You are coming to Abu Dhabi, one of the most intriguing cities in the world. A cosmopolitan metropolis with a reputation for oil-fuelled wealth and glamour, but whose past whispers of the vast desert sands of the fabled Empty Quarter and the lore and traditions of tribal Arabia. But what can visitors for WorldSkills Abu Dhabi 2017 actually expect?
Abu Dhabi is the capital of the United Arab Emirates, a young country created on December 2, 1971 out of seven emirates who were formally under the protection of Britain. The first President of the UAE was HH the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, whose achievements in nation building mean he is still revered and loved by his people. His eldest son, HH Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed, is the current President of the UAE. Another son, HH Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, is the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi. You will see pictures of all three hanging side by side in public places and in your hotels.
Abu Dhabi translates as “Father of the Ghazal”. The stories tell that three centuries ago, a group of hunters followed the tracks of a group of ghazal or native antelope and discovered them on an island, drinking from a pool of fresh water – a substance more precious than gold in the harsh desert climate.
The Ruler in those days, Sheikh Dhiyab Bin Isa ordered a watch tower to be built to protect the well and a settlement began to grow around it. Today the latest archaeological evidence suggests that people may have lived in the area much earlier; perhaps thousands of years ago.
By the 1950s, Abu Dhabi was little more than a fishing village and the home of the Ruler, who lived in Qasr Al Hosn, which means a fort that is also a palace and which now sits on the site of that original watch tower. Oil discoveries transformed the country and the city, so that today it has expanded well beyond the original island and is now home to over one million people. Some predict that Abu Dhabi may eventually expand as far as Dubai – over 130 kilometres away!
When you arrive at the airport immigration desk in the UAE, why not greet the official who stamps your passport with the Arabic welcome of “Salaamu aleikum”. Muslims all over the world meet each other with this simple phrase, which translates as “peace be upon you.” The correct response is “Wa aleikum a-salaam”, which means “And to you peace.”
When saying “goodbye”, use “ma’a salama”, or “go in peace” in Arabic.
Many Emirati and Muslim women are uncomfortable shaking hands with a man. This is simply a cultural difference and no insult is intended. So it’s best not to extend your hand when introduced to a Muslim woman. If she is happy to shake your hand, she will extend hers first. Some Muslim men prefer also not to shake hands with a woman. Again, this is just a cultural convention.
Among Emirati men, friends often greet each other with a peck on the cheek either side of the nose. You will also notice that there is nothing unusual about male friends holding hands with each other in public in many communities living in the UAE.
It’s worth remembering that politeness and courtesy in public are central to UAE culture and that displays of anger are considered bad manners and upsetting. It certainly won’t get things done any faster!
Offering hospitality to guests is at the heart of Emirati society, going back to the days when giving food, drink and shelter to one another was essential to surviving travel across the desert.
Today you will often be made welcome with a small cup of ghawa, or Arabic coffee, taken without milk or sugar and flavoured with cardamom and sometimes saffron. Only the bottom of the cup is filled, and generally two or three refills are accepted. When you have had enough, just give the empty cup a little shake.
Coffee is often accompanied fresh dates, perhaps the UAE’s most important crop, which grows on the palm trees you will see everywhere.
There’s no getting away from it. The UAE can be hot. In the summer months, the temperatures rise to the high 40s and the humidity is often stuck at around 100 per cent. Bizarrely this is a time when many residents break out their woollen sweaters and shawls as the air conditioning is cranked up to Arctic levels.,
Luckily, WorldSkills Abu Dhabi 2017 is taking place in mid-October, as the summer heat begins to ebb away. That means it will still be in the high 30s, especially around midday but that it will be much cooler in the early morning and as the sun sets. These are the idea times for a stroll along the Corniche, a picnic in the park or a paddle in the sea, which remains pleasantly warm.
Remember to pack your sunscreen and to carry plenty of bottled water. Hotels often supply this in rooms without charge.
In a region with a reputation for turmoil and strife, Abu Dhabi and the UAE remains one of the safest places in the world. Serious crime is extremely rare and the streets are generally safe and clean at all hours.
Visitors are welcome and most people are happy to help. At the same time, it is important to take sensible precautions with valuables, keeping handbags and wallets secure in public areas and using the hotel safe.
The emergency services, including police, ambulance and fire can be summoned by calling 999.
The UAE is an Islamic country, meaning its people follow the teachings of the Prophet Mohammed and the Quran, the holy book revealed to Mohammed by God in the 7th Century CE. Islam is central to the culture of the UAE, and you will hear the call to prayer from the city’s many mosques several times a day. Mosques hold the main sermon of the week at the midday service on Fridays. During the Holy Month of Ramadan, Muslims must fast from sunrise to sunset for an entire lunar cycle. Ramadan in 2017 will be in May.
Muslims recognise Christianity and Judaism as worshipping the same God as themselves, calling the three religions founded by Abraham, the “People of the Book.”
Tolerance to other faiths is central to the founding principles of the UAE. From the early days, the Rulers in several emirates donated land so that churches could be built. Christian communities of all kinds freely worship in the UAE and details of services can be easily found in the internet. In Dubai there are also two Hindu temples. Be aware though, that trying to persuade Muslims to give up their faith, known as proselytising, is a criminal offence in the UAE.
Arabic is the official language of the UAE. English is the second language, and you will find that everything you need is almost always in both languages. English is also widely spoken but if you try to learn a few Arabic words and phrases it will be much appreciated. It has been estimated that around 200 different nationalities live and work in the UAE, so you will almost certainly find someone who shares your language!
One of the first things you will notice is the national dress of the Emirati people. Men wear a long white cotton robe known as a kandura (please don’t call it a dish-dash, which is rude). It is accompanied with a head scarf known as a gutrah and topped with a loop of black knotted cord called an agal (Which was once used to tether the front legs of camels to stop them wandering away). You’ll see other colours of kandura, especially during the cooler winter months. You’ll also notice that Emirati men, especially younger ones, have different styles of wearing the gutrah according to the latest fashion.
On important occasions, like a wedding, men may also wear a black cloak trimmed with gold braid, known as a bisht.
Emirati women wear a long robe known as an abaya, with a head scarf known as a sheila. This is just in public. At home with their families, they generally dress as anyone else. Once the abaya was always plain black, but in recent years all kinds of styles have become popular, often with elaborate designs. Contrary to what many think, this dress and the covering of hair is more cultural than religious and is not compulsory, although a pair of designer shoes and sunglasses paired with a designer handbag is seen as essential by fashion-conscious Emirati women!
You will still see some older Emirati women wearing a facemask confusingly called a burqa, but which only covers the cheek, forehead and nose. Traditionally this was worn to serve a woman’s modesty, but also to protect her eyes and face from the harsh sun.
As conservative Muslim country, the UAE expects modest standards of dress in public in both men and women. This does not mean women are required or expected to cover their face or even hair but both sexes should be respectful of local cultural conventions. It is generally appreciated if women wear skirts that are no more than a couple of inches above the knee, and cover their shoulders. Men should also keep their shoulders covered and wear shorts that come to the knee. This dress code is not legally enforced, so observing it is just a matter of courtesy to your hosts. You’ll often see guidelines of what is acceptable at the entrances to shopping malls. In hotels and on beaches, standards are relaxed but while normal swimsuits are allowed, any public nudity is not. Tattoos are best kept covered in public places.
Alcohol is forbidden to Muslims as part of their religion, but the UAE permits it for others. Alcohol is sold in hotel bars and restaurants but not in other venues, with a few exceptions.
Permanent residents may purchase alcohol from specialist shops but require a special licence which is not available to visitors.
You must be 21 and older in order to drink and it is a good idea for younger visitors to carry proof of age even if they are legally allowed alcohol.
It is important to understand that the UAE has a zero tolerance approach to drinking and driving. If you are caught with any alcohol in your system while driving you will go to straight to jail and can expect a prison sentence followed by deportation.
Being obviously drunk in a public place is also a criminal offence, usually punishable with a heavy fine.
Did we mention that the UAE is home to around 200 differently nationalities? As a result there are restaurants that cater to almost every taste. Hotels have several restaurants ranging from buffets to Michelin-starred chefs – at a price. Expect to pay more if you eat at places where alcohol is served. You will also find all the usual international fast-food chains, especially in the malls.
For a taste of the real Abu Dhabi, head to the neighbourhood restaurants and cafes, especially downtown. No-one should leave Abu Dhabi without trying a Middle Eastern feast or a curry from India or Pakistan. All the meat in the UAE is hallal, meaning the animals have been slaughtered according to Islamic teaching. Most restaurants have vegetarian and fish options.
Fish and seafood lovers may want to visit the fish-markets at Mina Zayed and indoors at Mushrif Mall. For a few dirhams extra, you can get your purchase cleaned and then cooked to taste, fresh off the boat.
Pork is considered, haram, or unclean by Muslims according to the teachings of the Quran. Dishes with pork are served in some hotel restaurants, clearly marked as such, as are dishes containing alcohol. Pork products, which can include foods made with gelatine, are sold in some supermarkets, in special rooms whose entrance is clearly marked as only for non-Muslims.
The working week in the UAE runs from Sunday to Thursday, meaning that the weekend is Friday and Saturday. Here the weekend begins with the traditional day of rest and worship, while Saturday is for shopping and going out with the family, with a quiet night to get ready for school or work the next morning. The biggest night of the week for hitting the town is Thursday, after work.
So for those not familiar with the UAE weekend, Friday is Sunday, Saturday is still Saturday except for the evening when it is Sunday, while Thursday is Friday except that the next day is Sunday. Got it?
You must buy a pass first, known as a Hafilat card, and then load it with dirhams.
Modern air conditioned buses to Dubai and other cities start from the city’s distinctive green bus station next to Al Wadha Mall. You buy tickets before boarding at kiosks in the main hall.
Silver taxis are the most popular form of transport and are plentiful and inexpensive. You can hail drivers in the street or call the excellent TransAD booking line on 600 53 53 53. Fares are always metered.
For longer journeys, for example to Dubai and Al Ain, it is often almost as economic, and much faster, for groups of up to four to take a taxi as a bus. Expect to pay around Dh250 (US$69) each way. Note that Abu Dhabi taxis cannot pick up fares in Dubai and vice versa.
On arriving at the airport in Abu Dhabi, you will be directed to a specialist taxi service, which operates larger, brown Mercedes vehicles. These are slightly more expensive than standard taxis but are the only ones allowed to collect passengers. Any taxi is allowed to take you back to the airport. Ignore drivers who approach you on arrival – they are both illegal and expensive.
Cycling in the busy city streets is best avoided, but if you head out to Yas Island you will find a network of peaceful cycle lanes lined with trees and shrubs and the city’s first bike hire system, with automated stands and payment by credit card. There is another cycle path on the Corniche.
Rental cars from most of the major international companies can be picked up at the airport and at city locations. It is advisable to pre-book. Some nationalities may be required to produce an international driving licence as well as their regular driving licence, so check with your hire company first. A valid credit card is needed, and a copy of your passport photograph page will be made.
Roads in Abu Dhabi are modern and well maintained, with signs in both Arabic and English. Driving is on the left. Be aware that with so many different nationalities, driving styles can vary and the experience can sometimes be challenging, to put it mildly. While the police are taking an increasingly hard line with offenders, speeding, tailgating, changing lanes without signalling, and talking on the phone or texting while driving are unfortunately common.
Using offensive gestures and hand signals to other drivers is to be avoided and may result in a complaint to the police and possible prosecution.
At the same time, an experienced driver should be able to navigate UAE roads safely and sensibly. In the event of an accident, you should move your vehicle, if possible and if there are no injuries, to the side of the road and then call 999.
It is important to note that the UAE has a zero tolerance approach to drinking and driving. If you are caught with any alcohol in your system while driving you will go to straight to jail and can expect a prison sentence followed by deportation.
Petrol is fixed to the world price of oil and is among the cheapest in the world.
The international code for the UAE is 971, followed by the number, but dropping the first digit. As a guide, mobile phone numbers begin with 05, while Abu Dhabi is 02 and Dubai’s start with 04.
The local phone providers are Etisalat and Du. Both companies sell special SIM cards for visitors which can be purchased at their airport shops or in outlets at the bigger shopping malls.
The UAE operates a 220 – 240 volt electrical system with three flat pin plugs inherited from Britain. Most hotels offer free internet for guests, as do shopping malls with simple registration via email or SMS.
The currency of the UAE is the dirham, which is pegged to the United States dollar at the rate of Dh3.67 to $1.
The highest coin is Dh1, with smaller coins for half and a quarter, in units known as fils.
Bank notes come in Dh5, Dh10, Dh20, Dh50, Dh100, Dh200 and Dh500. A Dh 1,000 note exists but is not widely used for ordinary transactions. Please note that small shopkeepers and taxi drivers may have problems giving change for any bank note above Dh100.
You can make international withdrawals at cash machines/ATMs that are found at banks, larger hotels and shopping malls.
Currency exchanges can be found at the airport and in most shopping malls and will generally offer a better rate of exchange than banks, especially for larger amounts.
Tipping in the UAE is optional but appreciated. You will find a service charge already added to your bill in hotels and hotel restaurants. For taxis and restaurant staff, around 10 per cent is sufficient but no offence will be taken if you do not tip. You may want ask your waiter if they receive these gratuities, since it is not always passed on.
Abu Dhabi has an excellent system of private health clinics and hospitals but it is essential for visitors to take out a travel health insurance policy.
The UAE is free of diseases like malaria, rabies and polio and no special injections or medications are needed to travel here. The water in taps is perfectly safe to drink, although because it is desalinated, most people prefer the taste of bottled water, which if locally produced, is sold very inexpensively.
Couples are expected not to be over physically demonstrative in public, but holding hands and a kiss on the cheek is socially acceptable.
Sexual relations outside marriage is a criminal offence, as is cohabitation between unmarried men and women, and homosexuality. Adultery is punishable with a prison sentence. In practise, prosecutions for any of these are extremely rare and generally are brought as a result of being uncovered as part of a more serious offence, such as drunk driving. It is unusual for guests to be asked to show proof of marriage. As a general rule, those whose behaviour does not excessively drawn attention to themselves will not face intervention by the authorities.
It cannot be expressed strongly enough that using illegal drugs in the UAE, bringing them into the country, and buying and selling them will all have extremely serious consequences.
If caught you will receive a lengthy prison sentence, which could be up 25 years even for small quantities of some drugs. You should also be aware that drugs that are legal in some countries, including some medications, are banned in the UAE. If in doubt check with a medical professional before travelling.
Evidence of drugs in the bloodstream or urine is also considered sufficient for prosecution even if there is no other proof. Drugs such as marijuana can remain in the human system for six weeks and longer after consumption.