Understand United Arab Emirates
The United Arab Emirates is a modern and dynamic country. To some, it is an advanced and clean country, to others a touristy “Disneyland”.
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). 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, or around 120°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.
* 2013 CE (1434 AH): 9 July – 7 August
* 2014 CE (1435 AH): 28 June – 27 July
* 2015 CE (1436 AH): 18 June – 16 July
The festival of Eid ul-Fitr is held after the end of Ramadan and may last several days. Exact dates depend on astronomical observations and may vary from country to country.
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.