Emerates Information United Arab Emirates. Regions Guide
United Arab Emirates AttractionsAbu Dhabi
Everything in Abu Dhabi is modern, sleek and shiny. The United Arab Emirate's capital is often accused of being a rather soulless place, but that's going a bit too far: it's not exactly buzzing, and it may have more sheen than atmosphere, but it does have its attractions.
If you're prepared to look below the surface of the modern Abu Dubai, you'll find traces of the pearling village it was such a short time ago. Start at the city's old fort and wander the streets to discover local history, Islamic art both ancient and modern, and the ageless life of wharf and souk.
Al-Ain is the main town in the Buraimi Oasis, which straddles the border between Abu Dhabi and Oman. Its sister town, Buraimi, is on the Omani side of the border, but visitors can move freely between the two, making this a fine way to get a taste of Oman without the hassle of obtaining a visa.
The oasis is probably the longest inhabited part of what is now the UAE, with settlement dating back to the 4th millenium BC. In more recent times, Al-Ain was the birthplace of Shaikh Zayed, the much loved former ruler of Abu Dhabi, who proudly lavished funds on it.
Dubai is the quintessential home of sand, sun and shopping. A century ago, it was a tranquil town whose coral-and-gypsum huts housed Bedouin traders and pearl divers. Today the merchants have gone international and science-fiction skyscrapers stand alongside the mosques and wind towers of Old Dubai.
There are two sides of Dubai to explore - the sleek, futuristic world of mirrored skylines, chilled-air malls and James Bond-style artificial islands; and old Dubai, perhaps most clearly represented by its ancient mosques and countless souks, all of which sell a different speciality.
The third largest of the seven emirates, Sharjah is a place that too many visitors to the UAE either miss or pass through quickly. It has some of the most interesting architecture in the country, the largest mosque in the UAE and plenty of sights to see.
Some of its highlights are a natural history museum that's the slickest in the entire Gulf, souks to rival Dubai, and an old souk that offers a window on an older way of life that has now all but disappeared. It's also a great place to purchase Persian carpets.
Off the Beaten Track
Dibba significance in Islamic history is as the site of the great battles of the Ridda Wars between Muslim armies and a number of tribes and towns that had betrayed the faith after The Phrophet's death. The victory of the Muslims at Dibba in 633AD marks the end of the Muslim reconquest of Arabia.
Today, Dibba is a quiet set of three seaside villages - each belonging to a different ruler (Fujairah, Sharjah and Oman). Dibba is a really nice spot, though perhaps not quite as nice as the Italian fishing villages to which it has fancifully been compared.
The youngest of the UAE's seven emirates fronts the Gulf of Oman and makes a good base for exploring the eastern coast. Fujairah itself is a rather characterless small city without much tourism infrastructure, but the landscape between it and the Musandam Peninsula is phenomenal.
It boasts a museum showcasing archaeological and ethnographic displays, a spooky old town and a 300 year old fort. Bithna, 12km (8mi) north-west of Fujairah, has several archaeological sites, including the Long Chambered Tomb, thought to have been a communal burial place, and an impressive fort.
The northernmost of the UAE's emirates, Ras al-Khaimah is one of the most beautiful spots in the country. It's an area of carefully irrigated abundant greenery surrounded by sea, desert and mountains. The relaxing city of Ras al-Khaimah welcomes tourists but doesn't bend to them.
Its attractions include an interesting museum, an atmospheric old town, souq and fishing port, and the best camel racing in the country. There are several interesting archaeological sites nearby, including the Queen of Sheba Palace in Shimal 5km (3mi) to the north.
Most Emiratis are Sunni Muslims subscribing to the Maliki or Hanbali schools of Islamic law. Many of the latter are Wahhabis, though UAE Wahhabis are not nearly as strict and puritanical as the Saudi variety; the UAE is probably the most liberal country in the Gulf but it is still very conservative by Western standards. There are also smaller communities of Ibadi and Shiite muslims. The oddest thing about the UAE's population is that only 500,000 of the 2 million people living in the country are UAE citizens; the rest are expatriates from other Gulf countries, and from Pakistan, Iran and India.
Arabic is the official language but English is widely understood. In Dubai, you can also get by practicing your Farsi, the Persian language spoken in Iran. Urdu is spoken by the large number of Pakistani expatriates living in Abu Dhabi and Dubai.
The UAE's cuisine is the staple Middle Eastern fare of fuul (paste made from fava beans, garlic and lemon), felafel (deep fried balls of chickpea paste served in a piece of Arabic flat bread), houmos (cooked chickpea paste served with garlic and lemon) and shwarma (usually lamb or chicken served on a flat bread or pita). The standard range of non-alcoholic drinks are widely available; alcohol is only sold in restaurants and bars attached to three-star hotels or better and prices are pretty outrageous. Alcohol is not sold at all in Sharjah.
The United Arab Emirates occupies the rhinoceros horn that protrudes into the Persian Gulf from the north-eastern tip of the Arabian peninsula. It's bordered by Saudi Arabia in the south and west, and Oman in the east. Its northern coast faces Iran across the Persian Gulf, while Qatar is just 50km (30mi) to the north-west. The seven emirates are Abu Dhabi, Ajman, Dubai, Fujairah, Ras al-Khaimah, Sharjah and Umm al Qaiwain. Combined, they cover an area roughly the same size as Portugal. The Emirate of Abu Dhabi represents 85% of this total; the smallest of the emirates, Ajman, measures only 250 sq km (100 sq mi).
Much of the interior of the UAE is featureless desert, running to the edges of the Empty Quarter, the largest sand desert in the world, which occupies south-eastern Saudi Arabia. The UAE's coastal areas are marked by salt flats, while the northern and eastern sections of the country are green and inviting with striking mountain scenery. Fauna includes the Arabian leopard and ibex, but you're unlikely to see more than camels and wild goats. In spring and autumn flocks of birds migrating from Central Asia and East Africa can sometimes be seen in the country's north. Outside of the mountainous areas of Fujairah and Ras al-Khaimah, much of the UAE's vegetation is the result of the government's 'greenery' programme: even the natural groves of date palms in the Buraimi Oasis on the country's eastern border have been supplemented by acres of grass and trees planted in municipal parks.
From May to September humidity is high and daytime temperatures commonly hover around 40°C (105°F) in Abu Dhabi and Dubai. In the eastern coastal cities of Fujairah and Khor Fakkan, the climate is slightly less hostile thanks to occasional breezes; the mountains above Ras al-Khaimah also provide some relief. Average daily high temperatures drop to the more comfortable 22-30°C (70-85°F) range for the rest of the year, though it can be very windy in Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Sharjah and very cold in the desert areas around Al-Ain. Rainfall is non-existent between May and October, and negligible for much of the rest of the year - though it can turn foul in December and January, which can make getting around tricky.
Getting There & Away
The country's main international airports are in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, though an increasing number of carriers are servicing Sharjah as well. Smaller international airports serve Ras al-Khaimah, Fujairah and Al-Ain. There are daily services to most major European cities from Dubai and Abu Dhabi, and also to major Middle Eastern and Gulf cities. There are also connections to the USA, North Africa, the Indian Subcontinent and Australia. There's no airport departure tax.
There's a daily bus service between Dubai and Muscat in Oman, though the lack of a UAE border post on the road used by the bus can present visa problems for travellers. Regular bus services operate between both Dubai and Abu Dhabi and Saudi Arabia's Eastern Province, though there are no bus or taxi services to Qatar. Boats ply between Sharjah and Bandar-é Abbas in Iran; the voyage takes 12 hours each way.
There is no inter-city air or bus service between the seven emirates, so if you don't have your own car the only way to travel between emirates is by service taxi. These can be cramped but they're cheap and a great way to meet locals. The main problem is that they take a while to fill up, except on the main Abu Dhabi-Dubai route. Between these two cities, you also have the choice of slightly cheaper minibuses.
The UAE is one of those countries where having your own wheels can often mean the difference between having fun and spending much of your time planning transport options from A to B. Car rental is only slightly more expensive than in the West, and is relatively easy to arrange in Dubai and Abu Dhabi. Main roads are in pretty good shape and, in theory, you should drive along them on the right. Driving standards are not particularly high and fatalism reigns supreme; if you have the slightest inclination towards self-preservation, be sure to drive defensively - especially at roundabouts.
Only Dubai and Al-Ain have public bus networks useful to travellers. Note that taxis in Abu Dhabi and Al-Ain have meters, as do most in Dubai. The other emirates do not.
The earliest significant settlements in the UAE date from the Bronze Age. In the 3rd century BC, a culture known as Umm an-Nar's arose near the site of modern Abu Dhabi and its influence extended well into the interior and along the coast of what is now Oman. The Greeks were the next major cultural influence and ruins showing strong Hellenistic features have been found at Meleiha, about 50km (30mi) from Sharjah, and at Al-Dour, in the emirate of Umm al-Qaiwan. During the Middle Ages, much of the region was part of the kingdom of Hormuz, which controlled the entrance to, and most of the trade in, the Gulf.
The Portuguese arrived in 1498 and by 1515 had occupied Julfar near Ras al-Khaimah, building a customs house that taxed the Gulf's flourishing trade with India and the Far East. The Portuguese stuck around until 1633 and were followed by the Brits, who began exercising their naval power in the Gulf in the mid-18th century. The British came into conflict with the Qawasim tribal confederation, a seafaring clan whose influence extended to the Persian side of the Gulf. The British dubbed the area the Pirate Coast and launched raids against the Qawasim. In 1820, a British fleet systematically destroyed or captured every Qawasim ship it could find, imposed a General Treaty of Peace on nine Arab sheikhdoms in the area and installed a garrison in the region. As life quietened down, Europeans took to calling the area the Trucial Coast, a name it retained until 1971.
Throughout this period, the main power among the Bedouin tribes of the interior was the Bani Yas tribal confederation, made up of the ancestors of the ruling families of modern Abu Dhabi and Dubai. The Bani Yas were originally based in Liwa, an oasis on the edge of the Empty Quarter, but moved to Abu Dhabi in 1793. They engaged in the traditional Bedouin activities of camel herding, small-scale agriculture, tribal raiding and extracting protection money from caravans passing through their territory. After the British outlawed slavery along the coast, the Bani Yas took over the slave trade and Buraimi became eastern Arabia's main slave market - a position it held right up until the 1950s.
The British were not particularly interested in what the Bedouin got up to; they were focussed on securing their line of communication to India and keeping European competitors, such as France and Russia, out of the region. They formally established a protectorate over the Trucial Coast in 1892 but let the area remain a backwater of fisherpeople, pearl divers and Bedouin until the early 20th century. For most of this colonial period, Sharjah was the most populous and powerful of the emirates but it lost influence to Abu Dhabi as the 19th century drew to a close; Abu Dhabi was later overshadowed by Dubai.
The prospect of oil eventually changed the Brits' laissez-faire approach. Before oil concessions could be granted, boundaries between the various sheikhdoms had to be determined. Since none of the local rulers could agree, it was left to the Brits to demarcate the borders of the seven emirates that would eventually make up the UAE. The first oil concessions were granted in 1939 but oil wasn't found for another 14 years. Exports from Abu Dhabi began in 1962, eventually turning the poorest of the emirates into the richest. Meanwhile, Dubai concentrated its energies on cementing its reputation as the region's busiest trading post. It was already a successful entrepôt in 1966, when it was found to have oil of its own. The other sheikhs were not so lucky and began to turn to Abu Dhabi for subsidies.
Britain's announcement in 1968 that it intended to leave the Gulf in 1971 came as a shock to most of the ruling sheikhs. The Brits original plan was to form a single state consisting of Bahrain, Qatar and the Trucial Coast, but this collapsed almost immediately. Negotiations eventually led to the independence of Bahrain and Qatar and the formation of a new federation - the United Arab Emirates - in 1971. At the time many outsiders dismissed the UAE as a loosely assembled, artificial and largely British creation. While there was some truth to this, it was also true that the emirs of the smaller and poorer sheikhdoms knew their territories had no hope of surviving as independent states. Despite the doomsayers, the UAE became a major international business centre and one of the most stable and untroubled countries in the Arab world.
Not that political life in the UAE has been devoid of controversy. Border disputes among the emirates continued throughout the 1970s, and the degree to which integration among the seven sheikhdoms should be pursued has been a subject of constant debate. The UAE contributed troops to the anti-Iraq coalition in 1990-91, and foreign soldiers were stationed there during the months before the liberation of Kuwait. The result was a strengthening of the countries already strong ties with the West, though this has not stopped the UAE - Dubai in particular - from maintaining good relations with Iran. In early 1998, the UAE had to cope with plummeting oil prices. The price of the black sticky stuff fell 35% in the first three months of the year, affecting the UAE's government revenues, 70% of which come from oil.
In a fairy-tale solution to rivalry between the sheikhdoms, the crown prince of Dubai married the daughter of Abu Dhabi's sovereign (and president of the UAE) in 1999, bringing the two emirates together publicly and privately.
The federation has resolved to shape its future using undeniably modern methods, however: a stock market and other economic reforms are in the works, and 2000 marked the fifth anniversary of the Dubai Shopping Festival, where shoppers from all over the world can peruse souks and squares of stuff on sale. Foreign workers now make up three-quarters of the UAE population, making it one of the most liberal and pluralistic countries in the Gulf region.
The government pulled off a tricky double-act in 2003 by opposing the US-led invasion of Iraq, including refusing to give any assistance to the operations, while maintaining good relations with the US and UK. Future prosperity may be threatened by a more basic problem: water. The UAE is the highest consumer of water per capita in the world, and the groundwater levels have fallen 30m (100ft) in 30 years.