Bordering Saudi Arabia to the south and Oman to the east, the United Arab Emirates is a relatively small country on the Persian Gulf. Following independence from Britain in 1971, the successful exploitation of oil and gas reserves has completely transformed the entire region, and the UAE is amongst the richest countries in the world. The UAE is a federal state, with the emirates: Abu Dhabi, Ajman, Dubai, Fujairah, Ras al-Khaimah, Sharjah and Umm al-Quwain, each ruled by a hereditary monarchy. The seven emirs form the UAE’s supreme council, and one is elected President of the UAE.
Although the UAE’s recent growth has caused a huge wave of immigration into the country, this transient culture is not at all new. Relics and evidence of interaction with Mesopotamian culture from around 5500BC have been found, and by the first century AD there was an active seaport encouraging movement within the Indian Ocean. Portuguese, Saudi and British rule followed, adding to the cultural diversity which is characteristic of the UAE today. Although authoritarian in nature, the country is considered fairly liberal with regards to women’s rights and tolerance of religious views.
Traditional activities in the UAE include camel racing, falconry and equestrian sports such as horse racing, polo and endurance riding. There are also excellent facilities for a range of less traditional sports, including golf, motor racing, watersports and even snowsports! Football is also popular, with local teams and famous international clubs both enthusiastically supported. The UAE also boasts a large number of museums and arts venues which are popular with tourists, while locals enjoy going to the cinema, attending arts or music festivals and eating out. For more information and a guide to local events, visit the National Council of Tourism and Antiquities website.
Food and drink
Fine dining is a growing market in the UAE and many top hotels have recruited celebrity chefs to launch fashionable high-end restaurants. The UAE’s Islamic faith means that pork is not generally available on menus, although it can be bought in supermarkets by non-Muslims. In six of the emirates alcohol is available to non-Muslims in hotels and nightclubs, but Sharjah operates a total ban. In contrast to expensive international cuisine, traditional Emirati food uses a lot of rice, fish and meat. Lamb, goat and chicken are the staple meats, and the drinks of choice include spiced teas and gahwa – a popular cardamom-flavoured Arabic coffee.
Although Arabic is the official language in the UAE, English is very widely spoken because of the huge number of foreign residents in the country. Most signage, including road signs, is displayed in both Arabic and English. There are also several minority languages spoken, including Farsi (Persian), Hindi, Urdu, Malayalam and Bengali, but English is generally used as a common language.
Accents and dialects
The UAE predominantly uses the same Gulf Arabic dialect found in nearby states around the Persian Gulf including Bahrain, Oman, Kuwait and Qatar, although there can be quite a lot of variation in accent and sound between the different countries. The Gulf dialect differs considerably from the Saudi dialect spoken in much of Saudi Arabia.
Summers in the UAE are extremely hot and humid, with temperatures of 45°C (113°F) or even higher. The country enjoys warm and sunny winters with temperatures averaging around 25°C (77°F) in the daytime and dropping to around 15°C (59°F) at night in coastal regions. Many people are surprised to learn that the temperature in the desert can drop much lower, so make sure you dress for cooler weather, especially if you are travelling at night. Rainfall is fairly low on average, but varies hugely with some years seeing lengthy droughts and others flash flooding!
Safety and security
The UAE is generally considered safe for foreigners, but precautions should still be taken to minimise the risk of falling victim of crime. Occasional incidents of drink spiking can occur, so keep an eye on your drinks and don’t accept any from strangers. At night, take a licensed taxi or public transport rather than walking and avoid travelling alone. Woman should take particular care – always dress modestly both out of respect for Islamic beliefs and to avoid unwanted attention.
You must have an alcohol permit to purchase alcohol, and with each emirate issuing their own permits this can be a complex process. In Sharjah there is a complete ban, while alcohol laws elsewhere differ slightly between emirates, so ensure you know the local law. Drug laws are very strict, as are public decency laws. Unmarried couples are not allowed to live together in the UAE and sexual relationships outside marriage are illegal. Homosexuality is also against the law and same sex marriages are not recognised.
Education in the UAE is well funded and all Emirati children, whether male or female, have the option of free state-funded schooling regulated by the Ministry of Education. The Education 2020 strategy has improved standards significantly and created many new jobs in the sector. School is compulsory between the ages of 5 and 18, and is divided into three stages – elementary school for children aged 5 to 11, intermediate school for 12 to 15 year olds and secondary school for those aged 16 to 18. Younger children can attend kindergarten from the age of 3, while secondary school leavers may go on to university. State schools in the UAE are usually segregated by gender.
Most schools in the UAE run a three-term year, beginning in September and ending in July, although some private schools may operate a different timetable. School typically starts early in the morning and, depending on the age of the children, ends early- or mid-afternoon. Working parents should be aware that they may need to arrange childcare for a period after school.
With huge population growth and a much-improved education system, demand for university places in the UAE has jumped sharply over the past twenty years. Where previously there were just a handful of public universities, there are now around well over 70 higher education institutions offering courses. Admission to public universities is usually reserved for Emirati students, but the many private establishments in the UAE are happy to welcome foreign nationals. Several renowned universities from around the world have campuses in the UAE, including those based at the dedicated Knowledge Village education zone in Dubai.
The UAE government offers various funding options to help Emirati citizens pay for private university tuition, as well as providing free places at state universities, but there is little central support for foreign students. Tuition fees can also be very high for international students, so it is recommended that prospective candidates investigate funding options from their home country or contact their chosen UAE institution to find out about any grant or scholarship opportunities on offer.
Because of the number of international universities in the UAE, course lengths and requirements vary hugely between institutions. Qualifications range from diplomas which take just a few weeks to complete, right the way through to undergraduate, postgraduate and doctoral courses lasting several years.
The children of foreign nationals are accepted at state-run schools, but unlike Emirati children they must pay for their education. Although the cost is usually less than attending international schools, many expats prefer to send their children to private establishments because state schools usually teach in Arabic only. International schools also offer a wider range of qualifications. To compare schools in the UAE, visit the School Finder website.
Preschool and childcare options
Over the last few years the UAE government has actively encouraged parents to place their children in kindergarten or preschool, believing it to be a vital part of children’s development. This has led to an increase in demand for places, so some popular private preschools now cost nearly as much as school and have long waiting lists. Like schools, kindergartens usually open in the mornings only, but more are now offering extra sessions for the children of working parents.
Although there are now foreign nationals living and working all over the UAE, the original expat growth areas were Abu Dhabi and Dubai, and these remain the most expensive places to live. The country’s low tax rates mean that the general cost of living is low, with day-to-day essentials such as food and clothing very reasonably priced. However, with space at a premium, accommodation is extremely expensive. Family costs such as schooling and childcare can also eat into the budget for foreign nationals, particularly in the largest cities.
Despite the relaxation of restrictions on foreign nationals buying property in the UAE, the laws surrounding purchase differ greatly between emirates and can be quite complex. The vast majority of the large expat community continue to rent, particularly given how difficult it can be to gain UAE citizenship for the long term. To rent a property you will need to provide proof of earnings and may have to pay estate agent fees. However, rental agreements in the UAE are usually quite favourable for the tenant as rents are capped and there are strict rules around evictions. If a landlord wishes to sell their property, they must give tenants notice of 12 months. A typical tenancy lasts for a year with rent paid monthly, but be aware that for shorter lets you may be required to pay the entire rent up front.
Deposits are usually around 5% of the tenancy value. Rent is normally paid monthly via direct debit or using the more traditional system of post-dated cheques. When using cheques to pay your rent, remember that if a cheque bounces in the UAE you are committing a criminal offence.
In some regions property owners are charged a municipal property tax of between 2% and 15% of the property value. Tenants may have to pay an equivalent tax – approximately 5% of the rental value of the property. Contact a reputable estate agent to find out what charges will apply to your property.
Utility supply in the UAE is managed by each emirate. Most have a publically-owned or contracted supplier and tariffs are heavily subsidised so prices are usually fairly reasonable. Telephone and internet services are provided by Etisalatand Du, but with limited choice of providers you will find prices relatively high.
In the UAE there is no fee for television ownership and programming is available in many languages. There are several free English-language channels, as well as paid services available through Etisalat and Du.
Healthcare and medical costs
The standard of medical care in the UAE is good, but foreign nationals usually have to pay for it. However, if you are an expat resident you are entitled to apply for a health card. The cost is approximately AED500 and you will also need to pay to renew it periodically, but it will allow you to access subsidised healthcare services. Nevertheless, it is recommended that expats in the UAE take out private medical insurance as in the event of long-term illness or serious injury, costs can mount up very quickly. For more information, consult the UAE Government Portal website.
Shopping is a popular pastime with both tourists and residents in the UAE. There are a large number of modern shopping malls offering the latest fashions and brands, while traditional souqs are the places to go for bargains. Grocery shopping can be done reasonably cheaply, particularly as several large multinational supermarkets now have a presence in the UAE.
Although there is no value-added tax charged at a federal level in the UAE, there has been speculation that an equivalent will be introduced in future. Some of the emirates charge taxes or levies on particular services, such as hospitality and hotel accommodation.
Rent on 1-bedroom apartment in city centre – AED6,273.69 (≈£995.30) per month
Rent on 1-bedroom apartment outside city centre – AED3,830.02 (≈£607.62) per month
Price of apartment in city centre – AED16,583.89 (≈£2,630.98) per square metre
Price of apartment outside city centre – AED8,642.37 (≈£1,371.08) per square metre
The UAE has an excellent road network, with modern, well-maintained highways linking all the emirates. However, the country has a poor reputation for driving standards, with a high incidence of speeding and relatively high accident rate. For this reason many foreign workers choose not to drive in the UAE. Those that do must be aware that the authorities are very strict on motoring offences. Speeding and other traffic violations carry heavy fines, so stick to the speed limit – usually between 100kph (≈60mph) and 120kph (≈75mph) on main roads. Drink driving is a real taboo – if you are caught driving with any alcohol in your bloodstream, you will be fined, could have your vehicle confiscated and may even face a prison sentence. In the UAE you drive on the right, and tolls are payable on some roads, particularly in Dubai where you will need a Salik card to pay them.
All drivers must have a UAE driving licence. If you are visiting for a short period, you can use a valid licence from another country to obtain a temporary UAE licence. However, if you are a resident you must obtain a permanent licence. Depending on where your original licence was issued, you may need to take a test.
Taxis in the UAE are regulated by the local authorities in each emirate. They can be flagged down on the street or booked by telephone. Most run on meters and with tariffs set centrally, they are cheap and very accessible. Taxis are colour coded according to their operating jurisdiction, and the reputations of some companies is better than others so speak to colleagues or other expats in your area to find out which are the most reliable. Some areas have pink taxis with female drivers which will only carry female passengers and families.
Bus services are very comprehensive in Abu Dhabi and Dubai, and are improving across the UAE. As well as city services, there are fairly cheap tickets available between emirates too. Routes and numbers are displayed in both Arabic and English. While some buses require cash payment, Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Sharjah have introduced payment card systems called Ojra, Nol and Sayer respectively. Be aware that buses in the UAE are segregated, with women sitting at the front and men at the back.
The UAE’s first railway network is currently under construction. With several phases scheduled, the project is expected to bring train services to all seven emirates by 2018 and eventually connect the country to Saudi Arabia in the west and Oman in the east.
Dubai is currently the only emirate to run light rail, but its ultra-modern driverless metro system is genuinely impressive and has really helped to ease congestion in recent years, prompting other cities to investigate the installation of similar systems. Like buses, the metro accepts Nol card payment and has similar gender segregation. For more information about the metro, visit the Dubai Roads and Transport Authority website.
The UAE has several international airports serving all the emirates. Dubai International Airport is among the busiest in the world, serving as a major transfer hub for services between Europe and Australasia. National airlines Etihad and Emirates have been major economic success stories for the UAE in recent years, while budget airlines like Air Arabia and flydubai provide cheaper fares. The small size of the country means that the UAE historically had no commercial domestic routes, but since 2012 various airlines have introduced internal flights on a trial basis. Alternatively, private plane and helicopter routes are available between smaller airfields nationwide.
Other ways to get around
Water transport can be very useful in the UAE. Ferry routes connect the several major mainland ports to the numerous islands off the coast, while Dubai has several water transport options including water taxis, water buses and abras – small wooden boats with diesel motors. However, these modes of transport tend to be more popular with tourists now than commuters.
Labour laws in the UAE limit normal working time to 48 hours per week – eight hours a day, six days a week, although this time can be extended in certain industries. Overtime pay is usually granted for work outside these hours and may be paid at a higher rate. Public sector employees often start the day early and leave early, but private companies may keep different hours. Salaried employees are entitled to at least one day off, which is usually Friday. Many companies work 40 hours over five days, and working hours may be shortened during Ramadan.
After six months of continuous service, those in salaried jobs are entitled to annual leave. The minimum entitlement under UAE law is two days per month for those with service of between six months and a year, while workers who have more than a year’s service are entitled to 30 days per annum including public holidays. Sick leave is normally available to employees with service of over three months. Again depending on their length of service, women may be entitled to maternity leave, but there is no provision within Emirati law for paternity leave.
Labour law in the UAE defines ten public holidays, but some emirates will grant additional holidays on an occasional basis, taking the number up to around 12 or 13 each year. Some holidays are only applicable to public sector workers, so check with your employer before making plans around these dates.
Public holiday dates
New Year: 1st January
Leilat al-Meiraj: 3rd April
Ramadan expected to begin: 6th May
Eid al-Fitr: 4th – 6th June*
Arafat Day: 10th August*
Eid al-Adha: 11th-13th August*
Al-Hijra: 31st August
Prophet Mohammed’s Birthday: 9th November
Commemoration Day: 30th November
UAE National Day: 2nd – 3rd December
New Year’s Eve: 31st December
*Dates may change according to the lunar month
Visas and eligibility to work
Although residents of certain countries may be permitted to visit the UAE for a short period without a visa, you must obtain one to work in the country. Visas are issued by your local embassy and will require the sponsorship of your employer, so you must hold a job offer from a firm in the UAE before applying. You may then need to sponsor the applications of family members so they can join you in the UAE. Unlike in some countries, your visa will also serve as a residence permit. You may need to pass a medical examination and prove that you have medical insurance before a residential visa will be granted. As a resident, you must apply for an Emirates ID card. This is a mandatory form of identification, but is increasingly useful for accessing services in the UAE.
The UAE is famous for having very few taxes and there is no system of employment or personal income tax. However, expats need to be clear on their residency status and understand the tax situation between the UAE and their home country, as some countries may require you to pay tax on foreign income.
The UAE’s state pension system is not accessible to non-Emirati citizens. Some employers offer a company pension scheme, but without an income tax system there is no tax advantage to be gained. However, banks are beginning to target expat workers with specially designed savings and pension plans which benefit both employee and employer, and these schemes are expected to become increasingly popular as the expat population grows.
Social security benefits are currently only available to Emirati citizens. As such, expat workers are exempt from the mandatory social security deductions paid by local workers. Be aware that trade unions are illegal under UAE law.
Although the UAE has disability laws to protect the rights of disabled workers, they are relatively new and are not always strictly enforced. Foreign nationals are not entitled to disability benefits in the UAE.
Although expats working in the UAE for global corporations may find a more international business culture, Emirati businesses are traditionally hierarchical. Honour and reputation are important for success. Often, wealthy business owners in the UAE will have limited contact with their employees, choosing to run the company through a trusted manager instead. Decision making comes from the top, but the process usually involves a great deal of consultation with major stakeholders prior to implementation.
In the UAE there is quite a distinct separation between management and staff. Emirati managers tend not to socialise with their employees, keeping a professional distance. If a manager wants to hear opinions from employees, they will ask for them rather than expect them to be volunteered. Similarly, staff members do not question the opinions of their bosses, instead waiting for instructions and carrying them out. Although rules and regulations are very important, managers will try to bring up any issues with individual staff in a discreet manner rather than embarrassing them in public.
Emiratis have a reputation for being very polite and formal, so expect to be addressed by title, at least initially. Status is very significant, so make the effort to find out the correct titles for your contacts – for example ‘Sheikh’, meaning ‘chief’, ‘Mohandas’ (‘engineer’) or ‘Ustadh’ (‘professor’) might be appropriate.
Patience is vital for business dealings in the UAE as Emiratis prefer to deal with people they know. A great deal of time is invested in networking, nurturing relationships and building up the required levels of trust to work together, so you can expect developments to happen gradually. It may take several meetings just to establish a working base, but trying to rush proceedings will be detrimental to the outcome.
Despite the heat of the UAE, formal business attire is expected in most situations as it reflects on your professionalism. Most Emirati business people wear their traditional national dress: long white robes, usually referred to as kanduras, for men, and black abayas for women. However, it is not usually appropriate for foreign nationals to wear local attire, so instead choose modest western business clothing. Out of respect for local customs, women should ensure their arms, legs and back are covered.
In the UAE you will usually be greeted with the words ‘as-salamu alaykum’, meaning ‘peace be upon you’. Usually you would reply ‘wa alaykum al-salaam’, which means ‘and upon you be peace’. It is customary to greet the most senior person in the room first. Handshakes are common in the business world but should be kept brief, and you should only shake hands with an Emirati woman if she offers her hand first.
Although you should try to keep to agreed meeting times, don’t necessarily expect the same from your contacts as the UAE takes quite a relaxed approach to punctuality. Because the culture is so relationship-focused, people often prefer to miss a deadline than push someone else in order to meet it. A great deal of patience may be needed for success, but if you set meetings and timescales well ahead of time and keep reiterating and reviewing them, you will make progress.
Often business meetings in the UAE will take place in an informal setting such as a restaurant or coffee house rather than in the office. Small talk is common at the start of a meeting. There may or may not be a formal agenda, but if there is then you can expect at least some deviation from it. High-pressure sales tactics are not appreciated by Emiratis, so instead repeat your key points clearly and consistently to gain the trust of your contacts. People in the UAE have a reputation for driving a hard bargain, and may give vague acceptances that do not necessarily indicate a positive commitment.
Faith has a huge influence on business culture in the UAE, so understanding and respecting Islamic beliefs and local customs is important for foreigners. The Muslim day of prayer is Friday, so avoid scheduling any work-related activities then. During Ramadan, be sensitive to those observing the fast by not eating in public areas during daylight hours.
Arabic is the UAE’s official language and many business dealings are conducted in Arabic. English is considered the de facto language by many of the foreign residents of the UAE, but its use varies somewhat between emirates. However, it is very common to have translators present at business meetings and a lot of negotiations are conducted in this way. It is seen as polite to present your business card in Arabic as well as your own language, so consider having double-sided cards printed.