The United Arab Emirates (UAE) is a union of seven sovereign sheikhdoms, formed when the British withdrew from the Gulf in 1971. It is promoted as the 'land of contrasts' 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 is considered very safe and secure.
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Full country name: United Arab Emirates
Area: 83,600 sq km (32,400 sq mi)
Population: 2.3 million
Capital city: Abu Dhabi (pop 500,000 est.)
People: Arab (61%), South Asian (22%), Iranian (8%), other expats (9%)
Language: Arabic Religion: Muslim (96%) Hindu (4%)
Government: Federated monarchy
Head of State: President Shaikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al-Nahyan
GDP: US$40 billion
GDP per head: US$17,400
Annual growth: -5%
Major industries: Oil, gas, petrochemicals, fishing
Major trading partners: USA, EU, Japan, South Korea, India
Currency: UAE Dirham, fixed to the US$ at Dhs. 3,67 to the Dollar
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The United Arab Emirates occupies the rhinoceros horn that protrudes into the Persian Gulf from the north-eastern tip of the Arabian peninsula. It's bordered by Saudi Arabia in the south and west, and Oman in the east. Its northern coast faces Iran across the Persian Gulf, while Qatar is just 50km (30mi) to the north-west. The seven emirates are Abu Dhabi, Ajman, Dubai, Fujairah, Ras al-Khaimah, Sharjah and Umm al Qaiwain. Combined, they cover an area roughly the same size as Portugal. The Emirate of Abu Dhabi represents 85% of this total; the smallest of the emirates, Ajman, measures only 250 sq km (100 sq mi).
Much of the interior of the UAE is featureless desert, running to the edges of the Empty Quarter, the largest sand desert in the world, which occupies south-eastern Saudi Arabia. The UAE's coastal areas are marked by salt flats, while the northern and eastern sections of the country are green and inviting with striking mountain scenery. Fauna includes the Arabian leopard and ibex, but you're unlikely to see more than camels and wild goats. In spring and autumn flocks of birds migrating from Central Asia and East Africa can sometimes be seen in the country's north. Outside of the mountainous areas of Fujairah and Ras al-Khaimah, much of the UAE's vegetation is the result of the government's 'greenery' programme: even the natural groves of date palms in the Buraimi Oasis on the country's eastern border have been supplemented by acres of grass and trees planted in municipal parks.
Rainfall is non-existent between May and October, and negligible for the rest of the year. From May to September humidity is high and daytime temperatures commonly hover around 40°C (105°F) in Abu Dhabi and Dubai. In the eastern coastal cities of Fujairah and Khor Fakkan, the climate is slightly less hostile thanks to occasional breezes; the mountains above Ras al-Khaimah also provide some relief. Average daily high temperatures drop to the more comfortable 22-30°C (70-85°F) range for the rest of the year, though it can be very windy in Abu Dhabi, much of the rest of the year - though it can turn foul in December and January, which can make getting around tricky.
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The earliest significant settlements in the UAE date from the Bronze Age. In the 3rd century BC, a culture known as Umm an-Nar's arose near the site of modern Abu Dhabi and its influence extended well into the interior and along the coast of what is now Oman. The Greeks were the next major cultural influence and ruins showing strong Hellenistic features have been found at Meleiha, about 50 km from Sharjah, and at Al-Dour, in the emirate of Umm al-Qaiwan. During the Middle Ages, much of the region was part of the kingdom of Hormuz, which controlled the entrance to, and most of the trade in, the Gulf.
The Portuguese arrived in 1498 and by 1515 had occupied Julfar near Ras al-Khaimah, building a customs house that taxed the Gulf's flourishing trade with India and the Far East. The Portuguese stuck around until 1633 and were followed by the Brits, who began exercising their naval power in the Gulf in the mid-18th century. The British came into conflict with the Qawasim tribal confederation, who were a seafaring clan whose influence extended to the Persian side of the Gulf. The British dubbed the area the Pirate Coast and launched raids against the Qawasim. In 1820, a British fleet systematically destroyed or captured every Qawasim ship it could find, imposed a General Treaty of Peace on nine Arab shaikhdoms in the area and installed a garrison in the region. As life quieted down, Europeans took to calling the area the Trucial Coast, a name it retained until 1971.
Throughout this period, the main power among the Bedouin tribes of the interior was the Bani Yas tribal confederation, made up of the ancestors of the ruling families of modern Abu Dhabi and Dubai. The Bani Yas were originally based in Liwa, an oasis on the edge of the Empty Quarter, but moved to Abu Dhabi in 1793. They engaged in the traditional Bedouin activities of camel herding, small-scale agriculture, tribal raiding and extracting protection money from caravans passing through their territory. After the British outlawed slavery along the coast, the Bani Yas took over the slave trade and Buraimi became eastern Arabia's main slave market - a position it held right up until the 1950s.
The British were not particularly interested in what the Bedouin got up to; they were focussed on securing their line of communication to India and keeping European competitors, such as France and Russia, out of the region. They formally established a protectorate over the Trucial Coast in 1892 but let the area remain a backwater of fisherpeople, pearl divers and Bedouin until the early 20th century. For most of this colonial period, Sharjah was the most populous and powerful of the emirates but it lost influence to Abu Dhabi as the 19th century drew to a close; Abu Dhabi was later overshadowed by Dubai.
The prospect of oil eventually changed the Brits' laissez-faire approach. Before oil concessions could be granted, boundaries between the various shaikhdoms had to be determined. Since none of the local rulers could agree, it was left to the Brits to demarcate the borders of the seven emirates that would eventually make up the UAE. The first oil concessions were granted in 1939 but oil wasn't found for another 14 years. Exports from Abu Dhabi began in 1962, eventually turning the poorest of the emirates into the richest. Meanwhile, Dubai concentrated its energies on cementing its reputation as the region's busiest trading post. It was already a successful entrepôt in 1966, when it was found to have oil of its own. The other shaikhs were not so lucky and began to turn to Abu Dhabi for subsidies.
Britain's announcement in 1968 that it intended to leave the Gulf in 1971 came as a shock to most of the ruling shaikhs. The Brits original plan was to form a single state consisting of Bahrain, Qatar and the Trucial Coast, but this collapsed almost immediately. Negotiations eventually led to the independence of Bahrain and Qatar and the formation of a new federation - the United Arab Emirates - in 1971. At the time many outsiders dismissed the UAE as a loosely assembled, artificial and largely British creation. While there was some truth to this, it was also true that the emirs of the smaller and poorer shaikhdoms knew their territories had no hope of surviving as independent states. Despite the doomsayers, the UAE became a major international business centre and one of the most stable and untroubled countries in the Arab world.
Not that political life in the UAE has been devoid of controversy. Border disputes among the emirates continued throughout the 1970s, and the degree to which integration among the seven shaikhdoms should be pursued has been a subject of constant debate. The UAE contributed troops to the anti-Iraq coalition in 1990-91, and foreign soldiers were stationed here during the months prior to the liberation of Kuwait. The result was a strengthening of the countries already strong ties with the West, though this has not stopped the UAE - Dubai in particular - from maintaining good relations with Iran. In early 1998, the UAE had to cope with plummeting oil prices. The price of the black sticky stuff fell 35% in the first three months of the year, affecting the UAE's government revenues, 70% of which come from oil.
In a fairy-tale solution to rivalry between the shaikhdoms, the crown prince of Dubai married the daughter of Abu Dhabi's sovereign (and president of the UAE) in 1999, bringing the two emirates together publicly and privately. The federation has resolved to shape its future using undeniably modern methods, however: a stock market and other economic reforms are in the works, and 2000 marked the fifth anniversary of the Dubai Shopping Festival, where shoppers from all over the world can peruse souks and squares of stuff on sale.
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Most Emiratis are Sunni Muslims subscribing to the Maliki or Hanbali schools of Islamic law. Many of the latter are Wahhabis, though UAE Wahhabis are not nearly as strict and puritanical as the Saudi variety; the UAE is probably the most liberal country in the Gulf but it is still very conservative by Western standards. There are also smaller communities of Ibadi and Shiite Muslims. The oddest thing about the UAE's population is that only 500,000 of the 2 million people living in the country are UAE citizens; the rest are expatriates from other Gulf countries, and from Pakistan, Iran and India.
Arabic is the official language but English is widely understood. In Dubai, you can also get by practicing your Farsi, the Persian language spoken in Iran. Urdu is spoken by the large number of Pakistani expatriates living in Abu Dhabi and Dubai.
The UAE's cuisine is the staple Middle Eastern fare of fuul (paste made from fava beans, garlic and lemon), felafel (deep fried balls of chickpea paste served in a piece of Arabic flat bread), houmos (cooked chickpea paste served with garlic and lemon) and shwarma (usually lamb or chicken served on a flat bread or pita). The standard range of non-alcoholic drinks are widely available; alcohol is only sold in restaurants and bars attached to three-star hotels or better and prices are pretty outrageous. Alcohol is not sold at all in Sharjah.
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Religious holidays are tied to the Islamic Hijra calendar, so dates vary from year to year. Eid al-Fitr (the end of Ramadan), Eid al-Adha (Pilgrimage), Lailat al-Mi'raj (the Ascension of the Prophet), the Prophet's Birthday and the Islamic New Year are the main celebrations. Secular holidays include New Year's Day (1 January) and National Day (1 December).
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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.
Modern, sleek and shiny, it's hard to believe that the sprawling city of Abu Dhabi was just a bleak fishing and pearling village 40 years ago. Abu Dhabi may not be the most exciting city in the Gulf but it's not as soulless as its detractors claim. Founded in 1761, Abu Dhabi became the home of the ruling Al-Nahyan family when they moved from Liwa in 1793. It became a moderately successful pearling centre in the 19th century, but the collapse of the pearling industry decimated the town and it sunk into squalor. Oil concessions were granted in the 1930s in a desperate bid to salvage the emirate. When oil revenue started pouring in thirty years later, the reed and mud-brick huts were rapidly replaced by banks and boutiques, and the settlement has now spread to occupy virtually all of the T-shaped Abu Dhabi island in the centre of the UAE's northern coast. Abu Dhabi is by far the richest and most politically important of the UAE's seven emirates.
You know you're not here for the antiquities when you realise that the Al-Hosn Palace, commonly known as the Old Fort or the White Fort, is one of the few buildings in the city over 30 years old. The original fort was built by the first ruler of the Al-Nahyan dynasty, but this was replaced by the present structure in the late 19th century. Now modernised and restored and used as a document centre, its whitewashed walls are still eye-catching amid the slick skyscrapers. The courtyard and the tilework over the main (northern) gate are particularly noteworthy.
Next to the fort is the large, faceless Cultural Foundation, which is much more interesting inside than its exterior suggests. It's mainly used as a library and research and documentation centre but often has exhibits on local history, Islamic art and old manuscripts. There's also a government-run Women's Craft Centre about 5km (3mi) south of Abu Dhabi where traditional weavings and other crafts are displayed and sold.
For a touch of local colour head to the north-east of the city and check out the dhow wharf and fish market. It's hardly comparable to Dubai's waterfront but there's a decent amount of bustle, an excellent fish restaurant and a good view of the city. The old souk on the city's northern waterfront has a small gold market and lots of houseware vendors, though it's slated to be replaced by a modern market.
Al-Ain is the main town in the Buraimi Oasis, which straddles the border between Abu Dhabi and Oman. Its sister town, Buraimi, is on the Omani side of the border, but visitors can move freely between the two, making this a fine way to get a taste of Oman without the hassle of obtaining a visa.
The oasis is probably the longest inhabited part of what is now the UAE, with settlement dating back to the 4th millenium BC. In more recent times, Al-Ain was the birthplace of Shaikh Zayed, the current ruler of Abu Dhabi, and he has lavished funds on it. Buraimi has not received the same largesse and remains a comfortable provincial town. The resulting contrast between the two communities makes this an interesting spot to visit. The other drawcard in summer is the dry heat of the oasis, a welcome relief from the humidity on the coast.
The Al-Ain Museum and Eastern Fort share the same compound in south-east Al-Ain. The museum contains exhibits on life in pre-oil days, Bedouin jewellery, weaponry, musical instruments and the interior of a Bedouin tent. An eclectic display of the decorations received by Shaikh Zayed includes the Order of Isabel the Catholic and a bullet from a Palestinian commando leader who hijacked three aircraft to Jordan in 1970. There's not a lot to see in the fort apart from an old cannon in the courtyard.
If you're in the market for a sheep or goat, stroll over to the nearby livestock souk, which attracts Bedouin and townspeople from all over southern UAE and northern Oman. It's an interesting place to wander around, especially early in the morning when trading is heaviest. There's also a small camel market in the morning close to the centre of town. When you tire of the stench of animal dung, head north across the border to the atmospheric Buraimi Souk, which is full of fruit and vegetable stalls and is backed by the Al-Hilla Fort. Nearby is the impressively restored, 400 year old Al-Khandaq Fort; it's well worth prowling around the fort's courtyard and climbing the battlements.
Camel racing takes place about 20km (12mi) from Al-Ain, on the road to Abu Dhabi, on Friday mornings during the winter months. You can also arrange camel safaris, ranging from one hour jaunts to overnight treks that include a night in a Bedouin tent. Al-Ain is a two hour drive east from Abu Dhabi; the two settlements are connected by a tree-lined freeway plied by buses and service taxis. It's roughly the same distance south of Dubai, accessible by service taxi.
The third largest of the seven emirates, Sharjah is a place that too many visitors to the UAE either miss or pass through quickly. It has some of the most interesting architecture in the country, the largest mosque in the UAE, an interesting archaeological museum, a pocket-sized Disneyland, plenty of watchtowers, a natural history museum that's the slickest in the entire Gulf, souks to rival Dubai, and an old souk that offers a window on an older way of life that has now all but disappeared. It's also a great place to purchase Persian carpets. Though Sharjah has long been seen as Dubai's poorer cousin, in the 1980s it took the lead in the development of the country's tourist development and became the main point of entry for people arriving in the UAE on package tours. Sharjah is on the northern coast, adjacent to Dubai.
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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.
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GETTING THERE & AROUND
The country's main international airports are in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, though an increasing number of carriers are servicing Sharjah as well. Smaller international airports serve Ras al-Khaimah, Fujairah and Al-Ain. There are daily services to most major European cities from Dubai and Abu Dhabi, and also to major Middle Eastern and Gulf cities. There are also connections to the USA, Africa, the Indian Subcontinent and Australia. There's no airport departure tax.
There's a daily bus service between Dubai and Muscat in Oman, though the lack of a UAE border post on the road used by the bus can present visa problems for travellers. Regular bus services operate between both Dubai and Abu Dhabi and Saudi Arabia's Eastern Province, though there are no bus or taxi services to Qatar. Boats ply between Sharjah and Bandar-é Abbas in Iran; the voyage takes 12 hours each way.
The UAE is one of those countries where having your own wheels can often mean the difference between having fun and spending much of your time planning transport options from A to B. Car rental is only slightly more expensive than in the West, and is relatively easy to arrange in Dubai and Abu Dhabi. Main roads are in pretty good shape and you should drive along them on the right. Only Dubai and Al-Ain have public bus networks useful to travellers. Note that taxis in Abu Dhabi and Al-Ain have meters but those in Dubai and the other emirates do not.
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