Anytime we travel, we like to have a quick briefing book in hand to get a sense for the culture. If you have Abu Dhabi travel plans, this guide should cover all your bases.
Abu Dhabi history
Abu Dhabi is the capital and 2nd most populous city in the UAE. It is also the capital of the Emirate of Abu Dhabi, which is the largest of the seven emirates. Abu Dhabi accounts for ⅔ of the roughly $400 billion UAE economy. Prior to the discovery of oil in 1958 the culture was primarily Bedouin, relying on pearl trade and pirating.
Bedouin are “desert people” who live a romanticized nomadic and simple but difficult lifestyle. They typically belong to small tribes that traditionally live together in tent camps in the desert herding camels.
The lifestyle quickly changed when Abu Dhabi struck oil which gave rise to a stunning ascent in wealth over the past half century. Abu Dhabi travel for businessmen became a thing. The responsibilities and pressures of this newfound wealth essentially overwhelmed the incumbent ruler, Sheikh Shakhbut and he was ousted in favor of his brother, Sheikh Zayed.
It’s important to know a bit about Sheikh Zayed because if you visit, you will probably see his likeness everywhere. Unlike his brother Shakhbut, known as a mizer, Sheikh Zayed believed that wealth generated from oil belonged to all of the people of Abu Dhabi. He also had a philosophy of governance that was based on experience rather than pedantic knowledge. Sheikh Zayed rooted his approach to authority in the belief that “never put oneself in the position of a leader… strong individualists and believers in equality; Arabs of the desert do not take easy to restraints of government”.
Balancing the old and the new
Prior to striking oil, traditional rule was very personal and almost leisurely. It included weekly tribunals where citizens could come to the sheikh and personally discuss issues at home over a feast and tea. Foreign prospectors and investors whose modus operendi included the idea that time is money impeded on these personal interaction. Luxury automobiles and air conditioned life indoors quickly replaced the Bedouin lifestyle of living off the land and herding camels. Life for Zayed was a perpetual balancing act, between the personal leadership of the past and the faceless impersonal administration of the future.
Once Great Britain withdrew it’s occupation in 1968, he quickly stepped into action and established closer ties with the other Emirates. An Emirate is essentially a kingdom with a ruling family, or kin.
According to the UAE Embassy, as the country grew, the conservation of natural environment and wildlife remained critical to Sheikh Zayed. He believed that the character of the Emirati people derived from the struggle to survive in the harsh and local environment and was committed to preserving that environment.
On top of all of this, Sheikh Zayed and the rest of the UAE realized that the oil will eventually run out. The U.A.E. heavily invested in trying to make Abu Dhabi a financial hub for the region and in renewable energy. Solar energy has been a particularly good play, as the desert does get a lot of sun.
Summary of Sheikh Zayed
In short, imagine your already rich uncle in Abu Dhabi won the lottery. Rather than hoard that money, imagine that uncle instead invited you into his home to eat at his table the way you always had. You then travel to your home with a little slice of his pie. Imagine on your way home, you catch wind that he called up that neighbor that allows his dogs shit in your yard, and the neighbor agreed to cut that out. Now imagine rather than blowing this money on whatever, your rich uncle decided to invest it in a college trust for future generations of your entire family. The people like Zayed. You would too. In his honor, they built one of the most beautiful structures in the world, and you should visit.
There are two asterisks on this Utopian existence, however. The first is if you are not a member of the family. The other is if you happen to be female. The next section covers both.
People of Abu Dhabi
One of the things that struck me immediately upon my Abu Dhabi travel was how relatively few of the inhabitants of the island are actually local. In fact, only 11.6% of the population are Emirati, and the Emirati are extremely well off. The rest are essentially the help. The U.A.E. and Abu Dhabi has been criticized for having an unofficial social class system, and it does not exhibit true parody with western ideals of equality. Official statements affirm that men and women have equal rights and opportunities to advance themselves and the nation, yet patriarchy as a generalized ideology is still visible in social life. Men continue to receive employment preferences in high state administration and private businesses. Women do not play a significant role in politics and religious life, as these areas are considered male domains.
If you travel to Abu Dhabi, know that it is officially a Muslim country. The vast majority of the residents however are non-citizens and are technically free to practice whatever religion they please. This is true as long as worship does not contradict public policy or morals. Pope Francis even delivered mass from Zayed Sports City Stadium once. If you have a Jewish sounding name or Israli stamps in your passport, you just might be harassed a little bit in the airport. Generally, in my experience having traveled to Abu Dhabi and the U.A.E. multiple times, you are free to do as you please behind closed doors. If you offend an Emirati for basically any reason whatsoever, the laws are vague enough that you can be prosecuted. So basically if you stay in your lane, you’re good.
Five times each day is the Muslim call to prayer, known as Adhan. It is typically called out by a muezzin from the mosque from a minaret. The call to prayer summons Muslims for mandatory worship.
Ramadan is the holy month in which Muslims commemorate the revelation of the Holy Quran. At this time Muslims fast, abstaining from all food, drink, smoking, and unclean thoughts, from dawn until dusk. It is the 9th month of the Islamic calendar and occurs generally in April and May. At this time you CANNOT eat, drink, smoke, or chew gum in public places. That said, a lot of hotel restaurants will still be open, but with blacked out or tinted windows.
Handshakes are normal, but it is disrespectful to shake too hard. Men should refrain from shaking hands with women. Public displays of affection are frowned upon and technically illegal, although hand holding is generally overlooked. Know that it is considered highly offensive to curse and people have been deported for it.
Abu Dhabi and almost all of the U.A.E. is one of the most western friendly Muslim countries in the region. You are most likely safe wearing what you want. Out of respect for local people and customs, both men and women should cover heads and knees in public places. Women do not need to wear scarfs.
On the beach, feel free to wear a bikini as long as you are prepared for an occasional side eye. Do NOT bathe topless. That’s a bad idea.
If you visit Sheikh Zayed Mosque inappropriately dressed, you can borrow a traditional robe (abaya) and headscarf (shayla) before entering the mosque. You need to your shoes before entering the mosque.
Is it safe to visit Abu Dhabi?
Yes, don’t be an idiot. Actually this isn’t a dumb question. We know there are places in the middle east that have been unstable in recent history to say the least. Abu Dhabi is not one of them.
After 9/11, investigators determined that individuals in the U.A.E. were heavily involved in funding terrorism efforts. The government of the U.A.E. cracked down a lot harder than other places. Unlike Saudi Arabia, the U.A.E. welcomes western ideals and commerce. While there may not be a culture of equity and acceptance, there is a culture of tolerance with respect to diversity. For example, I have GLBTQ friends living in Abu Dhabi and while they may not be as freely expressive as they might be in the U.S.A., they are certainly safe and have a solid expat community. Our family actually really enjoys it there and we have considered moving to Abu Dhabi because it is very central to Europe, Africa, and Asia and if you can tolerate the heat the quality of life is very good.