Capital city: Abu Dhabi
Population: 9.2 million (Dubai FAQs)
Government: Federal presidential elected monarchy
Currency: United Arab Emirates Dirham (AED)
Main languages: Arabic, English
Main religions: Islam
Bordering Saudi Arabia to the south and Oman to the east, the United Arab Emirates is a relatively small country on the Persian Gulf. Following independence from Britain in 1971, the successful exploitation of oil and gas reserves has completely transformed the entire region, and the UAE is amongst the richest countries in the world. The UAE is a federal state, with the emirates: Abu Dhabi, Ajman, Dubai, Fujairah, Ras al-Khaimah, Sharjah and Umm al-Quwain, each ruled by a hereditary monarchy. The seven emirs form the UAE’s supreme council, and one is elected President of the UAE.
Although the UAE’s recent growth has caused a huge wave of immigration into the country, this transient culture is not at all new. Relics and evidence of interaction with Mesopotamian culture from around 5500BC have been found, and by the first century AD there was an active seaport encouraging movement within the Indian Ocean. Portuguese, Saudi and British rule followed, adding to the cultural diversity which is characteristic of the UAE today. Although authoritarian in nature, the country is considered fairly liberal with regards to women’s rights and tolerance of religious views.
Traditional activities in the UAE include camel racing, falconry and equestrian sports such as horse racing, polo and endurance riding. There are also excellent facilities for a range of less traditional sports, including golf, motor racing, watersports and even snowsports! Football is also popular, with local teams and famous international clubs both enthusiastically supported. The UAE also boasts a large number of museums and arts venues which are popular with tourists, while locals enjoy going to the cinema, attending arts or music festivals and eating out. For more information and a guide to local events, visit the National Council of Tourism and Antiquities website.
Food and drink
Fine dining is a growing market in the UAE and many top hotels have recruited celebrity chefs to launch fashionable high-end restaurants. The UAE’s Islamic faith means that pork is not generally available on menus, although it can be bought in supermarkets by non-Muslims. In six of the emirates alcohol is available to non-Muslims in hotels and nightclubs, but Sharjah operates a total ban. In contrast to expensive international cuisine, traditional Emirati food uses a lot of rice, fish and meat. Lamb, goat and chicken are the staple meats, and the drinks of choice include spiced teas and gahwa – a popular cardamom-flavoured Arabic coffee.
Although Arabic is the official language in the UAE, English is very widely spoken because of the huge number of foreign residents in the country. Most signage, including road signs, is displayed in both Arabic and English. There are also several minority languages spoken, including Farsi (Persian), Hindi, Urdu, Malayalam and Bengali, but English is generally used as a common language.
Accents and dialects
The UAE predominantly uses the same Gulf Arabic dialect found in nearby states around the Persian Gulf including Bahrain, Oman, Kuwait and Qatar, although there can be quite a lot of variation in accent and sound between the different countries. The Gulf dialect differs considerably from the Saudi dialect spoken in much of Saudi Arabia.
Summers in the UAE are extremely hot and humid, with temperatures of 45°C (113°F) or even higher. The country enjoys warm and sunny winters with temperatures averaging around 25°C (77°F) in the daytime and dropping to around 15°C (59°F) at night in coastal regions. Many people are surprised to learn that the temperature in the desert can drop much lower, so make sure you dress for cooler weather, especially if you are travelling at night. Rainfall is fairly low on average, but varies hugely with some years seeing lengthy droughts and others flash flooding!
Safety and security
The UAE is generally considered safe for foreigners, but precautions should still be taken to minimise the risk of falling victim of crime. Occasional incidents of drink spiking can occur, so keep an eye on your drinks and don’t accept any from strangers. At night, take a licensed taxi or public transport rather than walking and avoid travelling alone. Woman should take particular care – always dress modestly both out of respect for Islamic beliefs and to avoid unwanted attention.
You must have an alcohol permit to purchase alcohol, and with each emirate issuing their own permits this can be a complex process. In Sharjah there is a complete ban, while alcohol laws elsewhere differ slightly between emirates, so ensure you know the local law. Drug laws are very strict, as are public decency laws. Unmarried couples are not allowed to live together in the UAE and sexual relationships outside marriage are illegal. Homosexuality is also against the law and same sex marriages are not recognised.