General information


The United Arab Emirates is a modern and dynamic country.

For most Western tourists, the UAE offers an environment that is extremely familiar. The malls are extraordinarily modern, filled with virtually any product available in the West (save sexually explicit material; movies are censored, as are, to some extent, magazines). The less well known side of the UAE includes remote, magnificent desert dunes on the edge of the Empty Quarter and craggy, awe-inspiring wadis in the north-east bordering Oman.

Alcohol is widely available at many restaurants and bars in Dubai and in the tourist hotels of every other emirate save Sharjah. There is a legal but roundly overlooked requirement to have a license to buy alcohol. The alcohol license is proof that the bearer is a non-Muslim. A passport will not suffice. However, you can purchase alcohol duty-free at the airport to bring into the UAE. Sharjah emirate is completely dry. An alcohol license is required in the emirates of Dubai, Abu Dhabi, and Ajman; the remaining emirates of Ras Al Khaimah, Fujairah, and Umm al Quwain do not require any type of license. The requirement is sometimes overlooked at certain stores.

The roads and other public facilities are modern if, at times, extremely crowded. Supermarkets offer a vast assortment of products from Europe and the U.S., depending on the shop, along with local and regional items. Major international chains such as Ikea and Carrefour have a presence and fast-food chains (nearly all from the U.S.) such as McDonald’s and KFC operate widely. On the other hand, there are still a few crowded traditional souks filled with products from around the world, rug stores. These can be hard to find for the average traveler, as the malls tend to gain an overwhelming amount of attention. (Please note that contrary to what is printed in guidebooks, the souks in Abu Dhabi were torn down in 2006 and no longer exist. The souks in Dubai are still wonderful to explore, though).


The United Arab Emirates is a federation of seven different emirates, each with its own king (or Sheikh). The capitol emirate, Abu Dhabi, covers about 70% of the nation’s land. Each emirate retains considerable autonomy, most notably over oil revenues. In theory, the President and Prime Minister are elected by the Supreme Council, which is composed of the kings of each of the seven emirates. However, in practice, the king of Abu Dhabi is always elected President while the king of Dubai is always elected Prime Minister, making the posts de facto hereditary. As a result the rulers–or Sheikhs–of each emirate are revered and can radically affect the way of life in his respective Emirate. For example, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashed al-Maktoum of Dubai is very modern, so Dubai is forward-thinking and cosmopolitan. The ruling sheikhs of Ajman and Sharjah are more conservative, thus the rules there are more strict concerning religion, alcohol, and general living conditions.


The country is extraordinarily dry, getting only a few days of rain a year. Despite that, Emiratis use water at an alarming rate: there are broad swaths of grass in the major public parks, for example, and landscaping can be extensive in the resorts or other public places. The majority of this water comes from desalinisation. Visitors do not pay for their water use. The weather from late October through mid-March is quite pleasant, with high temperatures ranging from around 27 °C (85 °F) to lows around 15°C (63 °F). It is almost always sunny. Rain can happen between November and February, and can cause road hazards when it does. In the summer, the temperatures soar and humidity is close to unbearable — it is widely suspected that the officially reported temperatures are “tweaked” to cut off the true summer highs, which can reach 50 °C (122 °F), or even higher!


The population is incredibly diverse. Only some 20% of the population of the Emirates are ‘real’ Emiratis; Most the rest come from the Indian Subcontinent: India, Pakistan, or Bangladesh (some 50%); other parts of Asia, particularly the Philippines, Malaysia, and Sri Lanka (another perhaps 15%); and “Western” countries (Europe, Australia, North America, South Africa; 5-6%), with the remainder from everywhere else. On any given day in, say, Dubai or Sharjah, you can see people from every continent and every social class. With this diversity, one of the few unifying factors is language, and consequently nearly everyone speaks some version of English. Nearly all road or other information signs are in English and Arabic, and English is widely spoken, particularly in the hospitality industry. On the other hand, there are elements that would be unsettling for overseas travelers, such as fully veiled women, but as this is “their way”, tourists should show respect and will be offered the same in turn.


The weekend in the the U.A.E. for most government and public services as well as businesses runs from Friday to Saturday; for many, Thursday may be a half day (although most often work all day Saturdays). In nearly every city, commercial activity will be muted on Friday mornings, but after the noon services at the mosques most businesses open and Friday evenings can be crowded.

The major exception is during the fasting month of Ramadan, when the rhythm of life changes drastically. Restaurants (outside tourist hotels) stay closed during the daylight hours, and while most offices and shops open in the morning from 8AM to 2PM or so, they usually close in the afternoon while people wait (or sleep) out the last hours of the fast. After sundown, people gather to break their fast with a meal known as iftar, often held in outdoor tents (not uncommonly air-conditioned in the UAE!), which traditionally starts with dates and a sweet drink. Some offices reopen after 8PM or so and stay open well after midnight, as many people stay up late until the morning hours. Just before sunrise, a meal called sohoor is eaten, and then the cycle repeats again.


Emiratis are a proud but welcoming people and, when not in their cars, are generally extremely civil and friendly. Like most peoples of the world, they welcome visitors who are willing to show some amount of respect and can be extremely generous. (Some expats and visitors do not understand that revealing clothing can be quite offensive to some people, even if nothing is said to the offenders.) Their culture is unique and can be highly conservative, but overall they are quite attuned to the ways, customs, events, media, and manners of the world.

Local men usually wear a “Kandoura” (more commonly known as a dish-dash), a long robe (typically white), and ghutra, a red-checked or white headdress. Local women wear a black robe-like garment (abaya) and a black head scarf (shayla).

The UAE is more conservative than most Western societies, though not as much as some of its neighbors. Travelers should be aware and respect the more traditional outlook in the UAE, as there are behaviors typical in the West (for example, making “rude and insulting gestures”) that will result in arrest in the UAE. On the other hand, Western travelers will find most of the UAE quite comfortable.

Although women are not legally required to wear the hijab, revealing fashions such as tank tops and shorts should be avoided. Below-the-knee skirts are somewhat more acceptable, although you will still incur stares. However, there are quite a few tourist or expatriate-dominated zones where even “provocative” dress may be seen, although not necessary respected. These include many areas of the Emirate of Dubai and, for example, beach resorts in Ajman or Fujairah. Public nudity anywhere is strictly forbidden and will be punished. Sharjah is the most conservative of the Emirates with public decency statutes (i.e., forbidding overly revealing clothing or certain kinds of beach wear), but few of them are enforced (although that varies).


Citizens of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) nations do not require a visa, may enter using a National ID card, and may stay, work and travel in the Emirates indefinitely.

Citizens of the European Union (except Ireland and the United Kingdom), Andorra, Iceland, Liechtenstein, Monaco, Norway, San Marino, Seychelles, Switzerland and Vatican City do not require a visa for stays of up to 90 days within a 180 day period.

Citizens of Australia, Brunei, Canada, China, Hong Kong, Ireland, Japan, Macau, Malaysia, New Zealand, Singapore, South Korea, United Kingdom and the United States, in addition to persons holding British National (Overseas) passports may obtain a free visa on arrival valid for 30 days. Extension is possible for a fee.

Citizens of India holding a valid US visa or Green Card do not require an advance visa for visit purpose and can get a visa on arrival, valid for 14 days, from any port of entry. It costs AED 100. The US visa/GC must be valid for 6 months beyond the date of arrival. An extension is possible for another 14 days for an additional fee.

Several other countries are eligible for free hotel/tour-sponsored tourism visas. See UAE Interact [2] for the latest details.

All other nationalities will be required to apply for a visa in advance, which will require a sponsor from inside the UAE. Your travel agent will usually be able or arrange this for you if you book your hotel through them.

The UAE and Israel do not have diplomatic relations, and as such Israeli passports will not be recognised at the border. Holders of Israeli passport need to make advance arrangements for an entry permit. If you are travelling for business with a UAE company, they would normally be able to organise it fairly quickly; chances of getting one for tourism purposes are very small (unless you are a high net worth individual; your specialist travel agent should be able to advise on it in such case). However, despite much online misinformation to the contrary, Israeli visa stamps are — by official policy [3] — not a problem at all, and neither is having been born in Israel or Palestine.

If you are travelling from India (not sure of the procedure from other countries), please get a stamp of ‘OK to Board’. Most of the times, it is arranged by your travel agent. In case he hasn’t then as soon as you get your Visa; take your Visa, Passport and Ticket to your Airlines office and get the stamp of ‘OK to board’. Without this you might not be allowed to travel to UAE.


The crime rate is extremely low in the United Arab Emirates, although of course one must use common sense.

There are a couple of things you should be aware of are to do with drug laws in the UAE. Some common painkillers in western countries are illegal narcotics in the UAE like codeine. Don’t bring any with you unless you carry a copy of your prescription or you may join others who have received jail sentences. In contrast, antibiotics are freely available over the counter at pharmacies. If you receive a prescription for controlled drugs in the UAE, such as some painkillers and antidepressants, be sure to keep the copy of the prescription with you when traveling out of the country.

Another trap for the unwary is that if you are suspected of being under the influence of drugs or alcohol, a blood test can be taken, and if it shows evidence of substances that are illegal in the UAE, then you will probably end up in jail even if the substances were ingested in the country that you were previously in. In addition to testing your blood, they will likely check your belongings. People have been jailed for possession for finding microscopic specks of drugs on them with highly sensitive equipment.

Another cause for concern is the very high rate of automobile accidents: besides due care while driving a vehicle, crossing the road on foot can be quite dangerous as well.