The UAE's rise from a quiet strategic trading destination to a global economic powerhouse is nothing short of remarkable – and makes it one of the most exciting places to live.
While its culture is still rooted in Islamic tradition, the UAE is also one of the most cosmopolitan countries in the Middle East.
The country has a bold vision for its future and is working towards becoming a first-choice destination for tourism, finance, industry and trade. This makes it a vibrant and opportunity-filled place to live in and work. Trade and commerce are still the cornerstones of the economy, with the traditional manufacturing and distribution industries now joined by finance, construction, media, IT and telecom businesses. With so many world-class hotels, and leisure and entertainment options, the UAE is a popular tourist destination too.
Similarly, people from over 150 nations now call the UAE home as they bring their skills and manpower to help in the country’s plan; and many expats find the country so welcoming that it becomes difficult to leave. Sunshine and tax-free salaries may be why expats come, but what keeps them here is the ability to mix with other cultures, live in a liberal Middle Eastern country, and enjoy the sort of lifestyle they would be hard-pressed to find at home.
Located in the heart of the Middle East, the UAE comprises seven emirates: Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Sharjah, Ajman, Umm Al Quwain, Ras Al Khaimah, Fujairah. The capital city of the UAE is Abu Dhabi, a large part of which is actually an island linked to the mainland by bridges. The city is part of the largest emirate and is continuing to grow at a significant rate. More details can be found in the Abu Dhabi Vision 2030 Plan, which outlines the city’s plans to grow and diversify over the next 15 or so years.
The UAE population has grown rapidly in recent years as expat arrivals, robust economic expansion and high birth rates have continued to push up the total number. According to the World Bank, the UAE’s population is currently recorded at around 9.2 million.
The percentage of Emirati nationals in the population varies widely from emirate to emirate. The latest available figures from the UAE's Federal Competitiveness and Statistics Authority, from 2009, record Fujairah as having the highest national population at 70.7%, and Dubai the lowest at 30.3%, with an average across all emirates of 44.15%.
The total land area of the UAE is approximately 83,600 sq km, with around 1,318km of coastline. Abu Dhabi is by far the largest emirate, occupying over 80% of the country (about 67,340 sq km); the emirate of Dubai is second largest at 4,114 sq km, although Abu Dhabi and Dubai have similar population sizes.
While not particularly mountainous, the highest named point is Jebel Yibir at 1,572m, ‘jebel’ meaning mountain or hill in Arabic. The UAE’s coordinates are 24°00’North 54°00’East.
The UAE flag incorporates the Pan-Arab colours of green, white, black and red, symbolising Arabian unity. It was adopted on 2nd of December 1971 as the official flag of the country. Interestingly, each of the seven emirates aside from Fujairah also has its own flag, all of which use just red and white.
There are a few key pieces of practical information you'll need to know about everyday life in the UAE, from working hours to currency and climate. Here are the essentials.
The UAE working week is from Sunday to Thursday. Friday is the Islamic holy day and therefore a day off for offices and schools, so the two-day weekend spans Friday and Saturday. Some companies still require a six-day working week from their staff, while others operate on a five-and-a-half-day system. The hospitality and retail industries are open seven days a week.
Larger shops and shopping centres are generally open throughout the day and into the evening until around 10pm or midnight. Traditional shops and street retailers often operate under split shift timings, closing for three or four hours in the afternoon. Some food outlets and petrol stations are open for 24 hours a day.
If you’re working in the UAE, 8am to 5pm or 9am to 6pm with a break hour for lunch are normal shifts in the private sector.
Most government offices are open from 7.30am to 2.30pm, Sunday to Thursday. Embassies and consulates operate similar hours, but may designate specific times and days for certain tasks (such as passport applications), so it’s best to call before you go.
The monetary unit is the dirham (Dhs.), which is divided into 100 fils. The currency is also referred to as AED (Arab Emirate Dirham). Notes come in denominations of Dhs.5 (brown), Dhs.10 (green), Dhs.20 (light blue), Dhs.50 (purple), Dhs.100 (pink), Dhs.200 (yellowy-brown), Dhs.500 (blue) and Dhs.1,000 (browny-purple). Six coins are in circulation, but you typically only come across the three largest denominations: Dhs.1, 50 fils and 25 fils. The dirham has been pegged to the US dollar since 1980, at a mid-rate of $1 to Dhs.3.6725.
The UAE is four hours ahead of the UTC (Universal Coordinated Time, formerly known as GMT). Clocks are not altered for daylight saving in the summer, so when Europe and North America gain an hour in spring, the time in the UAE stays the same resulting in a shorter three-hour time difference.
Time differences between the UAE and some cities around the world (not allowing for any daylight savings in those cities) are: Bangkok +3, Hong Kong +4; London -4; Los Angeles -12; Moscow -1; New York -9; Sydney +6; and Tokyo +5.
The international dialling code for the UAE is +971. Each city also has a dialling code, which is the first digit (or two digits in some cases) that you dial when calling. These are:
2, Abu Dhabi
3, Al Ain
6, Ajman, Dhayd, Dibba, Falaj Al Moalla, Sharjah and Umm Al Quwain
7, Ras Al Khaimah
The best time to live in, and visit, the country is from October to April, when it’s mostly blue skies and temperatures of 10°C (50°F) to 24°C (75°F). Every day in the winter is a sunny reminder of why you chose to live here – tepid sea water to swim in, cloudless skies to sunbathe under, and warm, comfortable evenings for alfresco dining.
However, during the summer months (between June and September), be prepared for triple-digit temperatures and high humidity levels. Thermometers range from 41°C (106°F) up to a scorching 48°C (118°) in August. Yes, it’s undeniably hot, but the UAE is well and truly geared up for it with air conditioning in every mall, restaurant, office and even bus shelters.
Humidity is usually between 50% and 60%. Many expats escape the heat during the summer and head home for a holiday.
Leave those umbrellas and wellies at home, as rainfall is almost non-existent.
Located in the heart of the Middle East, the UAE borders Saudi Arabia and the Sultanate of Oman, with coastlines on both the Arabian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman.
The coast is littered with coral reefs and more than 200 islands, most of which are uninhabited. The interior of the country is characterised by sabkha (salt flats), stretches of gravel plain, and vast areas of sand desert. To the east rise the Hajar Mountains (‘hajar’ is Arabic for ‘rock’) which, lying close to the Gulf of Oman, form a backbone through the country, from the Musandam Peninsula in the north, through the eastern UAE and into Oman.
The UAE is a federation of seven emirates, each with its own ruler, rules and regulations.
The Supreme Council of Rulers – made up of the hereditary rulers of the emirates – is the top policy-making body in the UAE, responsible for laws governing education, defence, foreign affairs, communications and development, and for ratifying federal rules.
The current President of the UAE is the Ruler of Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, who took over the post in November 2004 from his late father, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan. The Vice President of the UAE is Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Ruler of Dubai. Both members are elected by the Supreme Council for a five-year term, and are often re-elected time after time.
The UAE’s Prime Minister, currently Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, is appointed by the President and chairs the Council of Ministers, which meets once a week in Abu Dhabi to oversee the development and implementation of federal policy across all portfolios of government.
The Federal National Council (FNC) is a consultative assembly of 40 representatives, half of whom are elected. The council monitors and debates government policy but has no power of veto. The last election was in 2015, when Dr. Amal Al Qubaisi was appointed as the region’s first female speaker of national assembly with nearly one quarter of its members women.
In early 2016, the federal government underwent its largest structural change in UAE history. Announced by HH Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum via Twitter during the World Government Summit in Dubai, the restructuring involved sweeping adjustments across all sectors, including the renaming and reorganisation of several ministries. New ministerial posts and government panels, such as the Minister of State for Happiness and the Minister of State for Tolerance, were also created.
His Highness Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the President of the UAE and Ruler of Abu Dhabi, has been guiding the country, and especially Abu Dhabi, through a period of astonishing growth. With his focus on the continuing development of the country’s infrastructure, economic health and cultural contributions, he has laid the foundations for a prosperous UAE.
Sheikh Khalifa has always been generous with Abu Dhabi’s oil wealth, ensuring other emirates within the country aren’t left behind. In 2009, Abu Dhabi gave a US$10 billion loan to Dubai at the height of the financial crisis and the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, the world’s tallest building, is named after Sheikh Khalifa. The Abu Dhabi ruler is well known for his philanthropic commitments, particularly through the Khalifa Bin Zayed Al Nahyan Foundation, which focuses on providing support to the health and education sectors on a domestic, regional and global scale.
Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum is the Prime Minister and Vice President of the United Arab Emirates, and Ruler of Dubai and is often considered the driving force behind Dubai’s exponential growth, pioneering free trade zones, such as Dubai Media City, offering tax exemptions which have attracted foreign companies to set up in the emirate, helping Dubai’s economy flourish and reducing its reliance on oil-based industries. He has overseen the development of numerous landmark projects in Dubai including Palm Jumeirah, the ‘seven-star’ Burj Al Arab hotel and the Burj Khalifa. Find Sheikh Mohammed on Facebook at Facebook.com/HHSheikhMohammed.
The UAE is considered the second strongest economy in the Gulf, after KSA, or seventh in the world on a GDP per capita (PPP) basis.
With just under 6% of the world’s proven oil reserves (most of it within Abu Dhabi emirate) and the sixth largest proven natural gas reserves, hydrocarbon exports still play a large part in the country’s wealth.
Since the financial crisis of 2009, the UAE’s perceived safe haven status amid regional political and social unrest has supported growing economic confidence. With a GDP estimated at $642 billion (PPP) in 2015 by the International Monetary Fund, the UAE economy is the fourth largest in the Middle East, after Saudi Arabia, Iran and Egypt. In the Where-To-Be-Born Index, 2013 (which highlights the countries where new babies could expect the highest quality of life) the UAE came a respectable 17th, the highest ranking Arab country and just behind the United States and Germany.
In October 2015, the IMF forecast that the UAE would experience economic growth of 3%, down from 4.5% in 2014, because of the effect of the drop in oil prices. Successful economic diversification means that the UAE’s wealth is no longer solely reliant on oil revenue; just 25% of GDP is based on oil and gas output now. The push to double tourist numbers by the time the UAE hosts the World Expo in 2020, including efforts to increase niche tourist markets such as medical tourism, is also helping to expand the economy.
However, the government is trying to encourage more Emiratis to work in the private sector through a ‘Nationalisation’ or ‘Emiratisation’ programme.
Abu Dhabi escaped relatively unscathed from the global economic crisis at the end of the last decade. While the city’s GDP slowed temporarily , newcomers to the city would be hard pushed to notice any impact now.
During 2013 the government announced that major financial allocations worth around Dhs.330 billion would be pumped into various capital projects across a number of sectors up until 2017. The aim is to increase Abu Dhabi’s appeal as one of the top investment-attracting countries in the world.
The free trade zones in the capital are a major attractor, and the first financial free zone, due to open on Al Maryah Island, will help further. Benefits to businesses in free zones include 100% foreign ownership, which negates the usual need for local partner sponsorship where a UAE national or entity owns at least 51%. They also get tax exemptions and 100% repatriation of revenue and profits.
In 2009, the government published the Abu Dhabi Economic Vision 2030 (abudhabi.ae). The 142-page document identifies two key priority areas for economic development in Abu Dhabi: building a sustainable economy, and, ensuring a balanced social and regional economic development approach that brings benefits to all. As part of Abu Dhabi’s Economic Vision Abu Dhabi Global Market, a broad-based international financial centre for local, regional and international institutions has been established. While there’s still some way to go, the fact that, in 2014, Abu Dhabi was seeing year-on-year growth in the non-oil sector, 15% growth in airport traffic, and was also showing an increase in the production capacity of hydrocarbons, suggests the emirate is well on target.