Travelling to Abu Dhabi can be an eye-opening cultural experience. Abu Dhabi is the capital of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) which consists of six other Emirates, the most famous being Dubai, which is about 120km north. Abu Dhabi is located on the Persian Gulf. The majority of the city is built on a series of islands in close proximity to the mainland, which is easily accessible by road bridge.
Despite its proximity to water, the heat and humidity can be brutal. Temperatures regularly reach over 40C (105F) between May and September. Fortunately almost all public buildings, hotels, shopping malls and facilities are air-conditioned. Most visitors will arrive by air at Abu Dhabi International airport (IATA code: AUH) which is about a 30 minute taxi ride from the city centre. The local currency is the Dirham, which converts at around 27 US cents to each Dirham (Sept 2011).
The permanent population is mainly Arab and Muslim, but there are a significant number of European, Iranian and American ex-pats working in the financial and oil industry, and a large population of transient workers in construction and service industries, mainly from India, Indonesia and the Philippines. The main language is Arabic, but almost all signage is in both Arabic and English script and English is the lingua franca.
As most people typically come from colder climes, they usually arrive at the airport a bit overdressed for the local climate. It makes sense to travel in layers and get rid of some on arrival, as the temperature “shock” can be quite dramatic when exiting the terminal building. Taxi ranks are readily available and staffed, and all drivers are accredited, uniformed and seem to drive immaculate and fully air-conditioned European and American cars. Taxis are relatively cheap given how generally expensive the UAE is for most other things, and are the primary form of transport for foreigners.
Locals tend to dress in either blue jeans/trousers and shirts, or in the traditional full length Arab robe (the dishdash or thawb) and headdress. These are extremely practical for the heat and humidity, but make most locals look fairly homogeneous to the untrained eye. There are actually subtle differences that can help identify which region of the Middle East the wearer is from (such as Yemen, Qatar, Oman, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Muscat and others).
Out of respect for local custom and culture, foreign women are expected to dress modestly in public (i.e. outside hotels and resorts) and any display of public affection (touching, kissing etc.) is generally considered offensive. Any expression or act of homosexuality in public is a serious criminal offence, as is drinking and driving. The policy on alcohol has become more liberal in the last few years, but being drunk at the wheel carries an almost mandatory prison sentence. In addition, insulting or rude gestures in public are against the law and routinely prosecuted.
That said, there is nothing for the respectful and sensible tourist or visitor to worry about, as the Emiratis (and Arabs in general) are very hospitable people. Being asked to take coffee or tea with dates should be considered a token of esteem and friendship and it would be rude to decline. Internet access is readily available in coffee shops and hotels (for a charge) although, given the government’s conservative outlook and local sensibilities, some Western and European sites are regularly blocked.
There is a huge variety of shopping available and several large malls. These are generally open quite late, but those expecting bargains will be sorely disappointed. Inflation in the UAE is quite high, and goods in international branded shops such as Next, Mothercare, OshKosh, Ralph Lauren, Gap and, Hilfiger and even Starbucks are eyewateringly expensive compared to the West. The UAE weekend is Friday and Saturday, and although shops generally stay open, opening hours may be reduced.
Given that the majority of the population of the city (at any given time) is not Arab, the Emirate caters for almost all international tastes. There is an astonishing range of eateries, both in variety and budget. Although it is possible to eat on the cheap (with breakfast usually included in most hotel rates) expect to pay around $50 to $75 a head at most mid-scale establishments. Many of the higher-end places are based in hotels and can be very expensive for the uninitiated.