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.