Page update - Oct 20, 2022
The Emirate of Abu Dhabi is a very interesting tourist destination in the UAE. But Abu Dhabi is inferior to the emirates of Dubai and sometimes Sharjah in popularity among tourists. On this page, we'll tell you the most interesting things about the emirate and the city of Abu Dhabi, tourism, pros and cons, and local hotels.
Starting September 28, 2022, masks are no longer required to be worn inside malls and stores, restaurants and cafes, hotels and airports. This applies in all emirates.
Starting February 26, 2022, quarantine for tourists arriving in Abu Dhabi has been completely lifted. You can enter Abu Dhabi with a certificate of vaccination and without a test on arrival. And that's great.
Starting February 26, 2022, masks are no longer required to be worn outdoors. This applies in all emirates.
Abu Dhabi is the largest emirate in the United Arab Emirates, holding 87% of the total area of the country. It has an area of 26,000 square miles (67,300 square kilometers), which is comparable to Ireland or Sri Lanka. See the map near, click on the map to enlarge to full screen.
Much of this land is occupied by the Arabian Desert - uninhabited and unfit for economic needs. Thanks to the activities of landscaping, the usable part of the land in the last 50 years has increased to 5%. About 1.2% of the land is used for agriculture, part of the coast occupied by mangroves.
Abu Dhabi owns 200 islands along the coast of the Persian Gulf. The emirate has more than 435 miles (700 km) of coastline. The Al Hajar Mountains are located at the east of the emirate. The highest peak is Al Hafit (1,340 meters) near the town of Al Ain.
Abu Dhabi is bordered by Saudi Arabia to the south, Oman to the east, and Dubai and Sharjah to the northeast.
The capital of the emirate and of the UAE as a whole, Abu Dhabi City is situated on Abu Dhabi Island, connected to the mainland by bridges: Al Maqta, Mussafah, Sheikh Khalifa, and Sheikh Zayed. The city includes several islands. The population of the main city's part is estimated at approximately 1.5 million people.
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The average wealth of an Abu Dhabi citizen is USD 17 million. The Emirate of Abu Dhabi represents 9% of the world's oil reserves (98.2 billion barrels) and almost 5% of the world's natural gas reserves (5.9 trillion cubic meters).
The GDP of the Emirate of Abu Dhabi is 931 billion dirhams (USD 253.5 billion), which can be compared to Portugal or New Zealand.
If you count GDP per capita, but only citizens (NOT including guest workers), then Abu Dhabi is the all-time record holder: USD 725,000 GDP per person. If you count together the citizens and guest workers, the figure is more modest - about USD 140,000 GDP, which is also more than any country in the world.
The huge oil revenues are actively invested in other sectors of the economy. One of the key industries is tourism. Let's talk about tourism first, because we are a tourist website.
Tourism in Abu Dhabi is under strict control and accounting. This is handled by ADTA (Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority), established in 2004.
In 2012, the emirate's authorities merged the two departments ADTA and ADACH (Abu Dhabi Tourism & Culture Authority) into one government organization ADTCA (Abu Dhabi Tourism & Culture Authority). ADTCA is now in charge of all tourism matters.
ADTCA keeps detailed statistics. The tourism industry is growing. Or rather, it grew until the pandemic. Almost all of 2020 and 2021 the emirate was mostly closed to tourists, and the final figures are very sad. Unfortunately (maybe fortunately), the Abu Dhabi Statistics Center does not publish them. However, unofficial data is available, according to which the tourist flow fell by 40% in 2020 and 2021 compared to 2019.
In 2019, the Emirate of Abu Dhabi was visited by 11,350,000 tourists. But this figure should be treated with caution, as it includes transit tourists who go out to see the city between flights, and includes tourists from cruise ships.
There were 5.1 million hotel guests (only 2019 statistics available so far). Among them, guests from India lead with 450,000 tourists, guests from China are in second place with 396,000, and the United Kingdom is in third place with 267,000 tourists.
The presence of its own Abu Dhabi International Airport (code: AUH) is another factor stimulating the development of the tourism industry. In 2016 (it was a record year), the airport handled 207,486 flights and 25,964,178 passengers. It is the fourth busiest airport in the Middle East and the second busiest in the UAE, second only to Dubai International Airport (about 96.5 million passengers).
Abu Dhabi has its own airline - Etihad Airways. But it is an airline with a high level of prices, and there is no low-cost airline, which has a negative impact on the development of tourism.
Sharjah has Air Arabia, Dubai has FlyDubai, and Abu Dhabi has no low-cost airline. There are no plans for a low-cost carrier yet, but authorities are trying to attract Air Arabia and FlyDubai to the airport, so far with mixed success. Now (2022) there is an active cooperation with the Hungarian Wizz Air. What will come out of this? We'll see.
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ADTCA is very active in promoting Abu Dhabi as a tourist destination. They actively participate in international tourism exhibitions, invest in construction projects, and engage in advertising.
There are very curious methods in the range of their media techniques. For example, in September 2016, they decided to invest in media to improve the perception of Abu Dhabi. The UAE is universally referred to as the "Middle East" in media, which carries a negative connotation given the tensions in Palestine, Syria, and Iraq. ADTCA has begun to promote the phrase "Arabian Peninsula" as more positive.
ADTCA initiates or sponsors various events. These include the Abu Dhabi Golf Championship, Junior Golf Championship and Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge, the Gourmet Abu Dhabi, the Al Ain Aerobatics Show, the Abu Dhabi Red Bull Air Race, and of course the Formula 1 Grand Prix (pictured near, click on photo to enlarge).
ADTCA takes part in building museums including the Zayed National Museum, Guggenheim Abu Dhabi and Louvre Abu Dhabi. They are involved in the planning and construction of entertainment venues such as Warner Bros. World Abu Dhabi Park.
Thanks to ADTCA we even know the exact number of hotels in the emirate - there are 168 of them, with 32,800 rooms. These hotels are certified and accounted. Of course, there are also guest houses, rooms, and apartments for rent, but no other country has been able to take such establishments into account. Most of the hotels are 5* - 54 (15,000 rooms), hotels 4* - 36 (7,600 rooms), hotels 1-3* - 33 (4,500 rooms) and apart-hotels - 45 (5,700 rooms).
The most expensive and chic is considered to be The Emirates Palace, which has also become a famous landmark of the city (in the photo below, click on the photo to enlarge).
Other luxury hotels include: Zaya Nurai Island Resort, Park Hyatt Abu Dhabi, The St. Regis Saadiyat Island, Shangri-La Hotel Qaryat Al Beri, The Ritz-Carlton Abu Dhabi.
There are any hotels for all tastes and wallets. The prices start from USD 40 per night and to almost the infinity.
Pay attention to the following parameters when choosing a tour or hotel:
- Does the hotel have its own beach? If not, you have to go to a public beach. Does the hotel take tourists to the beach with its own transport?
- Are there stores and cafes near the hotel? Prices in the hotel restaurant can be very high, and it is better to have the opportunity to eat outside and save money.
Take into account that hotel room rates may be published with all taxes included, or may not, and the difference is significant. Read more in our detailed review "Taxes on tourists in the UAE".
The climate in Abu Dhabi is not much different from the rest of the UAE coast. Read our review "The weather in Abu Dhabi and the UAE by month".
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The first important advantage is a huge number of local attractions. Even if you vacation for two weeks, then you will not have time to see everything. The number of interesting places Abu Dhabi can only be compared with the Emirate of Dubai.
The second advantage is its own international airport. It takes only 10 minutes to get from the airport to the hotels on Yas Island, 25 minutes to the hotels in the city center, and 30 minutes to the hotels on Saadiyat Island.
An important point! When you buy a tour to Abu Dhabi, then be sure to check the destination airport. Half of the tours to the hotels in Abu Dhabi do not include flights to Abu Dhabi Airport, but to Dubai Airport or even Sharjah. Tour operators save money by buying cheap tickets on low-cost Air Arabia and FlyDubai flights. From Dubai airport, you have to drive not 25 minutes, but 2-2.5 hours.
The third advantage is that the manners in Abu Dhabi are very liberal, there is no strict dress code. Women can swim in casual outdoor bathing suits (bikinis) on public beaches. Female tourists can wear shorts and short skirts, T-shirts at the malls and other public places. Police and security usually have no complaints, the locals are usually loyal.
The fourth advantage is the tolerance of the authorities to alcohol. Of course, it is forbidden by law to drink or be drunk in a public place, but in the hotels and in the bars there is nothing forbidden to drink. Read the review "Liquor in the UAE - prices and rules" for more details.
Almost all hotels sell alcohol in bars. Several stores in the city sell liquor, and since September 2020 you do not officially need a license to buy. However, no one was asked for a license there even before September 2020.
Another advantage is a little more pleasant weather. The city of Abu Dhabi is on an island, there is always a pleasant breeze blowing, the heat is slightly better than in Dubai or Sharjah. About the clothes for the trip, read our review "What to take to the Arab Emirates".
The main disadvantage is the same as in Dubai. The prices for rooms in hotels with their own beach are high. Such a tour for two for 7 days costs from USD 1500. It happens that you can buy a tour with promotion or with a seasonal discount for USD 1200.
For those who want to relax in the hotel on the first line, we recommend reading our review "Hotels in the UAE with its own beach".
Inexpensive vacation is only possible in hotels far from the shore, and you will have to take a bus or cab to a beach. Fortunately, Abu Dhabi has many free and well-maintained public beaches. The most famous are the Corniche and Al Bateen. Tourists, accustomed to hotels with their own beaches in Turkey, Tunisia, and Egypt, perceive the need to get to the beach very painfully.
Read our detailed review "The best beaches in Abu Dhabi".
The next disadvantage is a very poor development of public transport. There is no subway like in Dubai, the subway in Abu Dhabi is just being planned.
There are only buses and cabs for tourists. There are not many buses - only 40 routes within the city (70 totally including routes to suburbs). Cabs are inexpensive, but it's expensive to ride a cab every day. For details on prices, read our review "Taxi Prices in Abu Dhabi and Dubai".
Another disadvantage is the large area of the city and, consequently, the long distances between hotels and attractions. For example, you are staying at a hotel in the Downtown area and want to go to Ferrari World Park. You have to either ride 1.5 hours by bus or take a cab for 70 dirhams. For the current exchange rates of the UAE dirham, see our review "What money in Abu Dhabi and the UAE".
Prepare a significant amount to pay for transportation and read our review "How much money to take in the UAE". About the sights themselves we will talk in detail in the final part of this review, but now tell you the most important and interesting about the emirate and the city of Abu Dhabi.
The word "dhabi" in Arabic refers to a species of gazelle. The phrase "Abu Dhabi" literally translates as "father of the gazelle". There are two main versions of why the emirate is named so.
The first version is boring, but more realistic. There were many gazelles in the vicinity, hence the name of the area.
The second version is more interesting but more like a legend. In 1761, Sheikh bin Dhiyab Al Nahyan sent a group of men from the Liwa Oasis to hunt. They tracked down a gazelle and chased it for a long time. The gazelle led them to a source of fresh water on the island.
So the Bani Yas tribe found a new place to settle. They built the village and the fort at Qasr Al-Hosn near the spring. Later, most of the tribe moved to live on the island. This legend is important for understanding the history of Abu Dhabi.
Civilization in the territory of modern Abu Dhabi dates back 3,000 years BC. This ancient culture is now called Umm Al-Nar. The largest ancient settlement of this culture was found in 1959 in Abu Dhabi on the island of Umm Al-Nar, hence the name. Now this place of excavation is between an oil refinery and a military base, tourists are not allowed there.
The people of the Umm Al-Nar culture built round shaped tombs of stone. In Abu Dhabi, more than 50 such tombs have been found and many artifacts have been recovered - ceramics, stone tools, human remains.
In the 1st millennium BC the Umm An-Nar culture faded away, probably because the climate in the region changed for the worse. After the Umm An-Nar culture left, the area was inhabited by fishermen and nomads.
The history of modern Abu Dhabi began in the late 18th century. An alliance of Arab tribes of the Bani Yas inhabited the oasis of Liwa. In the late 18th century, the Bani Yas Arabs moved to the coast and settled in the area of modern Abu Dhabi in 1793. They began pearl diving.
The leader of the Bani Yas tribes was Sheikh Dhiyab bin Isa al-Nahyan. The Al Nahyan clan have been ruling the emirate until today.
In 1833, some of the Bani Yas tribes moved along the coast to the east, led by Maktoum bin Butti bin Suhail Al Maktoum. They took control of Dubai. The Emirate of Dubai is now ruled by the Al Maktoum family.
The rulers of Abu Dhabi and Dubai are from the same tribe, hence their closeness and mutual assistance. Remember the story, when Dubai at a time of economic crisis had no money to complete the Burj Khalifa tower. Abu Dhabi came to the rescue and the tower was renamed from "Burj Dubai" to "Burj Khalifa" in honor of Sheikh Khalifa (Emir of Abu Dhabi).
The Emirate of Abu Dhabi had been part of the "Treaty Coast" since 1820, that is, it entered into a protective treaty with Great Britain. At that time, the main sectors of the economy were pearl fishing, camel breeding, fishing, and the cultivation of dates and other fruits in the oases of Liwa and Al Ain. In the city of Abu Dhabi, most of the houses were made of palm leaves, such dwellings are called "barasti". Other houses were earthen or coral stone.
In the early 20th century, the pearl diving industry "collapsed". Cultivated pearls from Japan began to enter the market, and the prices of Persian pearls got down. The region found itself in a severe economic crisis.
In 1958, oil was found in Abu Dhabi. Big oil revenues flowed into the treasury and a new rich era in the UAE's history began. Concrete buildings began to be built in the city and new roads began to be built. The ruler at the time was Sheikh Shahbut Bin Sultan Al Nahyan, who preferred saving and did not invest in the development of the emirate.
His brother Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan (pictured below, click on the photo to enlarge) had a much more active attitude. He saw oil money as a chance to transform Abu Dhabi for the better. The Al Nahyan family decided that Zayed should succeed Shahbut on the throne.
On August 6, 1966, a bloodless palace coup took place. Sheikh Shahbut was detained by the military from the Omani Scout troop, escorted to the airport and taken to London. Naturally, the coup was carried out with the consent of the British.
Sheikh Shahbut then moved to Lebanon and returned to the UAE in the early 1970s. This is how Sheikh Zayed, the Emir of Abu Dhabi, the future president of the UAE and the "father of the nation", ascended the throne. In his honor, the Great White Mosque was built in Abu Dhabi, where his body now rests.
In 1968, the British declared their intention to withdraw from the Persian Gulf. Sheikh Zayed sensed a chance to unify the country. He met with the Emir of Dubai in February 1968 at Argoub El Sedirah, where they reached their first agreement to create a union state.
On December 2, 1971, the rulers of the 6 emirates signed a treaty of alliance, from which the United Arab Emirates appeared on the world map. Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Ajman, Sharjah, Fujairah, and Umm Al Quwain participated in the treaty. The following year, they were joined by Ras Al Khaimah.
Sheikh Zayed became the head of the new state. Read our detailed review "Sheikh Zayed - the father of the nation" about him. The city of Abu Dhabi became the capital. Since then, the emirate has developed and its inhabitants have become rich. Let's talk about the inhabitants in detail.
The population of the emirate is now estimated at 3.3 million people. But this is a calculated figure as the last official census was back in 2005.
The last official estimate was made in 2016 by SCAD (Center for Statistics Abu Dhabi). They give a figure of 2,657,026 people, of whom 506,411 are citizens, the rest are guest workers. Such a situation is normal for the UAE, where only 10% of the total population of the country have citizenship. The rest live and work in the country temporarily as we wrote about it in the review "The population of the UAE".
Most of all there are Indians - about 40%. You will see them everywhere: hotel staff, cab drivers, sales clerks, cleaners and workers. In addition to Indians, there are many Pakistanis, Egyptians, Malaysians.
Abu Dhabi is one of the world's record-breakers in population growth, with an average growth rate of 9.6% per year. From 1960 to 2010, the population grew 50 times.
It is very simple in the Emirate of Abu Dhabi. The emirate is divided into three regions: Abu Dhabi Central Capital District, Al Ain Eastern Region, and Al Gharbia Western Region.
Like the other six emirates of the UAE, Abu Dhabi is a monarchy. The Emir of Abu Dhabi is also the President of the entire United Arab Emirates. Theoretically, the President of the UAE is chosen every five years by a vote of the Supreme Council of seven sheikhs, but traditionally they all vote for the Emir of Abu Dhabi. These are the features of democracy in the UAE.
From August 6, 1966, to November 2, 2004, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan (the father of the nation) was the Emir. He was the President of the UAE from December 2, 1971 till November 2, 2004.
From November 2, 2004, to May 13, 2022, Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan was the Emir and the President. However, he did not actually rule the entire time. Shaykh Khalifa had a stroke in 2014, and since 2014, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the Crown Prince, has actually ruled.
On May 13, 2022, Sheikh Khalifa left us. As of May 14, 2022, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan became the full Emir of Abu Dhabi and President of the UAE.
Read about all the ruling sheikhs in our review "Sheikhs of the UAE".
The Emir oversees the work of ministries and departments and appoints regional and departmental heads. In fact, he has full power, but within the limits of the country's constitution. It is the constitution that spells out what issues are decided at the federal level and what issues are decided at the local level.
There is no elected parliament in the emirate, but there are majlis - assemblies of citizens, where everyone can have their say.
The economy of Abu Dhabi now accounts for 60% of the GDP of the entire United Arab Emirates.
The first place in the structure of the economy is occupied by oil and gas production - 58.5% of GDP. The annual export is about 750 million barrels of oil, the main buyers of oil and oil products from Abu Dhabi are Japan and the Netherlands.
Apart from oil production, other sectors of the economy are developing in Abu Dhabi. Construction is about 11% of GDP, insurance and finance about 10%, manufacturing about 9% and tourism about 6%.
Abu Dhabi has a poorly developed public transport system. There are no railroads, no subway in the capital. There are only bus routes within the capital and to other cities of the emirate. The main ways to get around in Abu Dhabi are private cars and cabs.
- Masdar City in the Emirate of Abu Dhabi is the world's first zero-carbon, zero-waste, car-free city. No carbon dioxide emissions, no waste, no cars.
- The skyscraper Capital Gate Tower in Abu Dhabi (aka "Abu Dhabi Falling Tower", 25 floors, 525 feet, 160 meters high) has a slope of 18 degrees, 4 times greater than the Leaning Tower of Pisa in Italy.
- The Yas Viceroy Hotel on Yas Island is finished with 5,056 glass panels. They are cleaned by 15 professional climbers for a month.
- The Emirates Palace Hotel has 1,002 chandeliers, the largest weighing 2.5 tons.
- The most expensive dish in the world is served at the Emirates Palace's Sayyad restaurant. It is 30 grams of Royal Beluga Caviar for 2,000 dirhams.
- There are 150 mosques in the city of Abu Dhabi, a total of 2,500 mosques in the emirate.
- Homosexuality in Abu Dhabi is punishable by 12 years in prison. However, unconventional sexual orientation is punishable in all seven emirates, the only difference is the punishment. Read our review "What tourists should not do in the UAE".
The vast majority of attractions in Abu Dhabi are concentrated in three areas: the city center, Yas Island, and Saadiyat Island.
The Sheikh Zayed Great Mosque is the most significant landmark of the city center. It is the main mosque in the UAE and was built for more than 10 years (from 1996 to 2007). Sheikh Zayed Al Nahyan is buried near the mosque.
Read more in the review "The Sheikh Zayed Great Mosque".
The Heritage Village is the largest reconstruction of local life in ancient times in the UAE. 4.15 acres (16,800 square meters), five zones showing everyday life in different climatic zones of the country, a market and craft workshops. Admission is free.
Read more in the review "Heritage Village in Abu Dhabi".
The Corniche beach and promenade is the main street of the city with lots of entertainment, stores, and restaurants. Celebrations and even military parades are held there. Corniche Beach is the largest and most landscaped public beach in Abu Dhabi.
Read more in the review "Corniche beach and waterfront".
Etihad Towers and Observation Deck at 300 is one of the "calling cards" of the Emirate of Abu Dhabi. Tower 2 has an observation deck at a height of 985 feet (300 meters) overlooking the city.
Read more in the review "Observation Deck at 300".
Emirates Palace Hotel is one of the most luxurious hotels in the world. And although most people can not afford to stay there financially, any tourist can look at the luxury of the lobby and the gold trim.
Read more in the review "Emirates Palace".
The White Fort (Qasr Al-Hosn Palace) is the former residence of the Emirs, now a museum, and the oldest building in the city. From 1761 to 1966, the main administrative center of the emirate. The only source of freshwater in the area was inside in the older times.
It is a massive tourism project that has cost the emirate more than 40 billion U.S. dollars. Once deserted, Yas Island to the east of the city center has been developed with hotels and entertainment venues. Read our big reiew "Yas Island".
Ferrari World Park is a huge indoor amusement park. The world's fastest roller coaster, many other rides, and a Ferrari car museum await tourists there.
Yas WaterWorld. This water park boasts no records other than the financial cost of construction, which amounted to almost a billion dollars. But it can offer entertainment that is difficult to find in other water parks - water roller coasters, pearl diving, large-scale water battles, several pools with waves.
Read more in the review "Yas WaterWorld Water Park".
Warner Bros. Park is the world's largest indoor amusement park, with 38 acres (153 thousand square meters). The park is stylized mostly with the theme of Warner cartoons and DC superheroes. Inside, visitors can enjoy 29 rides.
Read more in the review "Warner Bros. park".
Yas Mall. The second largest shopping area in the UAE, second only to Dubai Mall. Over 400 stores - from expensive fashion boutiques to an electronics hypermarket, almost a hundred restaurants, several amusement parks inside.
Read more in the review "Yas Mall".
Yas Marina Circuit. This is where the Formula 1 Grand-Prix Abu Dhabi races are held.
Read more in the review "Yas Marina Circuit".
Most of the tourist facilities on Saadiyat Island are still unfinished. At the time of update of this page, the Manarat Al Saadiyat Art Center has already been built, housing art galleries and other exhibitions.
The Louvre Museum is also now open to the public. The museum is a grand dome building with a diameter of 590 feet (180 meters). Inside you can see the masterpieces of Leonardo, Picasso, Monet and other great masters.
Read more in the review "The Louvre Abu Dhabi".
The opening of a branch of the Guggenheim Museum is still pending.
The city of Al Ain is located 100 miles (160 kilometers) inland. Al Ain is built on seven oases, now a blooming place among the dunes of the Arabian Desert. UAE citizens like to come there for weekends and tourists for day trips.
Read more in the review "The City of Al Ain".
Sir Bani Yas Island is located 160 miles (260 km) west of the capital. It is a unique man-made reserve, which Sheikh Zayed planned to use in a large-scale greening project of the country.
Read more in the review "Sir Bani Yas Island".
- If on a holiday in Abu Dhabi you want to see Dubai as well, read our review "How to travel between Abu Dhabi and Dubai";
- Getting around Abu Dhabi by bus is cheap - 2 dirhams within the city, 4 dirhams to the suburbs. But buses have their own features, which you can read about in our review "Buses in the UAE";
- If you are going to Ferrari World, Yas WaterWorld, Warner Bros. parks, read our review "How to buy cheaper tickets to amusement parks".
Have a great holiday in Abu Dhabi, and read our interesting pages about the UAE (see the list of the pages below).
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