History of the UAE

Page update - Oct 24, 2022

The UAE is known as a country with a severe hot climate. Indeed, conditions have never been easy there. However, people have been living on this land for eight thousand years.

And although the history of the territories of the modern UAE is not full of grand events, it is very interesting to trace the development of this society, which has now become one of the richest in the world. Let us tell the history of the UAE briefly, but with all the interesting details.

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In January-February 2022, excavations were conducted on Ghagha Island in the Emirate of Abu Dhabi. The foundation of a stone building was found, dating back to about 6,500 B.C. The dating was done from a piece of charcoal that was found in the structure.

It is the oldest object of all found in the UAE. As a result, the beginning of UAE history has moved back another 500 years.

Neolithic (6000 to 3500 BC)

The territory of the present-day UAE was inhabited by people in the 7th-6th millennia BC. Archaeologists have now found dozens of Neolithic sites.

People of that period did not yet build permanent settlements. They roamed with their herds in the interior of the continent, spending some seasons on the coast, fishing and gathering.

It is assumed that the climate in the UAE was humid and the place of today's desert was a savannah suitable for cattle breeding. This is evidenced by the findings of implements made from the teeth of domestic animals.

The most interesting place of Neolithic settlement excavations is Delma Island in the Emirate of Abu Dhabi. The site dates from the late 6th or early 5th millennium BC. Pile holes were found there, which means that people built primitive houses with a covering of palm leaves there.

On the island of Delma, archaeologists found the oldest date palm seeds (dated 5100 BC). Probably the history of the cultivation of dates in the UAE begins there. Other finds include stone and bone tools (arrowheads, scrapers, knives), pearl beads, shell ornaments, and Ubeid ceramics. An example of a shard from Mleiha (Sharjah) is pictured below, click on the photo to enlarge.

The pottery is what historians have the most questions about. Either it was produced by locals and their level of culture was very high. Or it was imported from Mesopotamia, in which case you can talk about the high level of trade in those days, because the distance from Mesopotamia to the UAE is great - almost 620 miles (1,000 kilometers).

Among the excavated sites of the Neolithic Age in the UAE, some deserve special attention.

The richest collection of perforated beads and necklaces was found in Jebel Buhais (Sharjah Emirate), and an ancient cemetery was found on the site.

In the Marawa area of Abu Dhabi, the remains of a stone building have been found. The findings date back to around 6,000 B.C.

On the island of Ghagha in Abu Dhabi a stone building foundation was found. The findings date back to around 6,500 B.C.

At the Diwan area in Umm Al Quwain, many bones of dugongs (sea cows) have been found. This was probably the place where these animals were slaughtered.

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Hafit culture (3200-2700 BC)

The beginning of the Bronze Age. The Hafit culture is named after the area of Jebel Hafeet near the city of Al Ain in the eastern part of the Emirate of Abu Dhabi. A team of Danish archaeologists found over 500 stone mounds there. These appeared to be tombs, each with one burial chamber.

Pottery was found in the tombs of Jebel Hafeet (pictured below, click to enlarge). Some ceramic objects are painted in geometric and floral patterns. Presumably, it is a Jemdet Nasr pottery, imported from Babylon from Mesopotamia (now Iraq).

Similar burials have been found west of Dibba in the Emirate of Fujairah, near Hatta and Karna Al Harfa in the Emirate of Ras Al Khaimah, and at Jebel Al Umailih in the Emirate of Sharjah.

There are some very curious points about the findings of the Hafit culture. Most of the artifacts from the tombs are not of local origin but of Babylonian origin. This is a clear indication of the developed trade in the Persian Gulf during that era. But what did the ancient inhabitants of the UAE give to the Babylonians in exchange for pottery, pearls, and tools? This remains a big mystery. What did they have that was so valuable?

The second point is the fact that more than 1,000 tombs have been found and not a single settlement. We know very well how the dead were buried by the ancient inhabitants of the Hafit culture in the UAE but we know absolutely nothing about how they lived. A large settlement has been found in the Al Ain area, but it has not been proven to belong to the Hafit culture.

Umm an-Nar culture (2700-2000 BC)

The Bronze Age Umm an-Nar culture is named after Umm an-Nar Island in the Emirate of Abu Dhabi. There, in 1959, a team of Danish archaeologists discovered large stone tombs, vastly superior to the mounds of the Hafit Culture in size and execution.

Several expeditions from different countries worked on the island of Umm an-Nar. About 40 tombs of different sizes, several mass graves, and a settlement ruins of stone houses were discovered. Stone household items, including cooking tools, were found in the houses.

The largest house contained five rooms. Other finds include cattle bones, fish bones and tools, turtle shells, and copper tools. Camel bones have been found. Presumably already in that era the ancient inhabitants of the UAE received camel milk. All these findings show a very high level of the Umm an-Nar culture.

More than 200 Umm an-Nar graves have been discovered throughout the UAE. The most famous are: Al Mowaihat in Ajman, Al Abraq in Umm Al Quwain, Al Bidya in Fujairah, Kalba in Sharjah, and Shamil in Ras Al Khaimah.

Most of the excavations of the Umm an-Nar culture are available for tourists to see. However, the sites on Umm an-Nar itself are inaccessible, located between the oil refinery and the military base.

The ancient people of Umm an-Nar culture were sedentary. They were engaged in agriculture, cattle breeding, trade, extraction of copper ore and smelted copper.

Findings indicate that the Umm an-Nar settlement was active in trade with Mesopotamia and the Harappan civilization of the Indus Valley (present-day Pakistan).

It is believed that in that era the groundwater in this area was much higher, and the people of Umm an-Nar mined clay and produced pottery and bricks. They built houses of brick and tombs of stone. For this reason there is nothing left of the houses but the bases of the tombs are preserved.

The tombs of the Umm an-Nar culture are round in shape, made of varying degrees of workmanship. This is particularly evident on the Umm an-Nar island, where the tombs consist of one-chamber rough stone tombs, one-chamber worked stone tombs and, of late, many-chambered dressed stone tombs.

The most famous of these tombs is the Great Tomb of Hili in the region of Hili, near Al Ain in the Abu Dhabi emirate. The tomb is 40 feet (12 meters) in diameter. It is believed that it was 13 feet (4 meters) in height (the roof is not preserved to this day).

Umm an-Nar tombs have now been found even larger than the Great tomb of Hili. In Sharjah, there is a tomb more than 44 feet (13.5 meters) in diameter. In Ras Al Khaimah, now (note: this page was updated in 2022) a record tomb with a diameter of more than 46 feet (14 meters) was found - the Shamal tomb.

There is another stunning tomb in Hili, called Tomb N. Archaeologists have found hundreds of ceramic and stone vessels and a rich collection of beads inside. Presumably, about 600 people were buried in the multi-chamber tomb N. Men, women, and children were buried together, we can say that the Umm an-Nar culture was characterized by complete equality between the sexes.

Carved stones are found in the tombs, but no traces of writing have been found in Umm an-Nar culture.

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Wadi Suq culture (2000-1300 BC)

Late Bronze Age. The culture is named after the Wadi Suq area between Al-Ain and the coast of Oman, where traces of a settlement of this culture were first discovered.

During this period, people in what is now the UAE stopped building round tombs, probably no longer able to afford them. The tombs of Wadi Suq are elongated, with no inside rooms, more like a warehouse than a beautiful tomb.

Pottery, stone vessels and tools, bronze weapons, and beads are found in the tombs of Wadi Suq. The most interesting finds are necklaces and statuettes made of electrum (a fusion of gold and silver). Many of the Wadi Suq culture tombs can no longer tell us anything of interest as they were looted a long time ago.

The most famous sites for excavations of the Wadi Suq culture are Shamil in Ras Al Khaimah, Khor Fakkan, Jebel Ash, Bukhais in Sharjah, and Al-Qusais in Dubai.

The tombs have become more primitive and fewer objects have been placed in them. All this clearly demonstrates the problems of the ancient inhabitants of the territory of the modern UAE. Climate change had begun, the area was beginning to turn into a desert.

The Iron Age (1300-300 BC)

The main invention of this period was the falaj irrigation system. It is a system of underground canals that bring water from a source to different areas of agricultural land.

The climate in the Arabian Peninsula was changing for the worse in those years and falaj systems were a partial solution for the locals.

The falaj system in Hili is believed to be the oldest on Earth, although Iran disputes the invention from the UAE.

The second important event of this era is the appearance of writing on the Arabian Peninsula.

Rumailah in Al Ain, Muwaileh and Al Madam in Sharjah, and Bithnah in Fujairah are the most interesting areas of excavation of Stone Age settlements in the UAE. A total of 24 Iron Age settlements have been found in the UAE.

The Hellenistic period (300-140 BC)

In 331 BC, Alexander the Great entered Babylon, and two years later he took over the entire Persian empire. Of course, he did not conquer the Arabian Peninsula, but the Greeks began to control trade across the Persian Gulf. The population of the territories of the present-day UAE fell under their influence.

Little is known about this period. There are a few ruins of settlements: Mleiha and Dibba Al Hisn in Sharjah, and Ed-Dur in Umm Al Quwain.

Pottery, glass, ivory, and other objects of Greek origin have been found in these areas. At Ed-Dur, a temple was found probably dedicated to the Sun god Shams (Shamas). Many inscriptions in Aramaic and in a language of South Arabian origin were found.

Pre-Islamic Period (140 BC - 632)

These nearly 800 years are a white spot in the history of the country. The climate probably became almost as unfavorable as it is now, and most settlements disappeared.

Agriculture fell into decline as the groundwater got deep.

Trade almost ceased as for merchant ships were no longer interested in calling at the local ports, where it was difficult to replenish fresh water supplies.

In the area of Kush in Ras al-Khaimah, British archaeologists discovered a settlement from the Sassanid period (3rd-7th centuries). They found pottery and household items.

The finds are few and tell us little about the life of the people of that era. Settlements probably only survived in the northern emirates and oases.

Naturally, Bedouin nomads have always lived there. Their way of life and skills ensured their survival in the desert.

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The Battle of Dibba (632)

The inhabitants of the UAE and Oman territories were among the first converts to Islam, a process that took place of goodwill.

After the death of the Prophet Mohammed in 632, the local tribes of Azda did not recognize the authority of the Caliph Abu Bakr. A similar political process then taking place across the Arabian Peninsula.

The caliph began military campaigns throughout Arabia. Many tribes recognized local prophets hence these wars went down in history as the "Ridda Wars".

The rebellious Azd tribes were led by the leader Dul-Taj (translated: Crowned). According to Arab sources, he declared himself a prophet. It is now difficult to say whether the war was fought for political or religious ends.

In September 632, Caliph Abu Bakr sent an army under the command of Hudhayfa bin Mihsan Al Ghalfani, into what is now the UAE. Hudhayfa's strength to win was clearly insufficient, and he asked for reinforcements. General Ikrima ibn Amr arrived to help. Together they defeated the army of Dul-Taj, and Dul-Taj himself was killed in the battle. The surviving Azds submitted to the Caliphate.

This battle went down in history as the The Battle of Dibba (632), one of the key events of the Ridda Wars, and a triumph of the power of faith in Allah. The battle took place in what is now the UAE.

Of course, the very fact of this battle is not in doubt. But it's scale, as described by historians of that time from the Islamic Caliphate, is very doubtful. They write that, "10,000 renegades were left lying on the battlefield and the Muslims got rich booty of 2,000 camels and a large quantity of weapons".

Based on these figures, 30,000-50,000 soldiers took part in the battle on both sides. Given the poverty at the time and the acute shortage of fresh water in the region, it is not clear what all these people ate and drank during the military campaign? And would the region have had 15-20 thousand men for the army?

We might learn the truth if the field of the Battle of Dibba had been found. But so far archaeologists have had no luck in their search.

The Islamic period (632-1498)

No great events took place during this period. Several settlements of the early Islamic period have been found in the UAE. Ruins of an Umayyad and Abbasid city have been found in the Jumeirah area in Dubai. It is thought to have been a major port city.

The largest city of the Islamic period is Julfar in the modern Emirate of Ras Al Khaimah.

The excavations were begun by Iraqi archaeologists in 1973, and later the Japanese, British, French, and Germans worked there. The most ancient finds in Julfar date from the 13th century. Julfar gained its power in the 14th century. Pottery from China and other items from Southeast Asia have been found, which proves the close trade links and extensive trading network, which included the territory of the modern UAE.

Portuguese period (1498-1650)

In 1498, the Portuguese navigator Vasco da Gama sailed around the Cape of Good Hope. "With a Bible in one hand and a sword in the other", the Portuguese began a massive expansion into the Indian Ocean.

Already in 1515, a Portuguese squadron arrived in the Gulf of Oman and settled on the coast by force of arms. Some towns in what is now the UAE came under Portuguese rule, including Julfar. Some were destroyed, such as the town of Khor Fakkan in what is now the Emirate of Sharjah.

Portugal imposed a system of payment for safe passage on local merchants and imposed restrictions on the transport of some of the most valuable goods. This led to an economic downturn along the entire Indian Ocean coast and hit the Persian Gulf economy hard.

In the 17th century, the influence of the Portuguese weakened. As early as 1521 and 1526, two major revolts broke out in the Persian Gulf against Portuguese rule. In 1602, Shah Abbas I succeeded in driving the Portuguese out of Bahrain. In 1622, a joint Anglo-Persian force succeeded in driving the Portuguese from Hormuz Island in the center of the Strait of Hormuz (at the entrance from the Indian Ocean to the Persian Gulf).

Already by the mid-17th century, the Portuguese had encountered serious resistance from the local population, led by the Yarabi dynasty. Ships from England and Holland began to penetrate the Indian Ocean. The Portuguese military and trading empire collapsed.

The Portuguese left a great cultural legacy. Missionaries and officials left a huge number of documents describing life in the Persian Gulf at the time. The city of Julfar (modern-day Ras al-Khaimah) is interestingly described in Duarte Barbarosa's Book.

He writes, "A very large city with numerous and noble people, great merchants and seafarers. Aljofar (the old Spanish name for pearls) is caught here, many merchants from beyond Hormuz come to buy it".

This text shows the high level of development of the pearl fishing industry and trade in the emirates of that time.

Dutch period (1650-1750)

The Dutch and English acted together and helped the Arabs get rid of the Portuguese. But after the capture of Ormuz from the Portuguese in 1622, relations between the allies soured. The British were based in Bandar Abbas (modern-day Iran), controlled the entrance to the Persian Gulf, and demanded duties from the Dutch. The Dutch refused to pay.

The Dutch were more successful in trade matters. They founded a trading factory in Bandar Abbas and made an agreement with Shah Abbas I in 1623, which gave them the right of free trade on the Persian (now Iranian) coast of the Persian Gulf. They were also more active in ports in what is now the UAE.

In 1652, the Anglo-Dutch War started. As a result, England lost its trading posts at Bandar Abbas and Basra. The Dutch began to dominate the Persian Gulf. In 1666, the Dutch established a trading factory in Muscat, through which they also traded with the Emirates.

The Dutch were much more civilized than the Portuguese. They did not seize ports, they did not destroy the population, and they did not impose Christianity. The Dutch and English in the Persian Gulf were only interested in trade. Colonization of the lands along the Persian Gulf was out of the question.

In the 1750's, the Dutch influence was greatly weakened by the wars of England, France, and Holland. By 1753 the Dutch had lost factories almost all over the Indian Ocean, including all the factories in the Persian Gulf. They were given the opportunity to settle on the island of Kharg, where the Dutch built a trading post and fort. But they tried to control the local population there, and a revolt started. In 1766, the local Arabs drove the Dutch off the island. The Dutch influence on the Persian Gulf was at an end.

The Dutch have left us a great many documents telling us about life in the Emirates at that time. For example, we know for a fact that the city of Julfar (now the Emirate of Ras Al Khaimah) flourished throughout this period. We know that Arab ships were already able to travel long distances at that time. A document from 1646 tells of the arrival of a ship carrying sugar from Julfar to Basra.

It says of Julfar, "There is a good harbor where the largest ships can dock; there are more than 60 ships, most large and well equipped, sailing as far as Mokka".

It is from the Dutch documents that we first learn the name of the Al Qasimi family (until now ruled in Sharjah and Ras Al Khaimah). Sheikh Rahma bin Matar is mentioned as emir of Julfar shortly after 1718, when he participated in the siege of Hormuz island, and he is also mentioned in 1728 as one of the richest and most influential Arab traders, ruler of Julfar.

The Dutch were the first to map the Persian Gulf and the coast of the Emirates. They organized exploratory expeditions to the coast. In 1644-1645, the ship Zimiw arrived there and Captain Clee Spielman made a drawing of Dibba Bay - the first known image of the territory of the present-day UAE. In 1666, the ship Mirkat sailed along the entire coast of the present-day UAE and Captain Jacob Vogel drew detailed accounts.

British period (1750-1971)

The English East India Company was formed in 1600. The English opened their main trading post at Bandar Abbas in 1623. At first they had little interest in the coast of the Emirates. By the middle of the 18th century, the English had displaced the Dutch.

In the early 18th century, the fall of the Safavid dynasties in Persia and the Yaarib in Oman led to a state of semi-anarchy in the region. Many maritime communities that had previously fled from the Portuguese returned to the emirates and settled on new bases. A strong center emerged in Ras Al Khaimah, led by the Al-Qasimi clan, which controlled much of the coast.

In 1793, some of the Arab tribes of the Bani Yas Union moved from the oasis of Liwa to the coast. This is how the city of Abu Dhabi came into being. They were led by Sheikh Al Bu Falah of the Al-Nahyan family. The Al Nahyan family has been ruling Abu Dhabi until today.

In 1883, a detachment of Arabs of the Bani Yas tribes advanced from Abu Dhabi to the east. They reached the city of Dubai and easily seized power. They were led by Maktoum bin Butti of the Al-Maktoum family. The Al Maktoum family has been ruling Dubai until today.

The Persian Gulf was a very dangerous place during this period. Al Qasimi ships were challenging Oman for supremacy at sea. The British supported Oman by supplying arms, which led to an open conflict between England and Al Qasimi.

In 1806, England and Al Qasimi made peace, the first official document of the emirates' relations with European countries. This treaty, however, did not prevent Arab pirates from attacking British ships. In fact, the war continued.

In 1808, the British organized a military expedition which destroyed the Al Qasimi fleet at the Battle of Ras Al Khaimah. The naval battles continued. In 1819 a large British fleet raided Ras Al Khaimah, Umm Al Quwain, Ajman, and Sharjah, destroying the fortifications. The British fleet gained full control of the emirates' coastline.

In 1820, a major peace treaty was concluded between the emirs and Britain. Under this treaty, hostilities ended, emirs ceased piratical activities, and they had no right to build ships or forts. Article 9 of this treaty obliged the emirs to abolish slavery.

The British characterized their policy toward the emirs as: "Sustained control combined with friendly intercourse".

The naval battles did not cease completely. In 1835, a Sea Armistice was signed between England, Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Sharjah, and Ajman prohibiting naval battles during the pearl harvest season. A British patrol provided stability, and after 1843 hostilities almost ceased.

In 1853, the Perpetual Maritime Peace, a new treaty, was signed. After that, the Emirates' coast became known as "Trucial Oman" or "Trucial Coast". The British tried to secure their new telegraph lines and stations. The sheikhs received protection from the threat of the Ottoman Empire and Persia. The treaty was mutually beneficial.

The Persians, the Turks, and the French claimed the region. In 1892, an Exclusive Treaty was concluded. Under it, the British took full responsibility for the security of the Emirati coast. In return, the sheikhs undertook not to enter into any treaties with other countries.

Note that the English were only interested in the sea and trade. They hardly interfered in the internal affairs of the Emirs. The influence of England was so strong that the Persian Gulf in those days was called the "British Lake".

Pearl diving became the main source of income in the emirates. Although foreigners were engaged in export, the profits were still high. People in the UAE still remember that time, think of the Waterfall at Dubai Mall or the pearl-fishing attraction at Yas Waterworld. In 1830, English records give a figure of income of about 3 tons of silver per season.

At the end of the 19th century, Dubai was getting rich. Of course, by today's standards it is hard to call it wealth. See photo on the right, click to enlarge.

In 1894, Sheikh Rashid signed a separate treaty with Britain, a little later his brother Sheikh Maktoum exempted all foreign traders from taxes. Dubai became the main port of the Trucial Coast. In 1903, Sheikh Maktoum made a treaty with the British Shipping Company, and Dubai became the main port for British ships.

In the 1920s, cultured pearls from Japan and then other countries appeared on the world market. Pearl prices got down and the emirates became poor. The British began to take an interest not only in the sea. In 1932, British Imperial Airways created Sharjah's first connecting airport. Later airports appeared in the city of Abu Dhabi and on the island of Bani Yas.

The British were interested in oil and the strategic position of the emirates. In the 1930s, oil had not yet been found in the UAE, but the British had already signed Petroleum Agreements with the emirs, under which they received exclusive rights to develop oil.

To keep the peace, control internal affairs in the emirates, and assist oil exploration, the British created special units, the Omani Scouts.

In the 1940s, World War II further undermined the emirates' economy as peaceful international trade dropped several times.

Oil fields were first discovered in Abu Dhabi in the 1950s - in 1958 on the Umm Shaif shelf, in 1960 in the Murban desert. In 1962, the first shipment of oil from Jebel Dhanna took place.

In 1966, the ruling Al Nahyan family, dissatisfied with the actions of the ruling Sheikh Shakbut, staged a coup. Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan (pictured nearby, click to enlarge), the future creator and first President of the UAE, ascended the throne of Abu Dhabi. Read our detailed review "Sheikh Zayed" about him.

Great Britain announced its withdrawal from the region in 1968. The Emirates remained close to very aggressive neighbors: Oman, Saudi Arabia, and Iran. And they remained "every man for himself".

United Arab Emirates (1971-present)

Almost immediately after the British announcement of withdrawal from the Persian Gulf, Sheikhs Zayed Al Nahyan (Emir of Abu Dhabi) and Sheikhs Rashid Al Maktoum (Emir of Dubai) met on February 18, 1968 at Argoub El Sedirah (on the border of the emirates) and agreed to establish the UAE despite the territorial dispute between Dubai and Abu Dhabi.

Over the next 3 years Sharjah, Ajman, Umm Al Quwain, and Fujairah joined the treaty. All aspects of the future union were discussed at a conference in Dubai on July 18, 1971. The state of the United Arab Emirates was officially established on December 2, 1971. On February 10, 1972 the Ras Al Khaimah emirate joined.

Bahrain declared independence on August 14, 1971, but never joined the UAE. Qatar declared independence on September 1, 1971, similarly, did not join the UAE.

A temporary constitution was adopted and remained in force until May 20, 1996, when it was made permanent. The city of Abu Dhabi became the capital of the country. The first president was Sheikh Zayed, who was re-elected five times. After the death of Sheikh Zayed, Sheikh Khalifa Al Nahyan (his son, the new ruler of Abu Dhabi) became president.

On May 19, 1973, the UAE's own currency, the UAE dirham, was put into circulation.

In the roughly 50 years of its existence, the UAE has transformed from seven poor emirates with fishing villages to a prosperous modern country. The oil revenues, along with their judicious use, have produced all the wonders that tourists now see in the UAE.

The tallest building in the world - the Burj Khalifa, the biggest in the world - Fountain in Dubai, the biggest Dubai Mall, the fastest roller coaster Formula Rossa in Ferrari World park, the biggest artificial harbor in Jebel Ali, the tallest hotel Burj Al Arab, the most luxurious Emirates Palace Hotel, the biggest carpet and marble mosaic in Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, the automated longest Dubai Metro. And this is not a complete list of UAE records.

For 50 years, not only the living conditions have changed, but also the inhabitants of the Arab Emirates. Now only 10 percent of the population are Arab citizens, the rest of the country's residents are foreign workers, as we discussed in the review "The population of the UAE". However, the laws of the country remain based on Shariah, as you can read about in our review "Laws of the UAE".

The history of the Arab Emirates is complicated and confusing. People have never lived happily ever after, but what a great ending, a true Happy-End.

What else can I read about the UAE?

- Read about the current situation in the country in our review "The Arab Emirates - facts and figures";

- Read about the rulers of the country and the seven emirates in our detailed review "Sheikhs of the Arab Emirates";

- Read about the country's flag in the review "UAE Flag".

Have a great trip to the UAE, and read our pages about the country (see the list of the links below).


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What to Take for the UAE

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