United Arab Emirates
Leadbeater, Chris, The Independent (London, England)
Traveller's guide Ultra-modern malls meet mosques, mountains and markets in this oil-rich corner of the Middle East. By Chris Leadbeater
What and where?
The United Arab Emirates is a federation of seven states, roughly the size of Scotland but a lot sandier. It sits between Oman and Saudi Arabia in the east of the Arabian Peninsula. The Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman - plus the Strait of Hormuz, which splits the UAE from Iran - cut the country into a rough triangle (though Oman's Musandam exclave commands the tip of the landmass).
However, despite their unity as one national body - and the fact that the borders that "divide" them are incredibly complicated but almost invisible - each emirate has its own individual legal system, government and character. Abu Dhabi is the powerhouse in both wealth and size (it makes up six-sevenths of the country). Dubai, the most celebrated of the seven thanks to its incredible construction boom over the last two decades, is the most populous.
Sharjah is the only emirate to boast coastline on both sides of the country, and pushes itself as a cultural centre. Ras al- Khaimah, the most northerly emirate, is a relatively poor relation, bereft of oil. Ajman (the smallest) and Umm al-Quwain are more modest pockets on the west coast. Fujairah, meanwhile, resides somewhat sleepily on the east coast.
A bit of history?
Evidence indicates human presence in the region as early as 5000BC, and trade with Mesopotamia to the north (copper) from about 3000BC. The Portuguese took control in the 16th and 17th centuries, but the British held sway during the 19th, establishing a loose network of protectorates that soothed relations between the rival sheikhdoms.
The UAE, though, is a country born of oil. "Black gold" was discovered in Abu Dhabi in 1958 (and in Dubai five years later), precipitating a move towards independence. When the main treaty with Britain expired in December 1971, Abu Dhabi - seeking manpower and solidarity to ward off possible incursion from Saudi Arabia - formed a union with Dubai, and extended the same invitation to the five other neighbouring sheikhdoms.
Where should I start?
While recent news reports suggest that Dubai's financial foundations may not be as sturdy as assumed, this dazzling emirate remains the obvious place to begin a tour of the UAE. Not least because its airport, as the largest air hub in the Middle East, is accessible non-stop from six UK airports: Heathrow, Gatwick, Birmingham, Manchester, Newcastle and Glasgow.
As an emirate, Dubai is roughly the size of Cornwall, much of it raw desert. But it is its coastal capital city (also called Dubai) that is the main draw for visitors.
Landmarks are plentiful, and, often, hugely impressive. The Palm Jumeirah, the first of three planned developments on reclaimed land (palmjumeirah.ae), is breathtaking in size and ambition, if not necessarily beauty. It can be explored by the monorail that runs up its spine: return tickets cost 25 dirhams (Dh25/4) from Gateway station on the mainland.
The Burj Al Arab, the sail-shaped hotel that has come to symbolise the rise of Dubai, is visible for miles around (though you need a room reservation to get past the gatehouse: 00 971 4 301 7777; jumeirah.com). Then there is the Burj Khalifa, the world's tallest building (see panel left), which opened with a flourish this week.
Shopping is almost a religion. And while the shops themselves tend to be familiar global names, the sheer number of them in the Dubai Mall (1,200, making it the largest mall on the planet - 00 971 4 437 3200; thedubaimall.com) and the Mall of the Emirates (a "mere" 472 - 00 971 4 409 9000; malloftheemirates.com) is astonishing. That the latter also boasts Ski Dubai (00 971 4 409 4101; skidxb.com), an indoor snowdome with five ski runs, sums up Dubai's anything-goes state of mind. …