When the British withdrew from the Gulf in 1971, a group of seven shaikhdoms from the area united to form the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The UAE has been growing as trading and travel destination, with its mountains, beaches, and deserts, and its welcoming attitude toward Westerners, as well as Easterners. The UAE is known for its dichotomous lifestyle: on the one hand, there are soaring skyscapers with all of the world’s biggest banks represented and bustling shopping malls around every corner, on the other hand there’s plenty of shopping to be done in traditional Bedouin markets (or souks) and traditional cultural activities such as camel racing–legacies of the days before the boom. But while the UAE is considered one of the safest places to travel in the region, it is advised that you steer clear of political gatherings or demonstrations.
Traveling in UAE
The UAE has the most relaxed entrance regulations in the region, which means a lot less red tape. Because of its one-time ties to the British Empire, Brits and citizens of other Gulf states can enter without visas (though British citizens are restricted to a three-month maximum stay). Americans and other foreign nationals must have a visa to enter the country, which can be obtained through the consulate, or–more efficiently–through your hotel’s 15-day, nonrenewable sponsorship program. It’s very important to keep in mind that, because of Middle East tensions, anyone with a passport that has ever been stamped in Israel will not be granted entrance to the UAE. If you do go to Israel, request that your stamp be in a separate place, or on a detachable page.
In the UAE the car is not only the best way to get around, it’s about the only way. There’s no bus or plane service between the seven emirates, so the best way to travel any great distance is by taxi or rental car. There are minibuses and other cheaper ways to go, but these usually take up time that could be spent exploring souks, etc. Driving in the UAE can be a bit frightening, but if you drive defensively and stay on the main roads it shouldn’t be a problem.
Weather in UAE
Between November and April tends to be the best time to visit the UAE. The rest of the year can be incredibly hot and uncomfortable, which makes it hard to want to get out and explore, and even during this “cooler” period, you can expect beach weather (though you may not see many people taking in the sun).
What to Know
Compared to some of its neighbors, traveling in UAE is not cheap. But that doesn’t mean you can’t get by for under US$50 a day if you don’t mind staying in hostels or cheap hotels. As for money, the easiest to change is the U.S. dollar (seconded by the pound stirling) and there are plenty of ATMs to be found. Tips are not generally expected, but are appreciated especially by wait staff, since the gratuity added to nearly every restaurant bill is traditionally absorbed by the restaurant owners, and not distributed among the poorly paid staff.
Another thing to keep in mind is that the month-long Ramadan is almost universally observed in the UAE, so if you are traveling there during this holiday don’t expect to find places to eat or drink between sunrise and sunset–this policy is strictly adhered to.
United Arab Emirates Information
Population: 2.3 million
Square Miles: 32,400 sq mi (83,600 sq km)
Capitol: Abu Dhabi (pop est. 500,000)
Official Language: Arabic
People: Arab (61%), South Asian (22%), Iranian (8%), other expats (9%)
Religion: Muslim (96%) Hindu (4%)
Major products/industries: Oil, gas, petrochemicals, fishing