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Driving and Public Transport for Expats in the United Arab Emirates

Author: Jim Newham
Submitted: March 2014


The recently built road network connecting the UAE’s main cities is modern and highly developed. Unfortunately the attitude of the average driver using these roads is not modern and highly developed. With an estimated 37 deaths per 100,000 people per annum, the UAE is in the top 50 of countries in the world on most road accident fatality lists. Partly due to increased recent media focus on the issue, the individual Emirati governments are starting to take action. Abu Dhabi emirate, for example, has seen large reductions in the number of fatalities caused by road accidents in the last few years.

Nevertheless, there are still too many local drivers who are arrogant and have an unhealthy love of speed. There is an endemic lack of respect for other road users and traffic laws. This makes driving in the Emirates rather dangerous, especially during rush-hour. It is very important to be aware of the locals’ driving habits and, as much you can, learn to expect the unexpected. Or, better still, consider taking public transport instead.

Unless you are staying in the country on a visit visa, it is not possible to drive in the UAE with your existing licence. You will need to exchange your home country licence with one for the emirate you are living in. Citizens of Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) countries, together with many European, some North American and  Far Eastern countries, are able to convert their existing driving licence without taking a test, though they may need a certified translation of the licence.

Driving in the UAE is on the right. You must have a residence visa before you can own a car. In the meantime, you could consider hiring a car. Road signs are displayed in both Arabic and English. As would be expected from an oil giant, petrol prices are very reasonable.

Speed limits are generally between 100 km/h (61 mph) and 120 km/h (75 mph.). Traffic violations are tightly controls and subject to high fines. Not that this is an effective deterrent for many drivers. There are toll roads in operation in the Emirates, particularly in Dubai. To pay the tolls, you need to get a Salik Card; these are readily available in many shops.

In the Emirates, driving with any alcohol at all in your bloodstream is illegal. This means that even driving while hung over is risky. If you are caught, you may be heavily fined and have your vehicle confiscated. You may also be imprisoned for two months, after which you will very probably be deported.   



Currently, there is no rail network in the UAE, though one is being built. The first section of this network, from the western city of Ar-Ruwais to the southern Liwa Oasis, is due to open in June 2014. Scheduled for completion at the end of 2018, the network will eventually cover the entire country.

Dubai has an ultra-modern, driverless metro system that is very popular with commuters and has helped to ease congestion considerably in recent years. There is also a monorail running along the trunk of the Palm Jumeirah.


Buses and Coaches

The bus network is comprehensive in the cities of Dubai and Abu Dhabi, and rather patchy in other areas. Nevertheless, as with the railways, the situation is currently improving as more bus routes are being introduced. Bus companies include the Abu Dhabi-based Al Ghazal (‘the Gazelle’.) During rush hour, their and other buses may not be running at full gazelle speed. However, they do have priority on the roads; other motorists must give way to buses when they are picking up and setting down passengers. Gender segregation is enforced on UAE buses: women sit at the front and men sit at the back.



There are ferry routes connecting cities, especially Abu Dhabi, with some of the UAE’s 200 islands. There is also the Dubai Ferry, which operates two routes within Dubai city. Most of the passengers are tourists.



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