Although the car is still king here, the UAE is racing ahead when it comes to increasing mobility options around the country. Whether you opt for water, rail or tarmac, discovering the seven emirates has never been simpler.
Getting to and around the UAE has never been easier. At a speed most countries could only dream of, the Emirates – formed in 1971 on a largely arid patch of land beside the Gulf – has become a global hub for aviation, cargo and increasingly talent too. From the high-rises to the street-level souks and shopping malls, this part of the world remains a meeting point for modern-day merchants and entrepreneurs from across the region and beyond.
While there are long-term plans to develop Al Maktoum International into an even larger airport (said to be capable of serving 255 million passengers a year by 2050 and costing a whopping €31bn), there are also other ways to get about. Once you’re here – whether you arrived by Emirates or one of the countless carriers that already make Dubai International among the busiest airports in the world – all seven emirates are accessible by road. The car remains the primary mode of transport, yet journeys by public transport increased by more than a third in Dubai in 2022, thanks to extensions to the Dubai Metro network, which now measures almost 90km and serves 53 stations. Next stop? Etihad Rail’s ambitious national service is on track to connect the emirates when it opens to passengers later this year.
In recent years cycling has become a popular pastime (though perhaps not quite a viable way to commute) and a ferry route recently reopened between Dubai and Sharjah, showing a willingness to look back to traditions of travelling by water for getting around. Mercifully, developers are increasingly focused on making neighbourhoods more walkable too. Shall we take a stroll to get our bearings?
Know your emirates
Divided between the families of the ruling tribes when the UAE was founded, each of the seven emirates has a distinctive character – and a namesake capital city. While Dubai might draw the majority of attention (and raise the most eyebrows), each has much to recommend it.
The government hub and the largest emirate, Abu Dhabi stretches far west into the Rub’ al Khali (Empty Quarter) and includes a wealth of islands. Home to more than 90 per cent of the nation’s oil wealth, Abu Dhabi’s capital has attracted world-leading institutions, such as outposts of the Louvre, the Guggenheim and NYU, plus plenty of homegrown businesses and neighbourhoods on the up.
The most populous city in the UAE with more than three million inhabitants, Dubai is perhaps best known for its vertiginous towers, sandy beaches and glitzy hotels. The real story is more nuanced. Once a small fishing village, it is now a modern international hub that is home to the world’s tallest building, one of the busiest airports and about 10,000 small and medium start-ups.
The third-biggest emirate in terms of both area and population, Sharjah is working hard to preserve its heritage and is Unesco’s Cultural Capital of the Arab World. With dozens of museums and galleries, the emirate’s capital has the most to offer when it comes to the arts. Sharjah is dry, which also makes evenings a little quieter. With land on the UAE’s east and west coasts, visitors have options for city life or coastal tourism.
Ajman is the smallest emirate in size but not by population. The culture is steeped in generous Arabian hospitality and it has been a centre for shipbuilding in the region for hundreds of years. Ajman also has an equestrian centre and is home to an illustrious stud farm.
Umm Al Quwain
Accounting for just one per cent of the UAE’s landmass and the least populous emirate, Umm Al Quwain is best known for its natural bounty. Nestled between Sharjah to the south and Ras Al Khaimah in the north, it’s a place to glimpse gazelles, falcons and turtles. Better still, lush green mangroves line its shores. Fishing is big in Umm Al Quwain and it exports the catch throughout Europe and the Middle East.
Ras Al Khaimah
Ras Al Khaimah is the UAE’s most northerly point (its name means “head of the tent”). The emirate is known for a growing roster of luxury hotels, undisturbed beaches and the Hajar mountains. It is also home to the UAE’s highest point, Jebel Jais, near the border with Oman. The emirate has a diverse economy but most notably has become a manufacturing hub, with its output ranging from ceramics to pharmaceuticals and construction materials.
Some of the UAE’s most historical buildings stand in the eastern emirate of Fujairah. Al Bidya Mosque was built in 1446 and Fujairah Fort followed in the 16th century. A free-trade zone also exists, enabling the transport of goods across the Indian Ocean to more than 50 countries.
Mapping it out
Although much of what people think they know about the UAE happens in the cities Abu Dhabi or Dubai the country is much bigger and more diverse than many expect when they disembark their inbound flights. In its north-eastern corner the invisible borders of the emirates criss-cross and overlap: it’s also where you’ll find plenty of less developed beaches and mountains ready to be explored. Abu Dhabi (the emirate, not the city) dominates the landmass in the west, stretching all the way to the border with Saudi Arabia and encompassing stretches of the dune-dotted Rub’ al Khali (Empty Quarter).