be spending much time outside.
Culture and Etiquette
Islam is the official religion of the UAE, and it shapes all facets of life here. While the UAE is fairly liberal when it comes to clothing, you should dress modestly. Because of the heat, you’ll want to wear lightweight garmets, but cover your shoulders, cleavage and legs. This is especially true when visiting a government office or mosque, which have additional guidelines for visitors. Refrain from wearing tight or short clothing, even when sightseeing or shopping. And take particular care to dress conservatively during Ramadan, a month-long period of fasting and reflection for Muslims.
Photography is also an area where you should be respectful. It’s polite to ask permission before taking photos of people, especially women. In fact, cameras may be banned from some public spaces, including government buildings, military installations, ports, airports and areas designated for women and children only.
Adventure and Exploration
For this insider guide to the United Arab Emirates (UAE), we’ve listed things to do in each of the seven emirates.
Dubai is the largest city in the UAE with nearly 2 million people. It’s a glamorous cosmopolitan delight with a dizzying array of shopping, dining and entertainment options. The world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa, dominates the downtown skyline. The Dubai Mall offers 1,200 shops along with an aquarium, indoor theme park, ice skating rink and indoor waterfalls. Palm Jumeirah is a palm-tree shaped, man-made island just off the coast that’s filled with high-end resorts and beaches. A monorail connects the island with the city center. Explore the city’s history at Dubai Creek, a saltwater estuary where the Bani Yas tribe first settled. The Dubai Museum is located here along with gold, silver and spice souks. Take in watersports at Kite Beach. Explore local culture by walking through the Al Fahidi Historical Neighborhood, or travel back in time with a day trip to Hatta in the Hajar Mountains.
The capital of the UAE, Abu-Dhabi puts futuristic architecture alongside traditional Arab landmarks. Massive Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque has room for 40,000 worshippers. The Corniche features 2,000 acres of manicured waterfront, cycling paths, cafes and a beach. Take a trip on a traditional pearl-diving boat, kayak through mangrove forests, ride the world’s fastest roller coaster at Ferrari World and shop til you drop at the overwhelming number of shops and souks in the city. For a cultural experience, visit Heritage Village where you can watch craftsmen at work and bargain for treasures.
Sharjah is the arts and cultural center of the UAE. The Sharjah Arts Museum is filled with treasures of the Arab world. With its blue-tiled roof, the Central Market stands as the city’s most notable landmark. Dive into Islamic and Arab culture at the Sharjah Museum of Islamic Civilization. Learn about traditional wooden dhows and pearl diving at the Sharjah Maritime Museum, explore bronze-age artifacts at the Sharjah Archeological Museum and wander through the narrow alleyways of the city’s heritage area.
Ajman and Umm Al Quwain
Tiny when compared to the UAE’s other cities, Ajman and umm Al Quwain are much more laid back. Visit museums, active archeological sites, including Mowaihat and Al-Dur, see dhows being built in the harbor, relax on a beautiful beach or explore the Hajar Mountain towns of Manama and Masfut.
Ras Al Khaimah
The northernmost emirate, Ras Al Khaimah is rugged and offers an escape from the lights and sounds of Dubai. See ancient forts that overlook the Persian Gulf, numerous archeological sites, soak in mineral rich hot waters of Khatt Springs or hike to the summit of Jebel Jais, the UAE’s highest peak at 6,345 feet tall.
Separated from the rest of the UAE by the Hajar Mountains, Fujairah is a modern, industrial city. Inviting beaches lend themselves to diving and sunbathing and historical sites draw visitors from around the UAE. The mud-brick Al-Bidyah Mosque is the country’s oldest, and a nearby Islamic cemetery dates to the Iron Age. Fujairah Fort is worthy of exploration, as is the Sheikh Zayed Mosque which holds 32,000 worshippers and could cover three football fields.
The UAE may be known for its glitzy metropolis of Dubai, but don’t let the bright lights fool you. Our insider guide to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) is filled with hidden gems just waiting to be discovered.