One of the Middle East’s most absorbing destinations, the UAE offers a fascinating window into Arabia’s traditional past and an exhilarating glimpse of its dynamic urban future.
Images of the emirates are a kaleidoscopic jumble of contrasting sights, ranging from futuristic skyscrapers and super-sized shopping malls through to rustic mudbrick forts and old-fashioned wooden dhows, often within a few miles of one another.
Until recently, life revolved around a string of vibrant and cosmopolitan coastal ports – Dubai and Sharjah, to name just two – while inland, tribes of hardy Bedu eked a meagre living out of the deserts and mountains of the interior.
The discovery of oil in the 1960s changed all that, bringing unimaginable wealth to Abu Dhabi, and providing the funds to help kickstart Dubai’s dramatic growth. Parts of the UAE (Dubai especially) have thrown themselves headlong into the modern world, embracing business and tourism with kamikaze gusto. The modern UAE is largely contemporary in appearance (although fascinating pockets of history remain), and many of the country’s headline attractions – the ultra-modern cityscapes of Dubai in particular – are very much of our time.
The modern UAE is more of a confederation than a country. Squeezed into an area roughly the size of Austria, the contrasts between the seven emirates that comprise the nation could hardly be greater, whether in terms of size, wealth, cultural outlook or general atmosphere.
Most foreign visitors head straight for the bright lights of Dubai, by far the most cosmopolitan and absorbing destination in the UAE, home to a wide range of attractions, from the bustling souks of the old city centre to jaw-dropping modern landmarks such as the gargantuan Burj Khalifa and the iconic Burj al Arab.
Visit only Dubai, however, and you will come away with a very lopsided impression of life in the modern UAE. National political life is dominated by Abu Dhabi, by far the biggest and richest of the seven statelets, covering around 85 percent of the UAE and boasting well over 90 percent of its total oil revenues. The low-key city itself has struggled to emerge from Dubai’s shadow, although there are rewarding attractions here such as the majestic Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque and opulent Emirates Palace Hotel, while it is also worth making the short side trip to the inland city of Al Ain with its rambling oases and traditional forts.
Just down the coast from Dubai, conservative Sharjah is the polar opposite of its brash neighbour, home to a string of absorbing museums and heritage attractions, including a superb new Islamic Museum and the various traditional buildings of its absorbing Heritage Area.
North of Sharjah, the tiny emirate of Ajman is notable mainly for its fine fort and traditional boat-building yards, whilst Umm al Qaiwain appears to have been largely forgotten by the modern world, with its dusty town and mangrove-fringed coast. Further north, Ras al Khaimah sits in an attractive setting in the lee of the Hajar mountains, with a range of industrial and agricultural developments centred on the bustling RAK City.
Over on the east coast, sleepy Fujairah is the most physically attractive of the emirates, with a long sandy coast backed by the craggy ranges of the Hajar mountains – a beguiling natural contrast to the vibrant cities of one of Arabia’s most dynamic and multi-faceted countries.
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Dubai The Coast
tel: 04 301 7777
A stay in this iconic ‘seven-star’ hotel offers the last word in opulence, with every mod-con and indulgence you could imagine (and several you probably couldn’t), ranging from remote-control curtains to ‘pillow menus’. Suites are huge, butlers come as standard and the whole place screams luxury, although at an inevitably stratospheric price – you’ll be stretched to find a room for much under $2,000 a night.
Sheikh Zayed Road
Dubai Sheikh Zayed Road
tel: 04 343 8888
The most appealing hotel on Sheikh Zayed Road, set in a towering, Gotham-esque structure at the southern end of the strip. Inside the hotel is a model of Zen cool, with beautiful rooms (many with outstanding views) and a string of excellent restaurants.
Read more about United Arab Emirates in Insight Guides: Oman and the UAE
Insight Guide Oman and the UAE is an essential guide to two jewels of the Middle East, brought to life with hundreds of evocative photographs. Our inspirational Best of Oman and the UAE section highli...Read full description