United Arab Emirates

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Introduction to United Arab Emirates

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) is a union of seven sovereign sheikhdoms, formed when the British withdrew from the Gulf in 1971. 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.

It also 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 (or four) to spend, it's extremely accessible to independent budget travellers.

If you crossed Texas with Tehran, you'd be left with something resembling today's UAE. It's a contradictory place where traditional Bedouin customs and lifestyle meet Western consumerism and big-town sophistication. The wonder is that, rather than clashing, these disparate influences have merged and formed something quite unique - a 21st-century nation that seems to effortlessly combine the cultures of conservative Islam and the free-and-easy West. It's a sort of 'Middle East lite', where travellers will experience a culture that's exotic and familiar all at once.

Full country name: United Arab Emirates

Area: 83,600 sq km

Population: 2.4 million

Capital City: Abu Dhabi (pop 500,000 est.)

People: Arab (61%), South Asian (22%), Iranian (8%), other expats (9%)

Language: Arabic, Persian, English, Hindi, Urdu

Religion: Muslim (96%) Hindu, Christian and other (4%)

GDP: US$40 billion

GDP per capita: US$17,400

Annual Growth: -5%

Inflation: 5%

Major Industries: Oil, gas, petrochemicals, fishing

Major Trading Partners: USA, EU, Japan, South Korea, India

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Traveler Facts

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

Time Zone: GMT/UTC +4

Dialling Code: 971

Electricity: 220V ,50Hz

Weights & measures: Metric



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Events

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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Best time to Visit

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.



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Currency / Costs / Approx. Spending

Currency: UAE Dirham

Meals

Budget: Dh10-15

Mid-range: Dh15-20

High: Dh20-40

Deluxe: Dh40+

Lodging

Budget: Dh55-150

Mid-range: Dh150-500

High: Dh500-1200

Deluxe: Dh1200+

The UAE is not a low-budget country, but it is possible to keep costs under a semblance of control. Plan on spending around US$50 a day for budget to mid-range travel; perhaps half that in Dubai and Fujairah, which have good youth hostels, and perhaps double that in Abu Dhabi, which has no cheap hotels.

You can change money at moneychangers or banks; moneychangers sometimes offer better rates than banks but they can be fussy about changing traveller's cheques. The best currency to bring is US dollars, followed by British pounds. Credit cards are widely accepted and there are plenty of ATMs connected to one or more of the global ATM systems.

Tips are not generally expected in the UAE, but they are certainly appreciated as most waiters earn extremely low salaries. The service charge added to your bill usually goes to the restaurant, not the serving staff. Most hotels are willing to negotiate discounts but virtually all other prices in the UAE are fixed.

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Attractions

Abu Dhabi

Everything in Abu Dhabi is modern, sleek and shiny. The United Arab Emirate's capital is often accused of being a rather soulless place, but that's going a bit too far: it's not exactly buzzing, and it may have more sheen than atmosphere, but it does have its attractions.

If you're prepared to look below the surface of the modern Abu Dubai, you'll find traces of the pearling village it was such a short time ago. Start at the city's old fort and wander the streets to discover local history, Islamic art both ancient and modern, and the ageless life of wharf and souk.

Al-Ain

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 much loved former ruler of Abu Dhabi, who proudly lavished funds on it.

Dubai

Dubai is the quintessential home of sand, sun and shopping. A century ago, it was a tranquil town whose coral-and-gypsum huts housed Bedouin traders and pearl divers. Today the merchants have gone international and science-fiction skyscrapers stand alongside the mosques and wind towers of Old Dubai.

There are two sides of Dubai to explore - the sleek, futuristic world of mirrored skylines, chilled-air malls and James Bond-style artificial islands; and old Dubai, perhaps most clearly represented by its ancient mosques and countless souks, all of which sell a different speciality.

Sharjah

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 and plenty of sights to see.

Some of its highlights are 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.

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Disclaimer: We've tried to make the information on this web site as accurate as possible, but it is provided 'as is' and we accept no responsibility for any loss, injury or inconvenience sustained by anyone resulting from this information. You should verify critical information like (visas, health and safety, customs, and transportation) with the relevant authorities before you travel.

Sources: CIA FactBook, World FactBooks and numerous Travel and Destinations Guides.

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