The modern United Arab Emirates (UAE) are 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 United Arab Emirates. National political life is dominated by Abu Dhabi, which is 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 the upcoming Saadiyat Island Cultural District with five museums all designed by world-famous architects. It is also worth making the 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 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 boatbuilding 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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