Your need-know-guide for having a great holiday in the United Arab Emirates
Welcome to the United Arab Emirates – a land of extremes from cosmopolitan cities to rolling desert dunes; conservative and embracing of its Islamic cultural roots but forward-looking and investing in its future. You name it, it can probably be seen or be done in the UAE – if not they’ll build it, on the grandest scale possible!
With Dubai Airport now taking over from Heathrow International as the world’s busiest in passenger numbers, as well as being a central hub to pretty much all corners of the globe, it’s any wonder the UAE is now one of the hottest destinations for travellers to make a stop-over, or as a destination in itself?
So is it suitable for families? Yes! In fact, I would venture to say the UAE is becoming one of the leading locations in the world for family vacations. Many projects are still ‘works in progress’ – anyone visiting will see the skyline is constantly filled with cranes – there are new beach resorts, theme parks, museums, shopping malls and out of this world attractions opening every month in this dynamic and vibrant country.
It is incredibly family-friendly but those who are unfamiliar with the Middle East and Islamic culture might want to take a few things into consideration when planning a family adventure to the UAE.
1. It’s hot, hot, hot
This is the desert – let’s face it – it’s going to get hot! (for a vast amount of the year the temperature is above 32°c/90°F ). The best time to visit is from late October to end of March where you can maximise your outside time. Beyond these times there’s still plenty to do but you will be restricted to mostly indoor activities – indoor theme parks and soft-play centres are a speciality – or cool down at Ski Dubai, the world’s third largest indoor ski slope.
In the very peak of summer it reaches up to 50°c/122°F so make sure kids are getting their fluids and use sunscreen if you’re outside (though the suns rays aren’t as penetrating as other parts of the world this is just common sense!) And a little note on water – you may need to use taps in reverse over summer as scorching hot water can come out of the cold tap, the hot tap may actually be cooler – always check!
The Safest cities index as compiled by the EIU now ranks Abu Dhabi as the 25th safest city in the world and the safest city in the Middle East (Breaking News: Latest study released by Numbeo ranks Abu Dhabi as the world’s safest city); that said, tourists should take the same precautions they would travelling to any other big city in the world.
Incidents of petty theft and certainly any incidents against tourists or families are extremely rare. The only annoyance you may find are the ‘hair touchers’ if your children are fair but even this is isolated compared to other Asian countries I have experienced. You also get the occasional ‘starers’ and ‘close standers’; if ever in any fear or concern contact the police but a lot of this is just cultural difference and can be ignored.
3. Religious Respect
Always respect the Islamic culture when travelling in the Middle East; although the UAE is less conservative than some of the neighbouring Islamic nations, you are still expected to dress and behave respectfully –some of the things to make all your family members mindful of;
- As a visitor, ladies do not need to be fully covered nor wear a head scarf, but shouldn’t wear anything too tight and revealing (you will see plenty who don’t adhere to this, but this has only crept in of recent years as tourist numbers have increased, frankly even as a white westerner I find this disrespectful!). If you are visiting the Grand Mosque they can provide you with an abaya so you are fully covered.
- Children are fine to wear as they please – though you may see a lot of Arab children (girls and boys) in long sleeves and legs covered year round, a sign of modesty. Men can wear shorts but there are places they won’t get into without long trousers particularly in the evening and if visiting a mosque. Beach wear is acceptable only in appropriate places.
- The Emirati’s themselves mostly wear traditional dress in public. The men can be seen in pristine white kandura whilst you will see the Emirati ladies, and those from other GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) countries are fully covered in black Abayas and Shayla (a robe and headscarf). Ladies around the Arab world interpret the need for modesty differently; you will see some ladies wearing the niqab or full face covering, and some of the older generation still wear a burkha or leather face mask. Don’t be surprised or shocked or assume they are “oppressed”. And certainly do not photograph them without permission.
- No overt displays of affection and embracing (but don’t be surprised to see men walking along holding hands!) A peck on the cheek of your husband is acceptable and, of course, you can embrace your children but just be modest in public.
- No rude or insulting gestures – this can be hard when you are driving in the chaotic traffic but NEVER give a rude gesture or swear at someone, it could well result in a stint in jail regardless of whether you are a tourist. A teen is unlikely to be arrested but do explain to them the importance of minding their p’s and q’s while visiting, it is taken very seriously.
- Religious respect is a two way street and other religions are very welcome. Christmas is very openly celebrated in shops and hotels, though celebration of non-Muslim festivals in schools is a more contentious issue.
4. The call to prayer
One of the five pillars of Islam is prayer five times a day. You will see Masjids (mosques) spotted all over the cities and countryside. To the uninitiated hearing the Adhan (it can sound like melodic chanting) comes as a surprise but don’t be shocked (Fajr at around 5-6am can wake the kids though!). There is nothing for non-Muslims to do or observe at these times but you will likely see people heading into mosques or pulling up their prayer mats wherever they are to perform the prayer ritual. (If you are wondering what the arrow is on the top of your hotel room, this is pointing to Mecca!)
5. Friday is a weekend
Labourers and public sector workers generally work a six day week with schools, the public service and some private enterprises taking Friday and Saturday as their weekend. Be mindful of this when trying to work out accommodation and visiting attractions. Friday nights, in particular, are a very busy time of the week and it can be difficult at some of the more popular destinations to manoeuvre around with large prams and small children without fear of them getting lost.
6. It is a stay up late culture
Getting up early is the best way to see things and get out and about before the heat, but don’t be surprised that some attractions don’t even open until the afternoon! The main shopping malls usually open at 10am, including now on Friday’s which can be a great time to get in before the crowds later in the day (particularly the likes of Dubai Mall and Mall of the Emirates). It is very common to see large families out very late in the evening with small children, and even children’s shows and entertainment are scheduled well into the evening (great if you’re on a fly through with jet-lagged kids!) Its not unusual for some of the mega-malls to remain open all night during shopping festivals and Ramadan.
7. Public & school holidays
Although schools and businesses observe the Gregorian calendar (12 months, 365 days), religious holidays in the UAE follow the Hijri or Islamic calendar. The Hijri calendar follows 12 months of the lunar year and has approximately 354 days. Accordingly, dates for religious holidays and events are not fixed until the sighting of hilal (the crescent moon) which can cause confusion as to when the public holiday actually falls.
On religious holidays different opening hours and rules apply, such as a ban on serving alcohol (see more on Ramadan below). For an outline of proposed UAE public holidays in 2017 see here.
If you are trying to plan any travel around local school holidays, then good luck! Not even those of us that live here get much forward warning, and even once announced, they have a propensity to change. Each Emirate has its own academic calendar, and international schools observing different curriculum’s have a different school year, but broadly speaking the local schools and British/American/International curriculum schools have three terms with a break around end of December and end of March then two months off over July/August – many expat families leave over the hot summer months.
8. Catering to tastes
Meal options are honestly endless. From the fussiest little eaters to the finest cuisine all tastes and all nationalities are catered for. A lot of the restaurants are either inside hotels or are attached to shopping malls, along with all the big global brand fast-food chains and supermarkets. You can get a vast array of both local and imported brand groceries – you certainly wont go hungry for choice. If you are in need of a particular imported brand, however, don’t rely on getting it here as stock levels can fluctuate and goods become unavailable for months at a time.
If you are here on a Friday, consider checking out a Brunch. These are incredibly popular social events, normally held from 12-4pm at hotel restaurants. A package will normally consist of all you can eat buffet and drinks for a set prices, and some of the good venues will include children’s entertainers, child minding with face painting, movies and games (see our guide to the best 3 family-friendly brunches in Abu Dhabi). Do check on the venue beforehand though for its kid-friendliness as not all hotels will specifically cater for this group and they can end up more about the drinking.
9. Availability of ‘banned’ products
Pork and alcohol are banned for Muslims only. Alcohol is readily available through hotels for tourists and expats, however take away alcohol can only be purchased from specialist shops if you have a drinking license (but rules on this seem fairly lax). Most restaurants do not serve pork products but increasingly the big hotel restaurants do, and some supermarkets have a ‘non-Muslim’ section for purchasing pork – quite a novelty the first time you have to enter ‘the pork room’! You don’t realize you miss it until you can’t get it.
10. Caring for infants
If you need any sort of infant supplies, you really are going to be quite spoiled for choice (though maybe at a higher price than you’d pay in your own country). The large malls all have global clothing brands, and general infant supplies are available at stores such as Mothercare and Babyshop, as well as in supermarkets. A favourite store of ours here is Mamis for pregnancy and maternity supplies – they can deliver to your hotel if needed!
Many medicines can be bought over the counter here without a doctor’s script, but if you do need any very specific infant supplies bring them with you as supply isn’t always reliable. In case of an emergency, there are several state of the art hospitals with well-respected doctors so you should be in safe hands.
When it comes to nappy changes and feeding times, the newer malls are being built with the parent in mind with proper changing and feeding rooms available to parents (though sadly almost always inside the female toilet not available to both sexes).
Breastfeeding is encouraged by local health authorities and is perfectly legal and acceptable. However, you will rarely see women in public feeding their babies (I personally feed my son out in public all the time without qualms). If you are not comfortable doing so, you are always welcome to sit in a female prayer room; those that have done so report being very welcomed, or not actually seeing anyone in there.
As for getting about with infants, you will find most tourist destinations are easily accessible with a stroller, but be warned in some of the older parts of Dubai and Abu Dhabi the footpaths are really not designed with pushchairs in mind; curbs are very high and there aren’t always ramps to get up and down.
11. Cultural mix
The UAE is one of the world’s biggest melting pots of different cultures (some reports say workers from over 150 different nationalities are represented!) but be mindful that there is somewhat of a hierarchical/class system in place. A large majority of the country’s population is made up of migrant workers who build and maintain the beautiful cities we get to enjoy, but they are paid and housed in accommodation significantly below the standards of Western and Arab counterparts. This may shock people coming from countries where a large emphasis is put on equality for all but it’s a reality of the local culture. Everyone will have their own views on whether this is ‘right’; be careful on how and where you voice these views and think about how you might explain this to your children if they ask.
12. Arabic language
Although Arabic is the official language of the country, EVERYTHING you need to read is in English as well. You will most likely be served in shops and restaurants by a non-Emirati (only a small fraction of the UAE workforce is actually Emirati) who all speak in English. You might like to learn a few small phrases just to be polite such as ‘Shukran’ (thank you), but certainly don’t be put off by any language barrier, even with just a little English you can easily get by.
Love it or hate it, traffic can be a problem for any big city in the world. In Abu Dhabi and particularly Dubai traffic is only getting heavier and more difficult to negotiate. There are public transportation systems, including the now very heavily used Metro system in Dubai but you may well find yourself needing to drive to get from A to B easily (especially in the summer months walking is simply not an option). Tourists can hire a vehicle on an International licence (and there is no problem with women driving), but be mindful if looking to borrow a vehicle from family or friends who live here, their local insurance policy may not cover you to drive without a UAE license.
You may notice there are A LOT of 4×4’s; no, we are not all avid dune bashers, it’s called survival of the fittest. Note also that there is amazingly no back-seat seatbelt law (despite some tireless campaigning), meaning child restraints are not required by law. One word of advice you must heed is bring a child safety restraint if planning to use a car. With the driving conditions here you would be a fool to drive without one (reputable hire car companies should be able to offer these to you -even taxi’s from Dubai Airport now offer a car seat service).
Street address systems are currently being put into place across the major cities in the UAE but you may find that directions are still given by landmarks. If you are driving yourself, be aware of one-way systems too; you will find yourself needing to do a lot of u-turns and back-tracking to get where you are going, and if you miss your exit, it can be unrelenting!
14. Beyond the big cities
Although most of the attention in tourist brochures tends to focus on the capital Abu Dhabi and the vibrant and glamorous emirate of Dubai, don’t forget the UAE is actually made up of seven separate Emirates. Try and make time during your visit to get out of the big cities and see some of the desert, regional centres and the mountains (yes, there are mountains!) to understand the stark contrast between the big cities and the country’s Bedouin heritage.
Culture and history buffs might find that the capital is sadly lacking much in the way of museums or local art – all about to change – but if this is your thing, a trip out to Al Ain is a must. Outside of the cities, you will also find things are a little more conservative so dress as such. (You can see more on family activities around the UAE in the “Discover the UAE” section of our blog and this mega post on Things to Do in the UAE)
15. A word on Ramadan
As a Muslim country the religious occasion of Ramadan is strictly observed. This is a time for deep religious reflection by Muslims and certain practices must be observed by all Muslims. Whilst non-Muslims do not need to participate, you must show respect at all times to those around you. Some of the key areas that can concern visitors include:
Fasting – You should not eat or drink (including water) in public during daylight hours while fasting is occurring. Pregnant and nursing mothers are, however, exempt as are children under 12. You will find most restaurants are closed during the day anyway (some, particularly in hotels are still open but the windows blacked out or sections curtained off. Increasingly shopping mall food courts ARE now open during the day but sectioned off). Supermarkets are still open but may have modified hours. If you and the children need to eat out of your house/hotel room, just be discreet. If a small child is hungry please feel free to feed them wherever you are, you will not be chided for this but teens and more so adults can be punished by law.
Iftar is the evening breaking of the fast – a time where family and friends, Muslim or otherwise come together. Big banquet style dinners are held at hotels and restaurants throughout the evening and night; food courts will reopen and it’s an incredibly busy time of day after Maghrib (evening prayer time). Be aware that tired hungry drivers on their way to Iftar can be a little erratic, best avoid travelling at this time of day if possible.
Affection & dress – see the points above about religious respect, but particularly important during this month of reflection. Of course, if it’s hot your kids can wear light summer clothing and of course you can kiss and hold your children but adults should be extra vigilant in keeping themselves covered and just keep your affections to a private place.
Business and trading hours – will vary significantly over Ramadan, including government services and embassies. They may open very early in the day then not open again until evening. Always try to check in advance (though websites aren’t always particularly helpful in this regard or accurate!)
Ramadan has fallen over summer for several years now; you will find many expats will leave the country over this time of year due to the heat and restrictions for day time activities. If you are visiting over this time of year, please check out our Ramadan Guide for Families, or if you are staying at a hotel the concierge staff will be more than happy to help guide you through acceptable behaviours. In 2017 Ramadan is due to commence on 25 May and lasts for 29-30 days.
I hope this guide has you better prepared you and your family for what to expect from this marvellous and dynamic country. For more on what to do in the UAE with your family, come and check out this post I wrote for Traveling Moms, as well as Activities for Young Kids – a guest post for Toddlers on Tour and 5 things your kids will love about… a guest post for Learning Escapes.
http://www.islamicfinder.org/ find out about Islamic calendars, prayer timings and learning more about the Islamic culture.
Tourist boards for each of the Emirates
Ajman Tourism (site no longer active)
Umm al-Quwain Tourism (via UAE tourism – they don’t have their own board)
Have you visited the UAE with kids? Were there any customs or cultural differences that really stood out to you?
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