People often think Dubai is a country. Actually, Dubai is one of the seven United Arab Emirates — or the UAE, as the country is known. It’s definitely not the biggest Emirate, it’s just the most well-known and the most developed as a destination. But there is more to this country than Dubai. There are six other Emirates you can visit.
Abu Dhabi is the largest Emirate. The city of Abu Dhabi is under two hours north of Dubai. It’s a fascinating city, and if you are looking to experience some of the Arab traditions, history and culture of the UAE, I recommend you go to Abu Dhabi.
Abu Dhabi: history, architecture and desert camps
Because Abu Dhabi is where more of that has been preserved. In Dubai you will find a bit of history, but it’s very small in comparison to what’s been kept in Abu Dhabi. Also, Abu Dhabi has fascinating contemporary Arab architecture, especially the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque.
That mosque is incredible, and it’s open to visitors and completely free to visit. They’ll give you the correct dress to wear, so you’re respectful when you’re inside. And it’s just beautiful — as impressive as a grand cathedral in an European city.
Abu Dhabi doesn’t have the same plethora of attractions as Dubai. It hasn’t got the same options for brunch, for going out partying, for staying on the beach. But it has great hotels, historical heritage and a very different atmosphere to Dubai. It’s nice to experience them both.
If you want to explore the contrast between the Dubai experience and the Abu Dhabi experience, it helps that they’re less than two hours apart. Also, if you fly with Etihad, which is the main carrier for Abu Dhabi, they provide a free shuttle transfer to Dubai and back. So if you are flying Etihad, you can stay in Abu Dhabi, then go stay in Dubai, and you’ve already got your transfer arranged to go straight to the airport for your flight back. If you are flying Emirates via Dubai, you can do the vice versa with Abu Dhabi.
Abu Dhabi is a big Emirate, and it’s where most of the Emirati desert is. They have some very good desert camps there. It’s true that so does Dubai, but the desert camps in Dubai are a lot easier to get to — you can just go for the day or for an overnight — whereas the desert camps in Abu Dhabi are more remote, and therefore more of a wilderness experience. You need to go for longer, but the advantage is that you can have more escapism.
Sir Bani Yas Island: safari in the desert
Part of Abu Dhabi is an island — Sir Bani Yas Island. You can travel there by boat or by seaplane. I recommend the seaplane, which is spectacular — you fly over Dubai as you’re leaving, then over the Arabian Sea and then you come in over the island.
There, you can go on safari, because they’ve done a great job of reintroducing many species that have become extinct in the Arabian Desert. In the Arabian Desert, animals struggle a lot now because of the conditions — it’s been getting hotter, and there’s less water.
In Sir Bani Yas Island however, they’ve helped keep those animal populations alive. It’s quite a densely animal-populated island, so you can have a really interesting safari. The famous animal to see — and you can’t miss it — is the Arabian oryx. It used to be critically endangered, but now the numbers are growing, so it’s moved up to endangered. You can also see antelope, and other beautiful small animals.
Sharjah: an emirate for families
If you come down the coast from Abu Dhabi for around two hours, you get to Dubai. If you keep going further along the coast, only half an hour from Dubai you’ll get to the Emirate of Sharjah.
Sharjah is the one Emirate within the country that is truly dry. And I don’t mean dry as in there’s no water there. There is water — but there is no alcohol. For many people, this is off-putting. For others it’s actually a highlight.
The Sharjah Emirate is less well known and less popular, but they’ve still got great hotels and resorts along the coast. It’s very family-friendly, and a popular destination with Arab families. I haven’t actually stayed there — I’ve only passed through — but I think it’s a nice option to consider.
Ras al Khaimah: the beach getaway
The one Emirate I really want to tell you about is further along the coast. It’s called Ras al Khaimah, and it has the kind of beach getaway vibe that is getting harder and harder to find in Dubai.
In Dubai you can have a beach holiday in the city, that is true, but the highlight of Dubai is that you can do a lot of things in one trip. Ras al Khaimah on the other hand is a destination where you can just be on the beach, at the resort, not really doing much except water sports and a few other things. They’ve got excellent resorts, and it’s great value, because it’s not as well known as Dubai.
My feeling is that Ras al Khaimah is a destination that is going to grow in the coming years. Because Dubai can’t get much bigger. They’ve been trying to make it bigger, and there are huge developments going along all over the place, but there’s not much coastline left. So there’s not much prime real estate. Whereas in Ras al Khaimah, they still can develop a lot.
Into Oman, then Fujairah
If you continue from Ras al Khaimah, you will enter the country of Oman. There’s a little peninsula that belongs to Oman, but is completely surrounded by the UAE. Here’s where the most beautiful resort from Six Senses is located. It’s not in the UAE, it’s in Oman — I must stress this.
The resort is called the Six Senses Zighy Bay. The whole peninsula is just big, red, scorched mountains overlooking the Arabian Sea. It’s all cliffs and rocks, entirely natural — a completely different experience to what you get when you’re in Dubai, which is essentially a flat desert plain covered with skyscrapers.
If you follow the peninsula around, you get to Fujairah on the other side. I’ve not been there. It’s another of the Emirates that is trying to develop tourism, but from what I know, the coastline just isn’t as impressive. Plus, it’s further away from Dubai and Abu Dhabi, so they’ve not been able to develop tourism in the way that they have on the other coast.
Flying through the UAE? Make it a two-destination trip.
This was just an overview of the UAE, but here’s why you should bear it in mind: two of the world’s biggest carriers are located in the UAE — Emirates and Etihad. And if you are travelling transcontinental, there’s a good chance that you’re going to be passing through one of these Emirates. There’s usually opportunity to make it a layover, and the other Emirates are close by. So you might be traveling somewhere else, but be able to extend your layover and stay two days in Abu Dhabi or Dubai.
It’s easy to make your trip a two-destination trip when you are flying with these airlines. It could be a week in Southeast Asia and then a week in Dubai or Abu Dhabi. It could be the same if you’re travelling to Africa for safari, you can combine one of the Emirates with your safari.
And remember, the UAE are not just Dubai — there’s a whole country there, with welcoming people and a lot of things to do. There are also quite remote places where you can find the tranquility that you are probably not going to get when you travel to Dubai.
By Stephen Bailey. Edited by Beatrice Becker.