The United Arab Emirates (UAE) is a union of seven sovereign sheikhdoms, formed when the British withdrew from the Gulf in 1971. Travel agents are beginning to promote it as that much hyped land of contrasts . There s a grain of truth in the cliché this time round, for it boasts mountains, beaches, deserts, oases, camel racing, Bedouin markets and the legendary duty free shopping of Dubai, all packed into a relatively small area. If you only visit one country in the Gulf, the UAE is your best choice: it has the most relaxed entry regulations in the region, the best tourist infrastructure and, despite promoting itself exclusively to tourists with a buck or three to spend, it s extremely accessible to independent budget travellers. Moreover, the Emirates we considered safe and secure for travellers, although demonstrations and political gatherings are best avoided.
Full country name: United Arab Emirates
Area: 83,600 sq km (32,400 sq mi)
Population: 2.3 million
Capitals: Abu Dhabi (pop 500,000 est.)
People: Arab (61%), South Asian (22%), Iranian (8%), other expats (9%)
Religion: Muslim (96%) Hindu (4%)
Government: Federated monarchy
President: President Shaikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al-Nahyan
GDP: US$40 billion
GDP per head: US$17,400
Annual growth: -5%
Major industries: Oil, gas, petrochemicals, fishing
Major trading partners: USA, EU, Japan, South Korea, India
Visas: British citizens and nationals of most Gulf countries do not require visas; Gulf citizens can stay as long as they want, Britons for up to three months. All other visitors are required to have visas. Your hotel can sponsor you for a 15-day, nonrenewable transit visa or a one-month renewable visit visa. Note that if your passport shows evidence of travel to Israel you will be denied entry to the UAE.
Health risks: Hepatitis A & B
Time: GMT/UTC plus 4 hours
Electricity: 220V (240V in Abu Dhabi), 50Hz
Weights & measures: Metric
When to go
The best time of the year to visit the UAE is between November and April, when the weather is at its best. The rest of the year you re more likely to be running from one air-conditioned environment to the next instead of getting out and about and exploring.
Ramadan, the muslim month of fasting, is strictly adhered to in the UAE; that means no eating, drinking or smoking in public from sunrise to sunset. Places that normally serve alcohol stop serving it during this month. Ramadan is in December-January for the next couple of years.
Watersports are popular along the UAE s coast, and the tourist industry is keen to promote the country as a winter sea & sun destination for Europeans suffering seasonal chills. Most watersports facilities, like dive centres or jetski hire operations, are part of upmarket hotels and are not generally accessible to independent travellers. Camel safaris can be arranged in Al-Ain. Desert safaris or wadi bashing , which involves zooming around the desert in a 4WD, can be organised in Dubai or Sharjah.
For a rather more timid but highly surreal experience, there are a number of golf courses with real grass in Dubai, though you ll have to be a guest at a swanky hotel or be invited by a member to play. There are also dress regulations to meet, high fees to pay and water conservation issues to wrestle with.
Attractions - Dubai
Dubai's is one of the last bastions of anything-goes capitalism - a city whose wealth is based on trade, not oil - and there s no place quite like it in the Gulf. There isn t a lot to see in Dubai but it s the most easygoing city in the region, has the best nightlife and boasts copious opportunities for duty-free shopping. It s well worth spending a few days wandering through the souks (markets) and along the waterfront to take in the city s atmosphere, but don t expect to find anything old in Dubai. Fortunately it s the one place in the Gulf where that hardly seems to matter.
Of the UAE's seven emirates, Dubai has fought the hardest to preserve its independence and minimise the power of the country s federal institutions. It boasts the highest international profile of all the Gulf cities, hosting world-class golf and tennis tournaments, horse racing and desert rallies. It even brought the Miss World pageant to the Gulf in 1995. Dubai s wealth comes from the re-export trade: its merchants import goods and then re-export them rather than peddling them at home. In the past, re-export was basically a euphemism for smuggling, particularly of gold to India. Dubai s trade is now largely legal, and the gold has been replaced by consumer goods, which are trans-shipped to the Indian Subcontinent and the rest of the Arabian Peninsula; it also has its own oil reserves.
Dubai is really two towns: Deira to the north-east, and Dubai to the south-west. They are separated by the Creek (al-khor), an inlet of the Gulf. The city centre is actually in Deira, and most of the budget hotels are located in Deira s souk. The best way to start exploring Dubai is to hire an abra, (a motorised water taxi) for a boat ride along the Creek. It s also interesting to walk along the docks on the Deira side of the Creek, where dhows bound for ports ranging from Aden to Mumbai (Bombay) load and unload their cargo.
The Dubai Museum occupies the Al-Fahaidi Fort, built in the early 19th century on the Dubai side of the Creek. The fort is thought to be the oldest building in Dubai and for many years it was both the residence of Dubai s rulers and the seat of government. The museum contains displays on the history of Dubai, Bedouin life, seafaring, flora and fauna, weaponry, Emirati dances, musical instruments and local archaeology. The slick multimedia presentation on the city is well worth catching and includes a re-creation of the Dubai souk as it looked in the 1950s. If you want to see what the city looks like today, head 4km (2.5mi) south to the viewing gallery on the 37th floor of the World Trade Centre.
Beyond the multimedia displays, not much remains of the city s old covered souks, though there are remnants just east of Dubai s and just north of Deira s abra docks; both have wind towers (the Gulf s unique architectural form of non-electrical air-conditioning) nearby. The highlight of the city s markets is Deira s gold souk, just north-west of the abra dock. It s a fitting testament to the city s smuggling past, and even seasoned veterans of Middle Eastern gold markets are blown away by the scale of the souk, the largest such market in Arabia.
If you're in Dubai to indulge in some serious shopping, you're in mall heaven. One of these beasts opens every year and it s always bigger and flashier than the last. Cheap electronics can be found in the Beniyas Square area of Deira, not far from the covered souk. Nightlife is centred around the expensive restaurants, bars and discos in the upmarket hotels. It ain t cheap, but if you ve been travelling elsewhere in the Gulf you ll just be happy that it exists at all - at least until you hear the awful lounge singers who are standard fare in most venues.
Dubai is on the UAE s northern coast, approximately 125km (80mi) east of Abu Dhabi, accessible from the capital by shared taxi and minibus.