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Regions and Cities for Expats in the United Arab Emirates

Author: Jim Newham
Submitted: March 2014

Physical Features

Physically, the UAE does not contain a great variety of regions, as around 80% of the land area is desert and semi-desert. There are oases within these barren areas, the largest of which is the Liwa Oasis near the Saudi Arabian border. Along the coast of the Persian Gulf (called the Arabian Gulf by Arab countries, but few others), there are salt marshes and many islands and peninsulas (the capital, Abu Dhabi, is on an island.) In the north-west, there is a small mountainous area, the Hajar Mountains, which are shared with Oman. The climate, which is exceedingly hot elsewhere, is a little cooler here.


Political Divisions

The United Arab Emirates came together in 1971 when they gained independence from Britain. Basic statistics for the seven emirates can be found below. Note that, in each case, the name of the emirate and the capital city are the same.


Area (km2)


Density (per km2)

Abu Dhabi
















Ras al-Khaimah








Umm al-Quwain




As can be seen, Abu Dhabi is by far the largest emirate, accounting as it does for 86% of the UAE’s land area, including all the western, central and southern parts of the country. The centre of Abu Dhabi city is on an island just off the coast; there are also suburbs on the mainland. This emirate holds 9% of the world’s oil reserves and 5% of its natural gas. Consequently, Abu Dhabi is one of the world’s richest cities. Recently, the government has made efforts to diversify the emirate’s economy by encouraging the development of financial services and tourism. In addition to the national capital, Abu Dhabi emirate contains coastal resorts, the oasis city of Al Ain near the Omani border, and the Liwa Oasis in the south, which is a favourite tourist spot.

Dubai city is an extraordinary success story. In 40 years it has been one of the fastest-growing cities in the world and become the major commercial centre for the entire Gulf area and one of the most important cities for business in the world. However, in some ways it overreached itself in its attempt to become a designer rich man’s playground, as shown by the World project falling into desuetude (though development on the islands has recently restarted.) Dubai is still a very important city on the world stage nevertheless. Dubai city is also the UAE’s chief port and has one of the world’s busiest airports.

The western part of the UAE is divided into a patchwork, as five of the six smaller emirates have enclaves. The Dubai metropolis, which has a total population of more than 3 million, continues north-eastwards into the cities of Sharjah and Ajman, though these are both capitals of separate emirates.

Sharjah is the oldest of the UAE’s cities, with evidence of human habitation from 6,000 years ago. It is also the most important cultural centre. In fact, Sharjah has been named the Islamic Culture Capital for 2014. Not to be outdone by Dubai, the city has created its own artificial island on which the main events of the year are to be held. The emirate of Sharjah also contains Khor Fakkan, which lies on the Arabian Sea and is a major container port.

Ajman city is small but is thriving on the back of Dubai’s success and contains many skyscrapers. Sharjah, Ras al-Khaimah and Fujairah emirates all contain substantial territory in the beautiful but austere Hajar Mountains. Ras al-Khaimah emirate is mostly mountainous, with some imposing buildings such as the Dhayah Fort. There is some agriculture, as well as burgeoning business development.

Fujairah is unlike all the other emirates in that it has no coast on the Persian Gulf. Instead it straddles the Arabian Sea, isolated from the other emirates. Its position also makes it an important international port. Fujairah city is modern and spacious, though it contains some of the oldest buildings in the UAE, such as Fujairah Fort and Bidiya Mosque. Sights such as these mean that the emirate is also a centre for tourism.



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