|Currency||United Arab Emirates dirham (AED)|
|Population||9.3 million (2013)|
|Electricity||220 volt / 50 hertz (Europlug, Type D, BS 1363)|
|Emergencies||112, 997 (fire department), 998 (emergency medical services), 999 (police)|
|edit on Wikidata|
The United Arab Emirates (Arabic: دولة الإمارات العربية المتحدة) 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. The neighboring states are Saudi Arabia to the west and southwest, and Oman to the east and southeast, including Omani enclaves on the Musandam Peninsula and at Madha. 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:
|Emirate of Abu Dhabi (Abu Dhabi and Al Ain)|
|Emirate of Dubai (Dubai and Hatta)|
|Emirate of Sharjah (Sharjah, Dibba, Kalba and Khor Fakkan)|
|Emirate of Ajman (Ajman)|
|Emirate of Umm al Quwain (Umm al Quwain)|
|Emirate of Ra's al Khaymah (Ra's al Khaymah)|
|Emirate of Fujairah (Fujairah)|
- 1 Abu Dhabi (Arabic: أبو ظبي) – The capital of the UAE.
- 2 Ajman (Arabic: عجمان) – The smallest emirate, one of the budget destinations.
- 3 Al Ain (Arabic: العين) – Inland and close to the Omani border town of Buraimi, Al Ain comprises a triangle between the proper cities of Abu Dhabi and Dubai.
- 4 Dubai (Arabic: دبي) – The most common entry point for travelers, it is the transport and commerce center and largest city of the UAE.
- 5 Fujairah (Arabic: الفجيرة) – Another emirate, noteworthy for being the only one that doesn't reside on the Persian Gulf.
- 6 Hatta (Arabic: حتا) – Village that is part of the Emirate of Dubai.
- 7 Jebel Ali (Arabic: جبل علي) – A port town.
- 8 Khor Fakkan (Arabic: خورفكان)
- 9 Sharjah (Arabic: الشارقة) – A cheaper destination, dusty and chaotic in places but with its own charm.
The United Arab Emirates (UAE) 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 magazines to some extent). 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.
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, Carrefour, and Geant 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 and rug stores. These can be hard to find for the average traveler, as the malls tend to gain an overwhelming amount of attention. (Contrary to what is printed in some 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.)
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 license to buy alcohol in liquor stores (of which there are few). 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 United Arab Emirates is a federation of seven emirates, each of which is an absolute monarchy headed by its own sheikh (or king). Each emirate retains considerable autonomy, most notably over oil revenues. As a result the rulers – or sheikhs – of each emirate are revered and can radically affect the way of life in their emirate. For example, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid 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, and general living conditions. 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. 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. Most of this water comes from desalination. Visitors do not pay for their water use. The weather from late October through mid-March is quite pleasant, with temperatures ranging from highs around 27°C (85°F) to lows around 15°C (63°F). It is almost always sunny. Rain can fall between November and February, and can cause road hazards when it does. In the summer, 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 go above 50°C, or 120°F.
One Emirates, many Peoples
After landing in UAE, you might not think it is an Arab country. You might think you are in India or the Philippines. Dubai, since the founding of the oil industry, has attracted thousands of migrants in search of jobs from all over the world, notably from Pakistan, India, Bangladesh and the Philippines. Today, Indians and Filipinos have left their influence in the emirate: Indian restaurants and Pakistani bakeshops are everywhere, while Filipino supermarkets are growing. Europeans (mostly British and French) and Sri Lankans form the next largest communities. Chinese and Indonesian migrants are increasing. Many Arab countries have passed policies like the UAE's Emiratisation, which is a policy that prevents migrants from taking all the job opportunities and provides more jobs to local Emiratis.
The population is incredibly diverse. Only 20% are 'real' Emiratis; the rest come from the Indian subcontinent: India, Pakistan, Bangladesh or Sri Lanka (50%); other parts of Asia, particularly the Philippines, and Malaysia (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 Dubai or Sharjah, for example, 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. There are elements that some overseas travelers may be unaccustomed to, such as fully veiled women, but as this is "their way", tourists should show respect and will be offered the same in turn.
Ramadan is the 9th and holiest month in the Islamic calendar and lasts 29–30 days. Muslims fast every day for its duration and most restaurants will be closed until the fast breaks at dusk. Nothing (including water and cigarettes) is supposed to pass through the lips from dawn to sunset. Non-Muslims are exempt from this, but should still refrain from eating or drinking in public as this is considered very impolite. Working hours are decreased as well in the corporate world. Exact dates of Ramadan depend on local astronomical observations and may vary somewhat from country to country. Ramadan concludes with the festival of Eid al-Fitr, which may last several days, usually three in most countries.
If you're planning to travel to United Arab Emirates during Ramadan, consider reading Travelling during Ramadan.
The weekend in the UAE 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 earliest known human habitation in the UAE dated from 5500 BCE. At this early stage, there is proof of interaction with the outside world, particularly with civilisations to the northwest of Mesopotamia.
The arrival of envoys from the Islamic prophet Muhammad in 630 heralded the conversion of the region to Islam. After Muhammad, one of the major battles fought at Dibba resulted in the defeat of the non-Muslims and triumph of Islam in the Arabian Peninsula.
The Sheikhs of the 7 emirates agreed to become a British protectorate in 1892, and were known as the Trucial States. The United Arab Emirates declared independence from the United Kingdom on 2 December 1971 when the emirs of Abu Dhabi and Dubai decided to form a union.
Citizens of Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries (Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and Saudi Arabia) do not require a visa. A short stay visa will be granted on arrival to residents of GCC member states as well regardless of nationality.
Citizens of most industrialized countries get a 30-day visa stamped in their passport free of charge on arrival. This can be extended for up to 90 days after arrival for a fee of Dhs 500. The countries are Andorra, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Brunei, Bulgaria, Canada, China, Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hong Kong, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Macau, Malaysia, Malta, Monaco, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Russia (can be extended for up to 30 days after arrival), San Marino, Seychelles, Singapore, Slovakia, Slovenia, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, United Kingdom (except BN(O) passports), United States and Vatican City.
Several other countries are eligible for free hotel/tour-sponsored tourism visas. See UAE Interact for the latest details.
All other nationalities are 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. The cost of a visa as of 2015 is 250 dirhams plus travel agency fee for 30 days single entry, and there are no extensions available anymore. The new visa tariff and rule is to avoid tourists to search work in UAE. While for transit visa sponsored by the airlines for 96 hours transit is 100 dirhams.
Israeli citizens are banned by the UAE government from entering the country. Despite much online misinformation to the contrary, Israeli visa stamps are officially OK. See these links for more information.
If you are traveling from a South Asian country, get a stamp of 'OK to Board'. Most of the time it is arranged by your travel agent. If it isn't, as soon as you get your visa, take it, your passport and ticket to your airline office and get the stamp of 'OK to board'. Without this you might not be allowed to travel to UAE.
Passports must be valid for 6 months from date of arrival.
Each non-Muslim adult can bring in four items of alcohol, e.g. 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. UAEinteract maintains a list of the controlled medicines.
Don't even think about bringing in narcotics: possession of even trace amounts leads to a minimum of four years in prison. Using khat/qat (a flowering plant that contains an alkaloid called cathinone) which is popular in other nearby countries (notably Yemen) is also illegal, with life prison sentences possible.
- The main hub for air transport in the United Arab Emirates is 1 Dubai International Airport (DXB IATA). This airport is served by several major airlines, most notably Dubai-based Emirates. Direct flights connect Dubai to Durban, Johannesburg, London, Sydney, Melbourne, Karachi, Tehran, Riyadh, Mumbai,Kolkata, Hong Kong, Paris, Zurich, Frankfurt Airport, Milan, Madrid Barajas, New York City, LAX, San Francisco Airport, Toronto, São Paulo and many other major cities in Europe, Asia, Australasia and Africa. Chances are carriers from your country will offer flights to Dubai.
- 2 Abu Dhabi International Airport (AUH IATA) (Abu Dhabi). After Dubai this airport has the next best international connections. Abu Dhabi-based flag carrier 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 Schiphol and Lufthansa from Frankfurt.
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 Africa , Europe, Middle East and India.
- Cebu Pacific fly from Dubai to Manila in the Philippines with fares from as low as US$150.
- Fly Dubai fly from Dubai to Middle East, Europe, Africa and India.
- Pegasus airlines fly from Dubai to many cities in Europe.
- Wizzair fly from Dubai to many cities in Europe.
- Smartwings airlines fly from Dubai to many cities in Europe.
- Norwegian fly to many cities in Europe and North America
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, and a 4 dh charge to cross the Salik toll gate. A prepaid Salik Tag is required for this.
There's a twice-weekly ferry service from Bandar Abbas in Iran to the port of Sharjah by the Iranian shipping company Valfajre-8. It's an overnight ferry taking 10-12 hours, departing early evenings on Sundays and Thursdays. Prices start at 160 dirhams for economy class.
Apart from regular services, there is a large network of traditional dhow trading routes which transports goods throughout the Gulf and even to India. It may be possible to buy passage on one of these boats. Depending on which dhow you end up on they can call at all coastal cities in the UAE, including Dubai and Abu Dhabi.
Distances in the UAE are relatively short, and there is the Dubai Metro rail service to connects you to several stations in and about Dubai only. The Dubai Metro's peak times are early mornings and early evenings. There are 3 classes offered by the Dubai Metro: Silver Class, used by the working-class people daily; Women's Class, only for women and children; and Gold Class. You could get monthly passes for each class if you are a frequent traveller. The metro also connects with the public buses once you get off a station. You can also plan your route online on www.rta.ae. Travelling by the metro has its own perks as it is relatively cheap, fast and in the meantime you could see most of Dubai en route. The roads are generally in excellent condition; however, signage is poor in some of the emirates.
By public transportEdit
Public transportation within cities remains rudimentary. Dubai is building an extensive monorail and train system, but the other emirates offer very little public transportation. Abu Dhabi has a network of city buses that cost 2 dirhams per trip if within the city and DH4 per tirip outside the city and are fairly reliable, but can be overcrowded for male passengers. 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 and can be done in 20 min but only if you are from a specific list of countries (predominantly Western). If you are from an Asian country, you 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 US. There is a flat fee per day for renting a car, based upon the car's size. Petrol (gasoline) is, by US and European standards, inexpensive. The road system is based along British or European standards, with many roundabouts and highly channeled 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, even 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: the black windows make the driver not see you and change lanes. Theoretically forbidden, tinting windows is widespread among young Arabs and is generally associated with poor driving skills 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. A website  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 maps 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 four wheel drive. Desert safaris are also generally 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, Filipino and Western expatriates outnumber Arabs, particularly in Dubai (where the population of foreigners is over 80%), and usually have very limited knowledge of Arabic. English is the lingua franca, and many Emiratis speak it to communicate with the numerous expatriate workers who work for them. 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.
- Some of the largest sand dunes in the world in the south of Abu Dhabi in the Liwa Oasis area
- Beautiful beaches on the east coast
- Rugged, remote wadis in the northern emirates
- Archeological sites and natural rock formations in the Hajar Mountains
- Resplendent oases in Al Ain
Although at first glance the outdoors may seem dull and uninteresting, and even dangerous due to the desert conditions, there are actually amazing natural destinations in the UAE - the difficulty is in knowing where to find them! There are pristine waterfalls, cliffs lined with fossils, even freshwater lakes.
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.
There are plenty of man-made wonders to enjoy as well. Ferrari World in Abu Dhabi is the world's largest indoor theme park, and as the name suggests, is centered around experiencing the world of Ferrari and includes the fastest rollercoaster in the world, accelerating from 0 to 149mph (240km/h) in 4 seconds. This is alongside the Yas Marina Circuit, which hosts the Abu Dhabi Formula One Grand Prix. The Yas Marina Circuit is widely known as the most technologically advanced circuit on the planet, and, along with Formula One, hosts various national and international racing series, including the GP2 and GP3 series, and V8 Supercars. The Burj Khalifa in Dubai is the tallest building in the world, and visitors can travel up it to a viewing station situated near the building's peak to enjoy stunning views of the city and beyond. Wild Wadi and Aquaventure are two world class water parks that cater to the whole family. Those looking for proper retail therapy can visit Dubai Mall, one of the largest shopping malls in the world, and also the location of the world's largest dancing fountain, with multiple shows starting after sunset, and one of the world's largest indoor aquariums, Dubai Aquarium.
Ski Dubai in Dubai Emirates Mall is the world's third largest indoor ski slope, measuring 400 m and using 6000 tons of snow. Ski Dubai resort is the first UAE indoor ski slope to open, and more are planned. All equipment, except for gloves and a hat, are provided—skis/snowboards, snowsuits, boots and socks are all included in the price (the socks are disposable). The adjoining ski store sells equipment, including gloves. A ski slope in Ra's al Khaymah is also in the works.
"Desert safari" trips can be a fun experience for tourists. They can be booked ahead, but can often be booked as late as the day before, and most hotel receptionists can arrange this for you. Trips normally start late afternoon and end late evening. You will be collected from your hotel and driven to the desert in a 4x4 vehicle. Most packages include a heart-pumping drive over the dunes, a short camel ride, an Arabic buffet and a belly dancer. Another option would be renting/buying a 4x4 and joining the many growing 4x4 clubs in the UAE, which are varied and each carry their own different flavour: ad4x4, uaeoffroaders, emarat4x4, etc. They offer a free learning experience for all newcomers with scheduled weekly trips to suit all levels of driving skills. Some of them have over 2,000 members from many nationalities.
Exchange rates for Emirati dirham
As of January 2018:
The currency is the United Arab Emirates dirham demoted by the symbol " د.إ" or "dh" (ISO code: AED). It is pegged to the US dollar at 3.67 dirhams for $1. 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.
If you pay with an overseas credit card, most merchants will attempt to apply dynamic currency conversion, charging several percent more than the issuer conversion would have cost. The credit card terminal will offer the choice of whether the conversion should be accepted. The merchant will not ask you about this, and will choose to accept the conversion. If you pay attention, you can intervene and ask for "No" to be answered. If you ask upfront, some merchants will have no idea what you mean, but many will.
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. Most upper-end restaurants are located in hotels.
Due to the large expat populations, Indian and Pakistani restaurants abound, offering affordable and succulent choices. Also popular are Lebanese, Syrian and Jordanian cuisine restaurants.
A popular favorite is grilled chicken, available at most of the open-air cafeterias by the roadside which can be relished with other accompaniments like Khubz (Arabic Bread) and hummus, and the most popular rice dish is Biriyani, with grilled chicken or fish or lamb. Traditional Shawarma and falafel sandwiches are readily available and are quite cheap and delicious.
Very few traditional Emirati dishes are served at restaurants; and the closest is the Mendi-style cuisine of Yemen, in which platters of fragrant rice are topped with lamb, chicken or fish that has been slow-roasted in a pit. If you have Emirati friends, being invited to their homes would generally be the best chance you have to sample the local cuisine.
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 an 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 UAE, particularly the emirates of Dubai and Abu Dhabi, is an educational hub of the Middle East. The three local government-sponsored universities are the United Arab Emirates University in Al Ain, the Higher Colleges of Technology with various campuses throughout the UAE, and Zayed University with campuses in Dubai and Abu Dhabi.
You will need a work visa to be allowed to work in the UAE, and receiving one requires a local sponsor to apply on your behalf. Note that if you are in the UAE on a work visa, you will need to obtain an exit visa to leave the country, and receiving one will require you to get your employer's permission. There have been cases of people being denied exit visas due to disputes with their employers.
The UAE does not offer permanent residency, though many foreigners get around this by being on "permanent" work visas even in retirement. Of course, this would require you to have a good relationship with a local of substantial clout. Obtaining UAE citizenship is only possible for foreign women who are married to Emirati men (but not for foreign men married to Emirati women), but is otherwise next to impossible for other foreigners.
Emiratis are 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 "Kandoura", a long robe (typically white), and ghutra, a red-checked or white headdress. Local women wear a black robe-like garment (abaya) and a black head scarf (shayla).
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, 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 but not across gender—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.
Visitors should be less concerned about crime, than the harsh law enforcement.
Homosexuality is a crime that carries the death penalty in the UAE, so gay and lesbian tourists should be very discreet.
There are a couple of things you should be aware of 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 antidepressants, 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.
Another cause for concern is the very high rate of automobile accidents: besides due care while driving a vehicle, crossing the road on foot can be quite dangerous as well.
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. 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; as is the Sheikh Khalifa Medical City, now managed by Cleveland Clinic.
In Dubai, the government hospitals are Rashid hospital, which has a new Trauma Centre and Dubai Hospital which are very good. Welcare Hospital International Modern 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.
Al Ain is served by modern hospitals and care centers: Tawam Hospital, now managed by John Hopkins, and host to the UAE University Faculty of Medicine and Health Science; Al Ain Hospital (also called Al Jimi Hospital as it is in the district of Al Jimi), now managed by the Vienna Medical University; and the private Oasis Hospital, previously known as Kennedy Hospital, which was founded and run by Christian missionaries, and which was the first hospital in the city.
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, hygiene 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.
The country code is 971. The mobile phone network uses the GSM technology (as in Europe and Africa) and use is widespread. 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: (50/56/58) 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. All websites in the Israeli domain .il are blocked. Not much 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.
Etisalat and Du both provide USB Internet connections.