United Arab Emirates travel guide
About United Arab Emirates
Comprised of little more than sand dunes, crumbling forts and fishing villages a century ago, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has grown into a show-stopping, headline-grabbing destination which offers an intriguing blend of traditional Islamic culture and rampant consumerism.
Powered largely (but by no means exclusively) by oil wealth, the UAE today is defined by opulent resort hotels, ultra-modern architecture and a seemingly unending thirst for new and innovative mega-projects. Manmade islands in the shape of palm trees? Tick. Billionaire royals taking over Premiership football clubs? Tick. Tallest building on the planet? Naturally.
Seven separate emirates make up the country, but visitor attention falls mainly on Dubai and Abu Dhabi. Both are home to an ever-growing spread of luxury accommodation, gourmet restaurants, branded nightclubs and gleaming shopping malls. Dubai’s most iconic sights include the sail-shaped “7-star” hotel Burj Al Arab, the Burj Khalifa skyscraper and the sea-themed Atlantis Resort, which are microcosms of the UAE’s lofty ambitions.
The regular fountain show in the Downtown area rivals that of the Bellagio in Las Vegas, while vast shopping complexes like Dubai Mall (complete with one of the world’s largest aquariums) and Mall of the Emirates (complete with ski slope) are packed with premium international labels.
Abu Dhabi, meanwhile, doesn’t have quite the same verve but boasts some remarkable attractions, from the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque to the Ferrari World theme park. And in both destinations, there’s the option to delve into the UAE’s blend of Islamic culture and modernity, from spice souks to falcon hospitals. Meanwhile, the vast natural desert offers endless discoveries via exciting modes of transport from hot air balloon and quad bike to helicopter or sandboard.
And don’t be dazzled by Abu Dhabi and Dubai alone – the other emirates are also worthy of exploration. Among them, coastal Fujairah offers nature walks and a host of outdoor adventures, including mountain biking and scuba diving, while Ras al-Khamiah has excellent off-road driving and hiking in the rugged Hajar Mountains.
83,600 sq km (32,278 sq miles).
9,266,971 (UN estimate 2016).
69.1 per sq km.
Federation of seven autonomous emirates. The highest federal authority is the Supreme Council of Rulers comprising the absolute rulers of the seven emirates. Decisions reached by the council must have the agreement of at least five members, including Abu Dhabi and Dubai, the two largest members. The council appoints a president to act as head of state. There are no political parties.
President Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed al-Nahyan since 2004.
Vice President and Prime Minister of the United Arab Emirates and Ruler of Dubai Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum since 2006.
220 volts AC, 50Hz. British-style plugs with three square pins are standard.
Last updated: 13 March 2017
The travel advice summary below is provided by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in the UK. ‘We’ refers to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. For their full travel advice, visit www.gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice.
Over 1.5 million British visitors travel to the UAE every year and more than 100,000 British nationals are resident there. The vast majority of visits are trouble-free, but you should take sensible precautions to protect yourself and your belongings. Don’t accept lifts from strangers. Use only licensed taxis or other recognized forms of public transport.
Personal attacks, including sexual assault and rape, are relatively rare, but do happen. UAE law places a high burden of proof on the victim to demonstrate that the sexual relations were not consensual, especially when the victim had consumed alcohol or where the alleged attacker was known to the victim. If the sexual relations are determined to have been consensual, both parties may face prosecution for the offence of sex outside marriage. In 2013, a Norwegian woman who reported her rape to Dubai police was convicted of sex outside marriage and illegal consumption of alcohol.
Female visitors and residents should take care when walking or travelling alone, and should use a reputable taxi company, particularly at night. Drink spiking can occur. Don’t accept drinks from strangers or leave drinks unattended.
Rip currents can occur at any beach, and can sweep even the strongest swimmer out to sea. Always comply with warning signs, especially red flags, and only swim from approved beaches.
If you’re visiting the UAE, you can drive a rental car using your UK driving licence. If you intend to drive a private vehicle as a visitor, you should check that you’re covered under the vehicle’s insurance.
If you’re applying for residence in the UAE, you can use your UK licence until your residence permit is issued, after which you’ll need to immediately get a UAE driving licence from the traffic department.
Driving standards in the UAE are not always as disciplined as in the UK and there is a high rate of traffic accidents. The World Health Organisation has reported that UAE road users are almost 7 times more likely to be killed than their UK counterparts and that the UAE has one of the highest rates of road deaths. Speeding is common.
It is a criminal offence in the UAE to drink and drive, no matter how small the amount. Your insurance is also likely to be invalidated in the event of an accident. Offensive gestures and bad language used at other drivers can lead to fines, a jail sentence, and possibly deportation. Flashing your lights in the UAE can mean a driver is coming through, rather than giving way.
If you have an accident you should follow the rules of the Emirate in which you are travelling. In Abu Dhabi, if no one has been hurt and vehicle damage is minor, drivers should move vehicles to the side of the road to avoid blocking traffic; otherwise, the vehicles should not be moved. In Dubai, you should only move your vehicle if it is causing an obstruction to other motorists. In the other Emirates, you may only move your car if the accident is minor and both parties agree on who is responsible for it. In all cases, call the police. It is an offence to leave the scene of an accident before the police have arrived.
Excursions to the desert can be dangerous unless you’re in a properly equipped 4 x 4 vehicle. Always travel in convoy with other cars, take a supply of water and a mobile telephone, and leave a copy of your travel plans with friends or relatives.
Pedestrians should take great care. Only cross roads using designated pedestrian crossings, failure to comply can lead to prosecution. Vehicles often don’t stop at zebra crossings marked on the roads.
Many areas of the Gulf are highly sensitive, including near maritime boundaries and the islands of Abu Musa and the Tunbs in the southern Gulf. Vessels entering these areas have been detained and inspected. Mariners should make careful enquiries before entering these waters.
You should consider how regional tensions may affect your route. Vessels operating in the Gulf of Oman, Northern Arabian Sea, Gulf of Aden and Bab El Mandeb regions may be at increased risk of maritime attack.
Be careful when travelling by tourist boat. The safety of these vessels may not be up to UK standards. Make sure life jackets are available for all passengers.
Events in the Middle East, including Iraq and the Middle East Peace Process, can affect local public opinion. Follow news reports and be alert to local and regional developments, which might trigger public disturbances.