Although famous for the tallest building, Burj Khaifa, and its extravagant and sophisticated hotels and malls, United Arab Emirates has a rich culture and heritage. Emiratis are some of the most welcoming people in the region; U.A.E., is a good country to start you Middle East journey. U.A.E. is one of the most cosmopolitan country and gives you a feel of any western country in a lot of ways.
United Arab Emirates is made of seven states; these states are called as Emirates. Each emirate has its own king/ sheikh. The capital, Abu Dhabi, covers 70% of the land area, a major part is the empty quarter; Liwa and Al Ain cities come under the Abu Dhabi emirate. Locals/ Emiratis make up only 20% of the population and the rest of it is expats; 50% of those expats are from the Indian Sub-continent. Because of this, Hindi and Urdu are widely spoken.
Safety and local expectations
Local men wear the long white dress, called the kandura (locally called as dish-dash), and local women wear the long black dress, called the abaya; some women also cover their face and the only thing that is visible is their eyes. It’s courteous to say As-Salam-aleykum (return phrase is Wa-alekum-Salam) and not shake hands with the ladies, unless they extend a hand. Although jeans and T-shirts/ shirts is a normal dress code, women will draw stares at them if found wearing revealing tank-tops and extremely short shorts. Swim wear in beaches is fine; however, complete nudity is against the law.
Alcohol is widely available in hotels and restaurants, except in the emirate Sharjah. During the month of Ramadan (it changes every year), almost all restaurants are mostly closed during daylight hours, and you will not find anyone eating or during in public; shops and restaurants remain open until four in the morning. Please do not drink and drive in U.A.E. (alcohol level in your blood should be 0%) this will put you behind bars; it is advisable to take a taxi.
Some of the medicines that contain codeine, diazepam (Valium) or dextromethorphan (Robitussin) are banned, although you may carry them if you have your doctor’s legible and notarized prescription with you. Possession of drugs, even in minute amounts, will lead to a jail term for at least 4 years.
Internet access to some websites, for instance, the ones with Israeli domain il, and pornographic ones. Voice-over IP services such as Skype, WhatsApp Calling and Zoom are blocked by the local service provider; a lot people use VPNs to override them.
People from most of the western nations either get visa on arrival or do not require visa; other nationalities need to apply for visa beforehand before landing in one of the seven states. Please this link to check- https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Visa_requirements_for_Indian_citizens. Please change the name of the country as per your requirement.
People from GCC (Gulf Corporation Council) nations (except Qatar at the moment because of ongoing political crisis) do not require visa and they can enter by using their National ID card. Please note that visa requirements can differ slightly, depending on the Emirate you will land in.
Air: Emirates and Etihad are the two big airlines of UAE that connect to almost all the big cities around the world; Emirates operates from Dubai and Etihad’s hub is Abu Dhabi; these two cities are only approximately 100 kilometers away from each other. Other famous airlines from UAE are Air Arabia and Fly Dubai; both are low cost airlines, but both of them offer excellent connectivity.
Most of the major airlines from other countries, such as British Airways, KLM, Air India, Singapore Airlines, Cathay Pacific, Lufthansa, etc., fly to Dubai and Abu Dhabi.
Road: Traveling by road is one of the best ways to go around the country. Renting a car is easy and one of the cheaper ways of commuting. Remember to check that your car has a Salik sticker (a kind of a toll card) attached and is topped up with credit as it is required to travel around and within Dubai and Sharjah. Roads in UAE are some of the finest in the world and driving is a sheer delight; be extremely careful while driving on UAE roads though, as some drivers are extremely reckless and drive very fast; hence, death rate, because of car accidents, is one of highest in the world.
Taxis are widely available in all of the Emirates; however, traffic jams in main parts of Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Sharjah can be long and painful during certain times of the day. Ladies can find “female only” pink taxis- both in Dubai and Abu Dhabi.
You may also go to Oman and Saudi Arabia by road; check the visa requirements beforehand.
Sea: Lately, there are cruise liners that operate to India and Mediterranean region; check with your tour operator/ cruise liner for details.
Rail: Dubai has an excellent metro, monorail and tram network system, and it is one of the best and fastest way to commute within the city; Abu Dhabi is planning to make its own. There are also plans of starting trains between Abu Dhabi and Dubai.
Buses: Dubai and Abu Dhabi have a good number and frequent buses running within these cities and are quite cheap. Inter-city buses are quite frequent too and it is one of the cheapest ways to commute between cities, although, the bus stops can be at random places and far away from your destination.
Tours: you will find travel agents, ranging from local ones to the more established ones, in every nook and corner of these cities (especially in Dubai and Abu Dhabi). Depending on how much you are ready to pay, tours can range from a decently priced ones to exorbitantly high.
When to go
As a major part of the country is a desert (even the present day big cities used to be a desert), it is mostly very hot and dry during 8 -9 months of the year. Temperature can go more than 50 ’C/ 122 ‘F in May/ June. A good time to visit U.A.E is from late October to early March; temperature ranges between 15 ’C to 27 ’C. If shopping and spending time in your hotel is the only thing on your mind, you may visit U.A.E during any time of the year.
Where to Stay
You can choose to stay at the luxurious and super-expensive hotels such as Burj-Al-Arab (in Dubai) to Emirates Palace (in Abu Dhabi) or the mid-range hotels or at service apartments. There are a lot of options to choose from- depending on your budget. Hotels can be expensive during the peak season time (November- March). Late October and early April are also good months to explore U.A.E, and you might get slightly lowered rates.
What to Eat
Although you will find all kinds of food in UAE, try out a mix grill of koftas, shishtouks and kebabs of your choice. The local bread, Kubz, is worth a try with hummus (chickpeas paste). Traditional Shawarma and falafel sandwiches can be found in almost every locality and is a great snack/ meal. (Similar to Biryani) is worth trying out too.
Arabic coffee, along with dates, is a traditional drink offered when you go to an Arab’s house. The other local drink to try out is a cooling lemon and mint drink; it is mostly made with water, but you can request for soda water instead.
As the temperature can soar to 50 ’C, food in local and smaller restaurants can get spoiled and lead to food-poisoning. Drink a lot of water during the summer months as dehydration can lead to fainting and heat-stroke.
Top Things to See and Do
The biggest of the seven Emirates, Abu Dhabi has the biggest oil reserves, and it has some of the finest parks and mangroves areas (you will be surprised by the amount of greenery in Abu Dhabi, given that U.A.E. is a desert). People mostly have heard about Dubai and not much about Abu Dhabi; however, this is rapidly changing, and you can almost find all that you will in Dubai (not the highest building in the world though; as a quirky note: Burj Khalifa is owned by Abu Dhabi government).
The main part of Abu Dhabi is that wedge-shaped island, although it is expanding very fast- other islands are popping up and the airport is on mainland of U.A.E.
Sheikh Zayed mosque is the 6th largest mosque in the world and is a must see. Guided tours are held a few times a day; please check their official website for details. Like most of the big cities in the Middle East, Abu Dhabi has some of the finest malls such as Marina Mall, Abu Dhabi Mall, Yas Mall, Khalidiyah Mall etc.
An upcoming and most happening place is Yas island. It has the famous F1 circuit, Ferrari world amusement park, Yas waterworld and warner brothers just opened up an amusement park in July 2018.
The water front called Corniche is 6 kilometers long and offers a spectacular view of the Arabian sea; water is turquoise and warm. it’s a walk that stretches from Al Mina to Marina Mall. Heritage village is a small place that gives you the feel of old Abu Dhabi. The view of the flag pole and water front is particularly good from here.
Emirates Palace near Marina Mall is worth discovering too. Next to one of the royal palaces, Emirates Palace boasts of the finest hospitality in the world; dare to try a cup of cappuccino dusted with 24-Karat gold flakes? Head to Le Café in Emirates Palace!
Al Ain is around 90 minute drive from Abu Dhabi and an hour drive from Dubai. It is quite close to the Omani border. Al Ain used to the get-away city for the rulers of Abu Dhabi; no wonder, it falls under Abu Dhabi state. The top of Jebel Hafeet offers a spectacular view of the valley underneath; please note that a long stretch (around 12 kilometers) is full of hairpin turns- so, caution while driving is advised. At the base of Jebel Hafeet, there are a lot of places where you can enjoy water sports.
Al Ain museum and fort is a good place to spend a few hours and get to know about the history of U.A.E.
Most of us think about Dubai, when someone talks about the Middle East, not only U.A.E. Dubai is a large and cosmopolitan city that has something for everyone. It boasts of the tallest tower in the world and some of the finest hotels and malls. With liberal policies and a welcoming attitude for all kinds of visitors, Dubai offers long and short stays for water sports, fine dining, relaxing, sun bathing, shopping, partying and all kinds of events.
Head to Jumeirah beach and soak yourself, not only sun bathing, but also in some good food and shopping at “The Walk”. Downtown Dubai is the area of Bur Dubai and Deira; it has Burj Khalifa, Dubai mall and some other fancy hotels and restaurants; if you want to be blinded by huge amounts of glistening yellow gold, head to the gold souq in Deira. Karama is the old part of Dubai and might give you a feel of “Little India” and/ or “Little Philippines”; head here for some cheap and authentic Indian and Filipino cuisines.
Take a ride in one of the small boats (locally called as abra) in the creek, and it will give you a fair idea of pearl-diving and trade between U.A.E and Asia, particularly India. Ibn Battuta Mall, on your way to Dubai from Abu Dhabi, is worth visiting as it; it has six courts, and the designs are inspired by Ibn Battuta, the Moroccan explorer. You can kill your time in other malls such as Mall of Emirates, Dubai Marina, city center, Dubai mall etc. You pretty much find the same brands, but you will find an indoor ski resort and snow park in Mall of Emirates.
Bastakiya district in old Dubai has some of the ruins of Fahidi fort and also houses Dubai museum; you will be awed by the details of this city and country- how it transformed from a poor pearling village to this glamourous city. Head to the spice souq for local herbs and other ingredients, or the souq Madinat Jumeirah for traditional architecture; you can get some pretty good deals here.
If you are into seeing the tallest/ biggest/ largest/ fattest (I’m kidding) things in the world, the observatory on the 124th floor of the tallest building in the world, Burj Khalifa, is the place for you. It is advisable to book your tickets online as they can sell out quite quickly.
The Palm islands (actually in the shape of a palm tree) is one of the largest artificial islands in the world; it has some of the most upscale shopping areas and beaches. Like the other emirates, desert safari and dune- bashing is a popular sport; however, you can witness a camel race in the winters here.
You might not read about Global village in most of the famous blogs/ posts about Dubai, but Global village will give you a feel of mini-world in one place. There are shopping and eating areas from different countries. So, you can buy Chinese, Indian, Iranian, Thai or things from stalls of almost any country here; street shows and performances happen the entire day; go during late-afternoon hours in winters.
Fujairah is around two hour drive from Dubai and around three hour drive from Abu Dhabi, depending on the route that you take. It’s a sheer place to drive to Fujairah as you will come across untouched mother nature- endless deserts, steep mountains and camels walking at their own pace, oblivious to the fast paced cars, people and cities around them.
On the outskirts of the main city is a fort, now in ruins, screams of its glorious past; it is worth spending at least half an hour here to appreciate the Bedouin life.
Indian ocean can be quite enticing; for the opulent water and white sandy beaches, Dibba (around 30 kilometers from Fujairah) and Khor Fakkan (around 19 kilometers), which is surrounded by Fujairah state, but belongs to Sharjah. There are a lot of resorts that have come up lately, and you sure can have some “time with nature” here.
Sharjah is the only state where you will not get alcohol. Due to its closeness to Dubai and cheap rentals, a lot people live in Sharjah, but work in Dubai; hence, traffic during peak hours can be a drag.
Don’t be turned off by the above facts; head to the corniche area and discover Al Hisn fort, Sharjah museum of Islamic civilization, House of Poetry and Sharjah Calligraphy museum. Souq Al Asra is one of the oldest souqs in U.A.E; fill your senses with the aromatic spices, authentic antiques, handicrafts and carpets, and enjoy a cup of mint tea in one of the cafes here.
If you want to soak yourself in the culture of U.A.E., head to Al-Kabsa and eye of Emirates; the ambience gives an old world feel, but there are plenty of activities for everyone. If you want to know what aviation used to be in 1930s, head to Al Mahatta museum, it houses four propeller aircrafts and shows a short movie about one of the first airports, old Sharjah airport, that was opened in 1932.
Desert safari is on the list of most of the tourists who come to UAE. This can be booked on the day of the trip or beforehand (a lot of travel agents to choose from), and it includes a late afternoon ride to the dunes in a 4X4 car, camel ride, Arabic buffet dinner and belly dancing. Ladies can get their hands tattooed with henna; the traditional designs are quite exquisite.
You will find white-sandy beaches in almost all of the Emirates- ranging from untouched ones to highly developed ones, from the ones owned by hotels to the corniches developed by the city councils. The water is crystal-turquoise, warm and clean, and you will find a lot of tourists by the beach, especially when the weather cools down a bit. You might attract undue attention at public beaches; I suggest that you pay entry fee to one of the private beaches of any hotel so that you can relax and soak up the sun.
U.A.E., especially Dubai, boasts of some of the best shopping places in the world. Sale is on throughout the year, although December and January months have shopping festivals going on throughout the country. You will find all the major brands in the malls; head to the souqs (traditional shopping area) to pick up a hooka or local souvenirs.
U.A.E. has been home away from home for more than a decade now. I’ve been to five of the seven Emirates, and the people of this country make me feel at home.
My first six months in U.A.E. were spent in hotels and hotel-apartments, and I discovered major parts of these cities on foot. I would go for long walks (I still do), and I discovered small Indian restaurants that would sell the best Indian street food, or the little shops selling carpets and hookas, or areas selling the finest dates and other fresh produce. Feel free to get in touch for details.