"The United Arab Emirates is a federation of seven emirates on the eastern side of the Arabian peninsula, at the entrance to the Persian Gulf. It has coastlines on the Gulf of Oman and the Persian Gulf, with Saudi Arabia to the west and southwest, and Oman to the southeast and also on the eastern tip of the Musandam Peninsula as well as an Omani enclave within its borders. It is a country rich in history and culture and an easy starting point for travels in the Middle East." Wikipedia
But these are the facts. What it feels like to walk the 'UAE's' streets, what its peoples are like cannot be done because while the UAE is one country, its emirates are universes apart.
Take Dubai and Abu Dhabi, the two richest and most international emirates. In theory the two should be minimally different, given they border each other and connected by E11, better known as Sheikh Zayed road, the main 6-lane superhighway that stitches the UAE together.
Ask any resident however and two words you're likely to get is chalk and cheese. Dubai tends to act then think, Abu Dhabi think (a lot) and then act. That (very generalised) difference permeates pretty much everything there is about the two cities. Abu Dhabi, the capital, is slower, more planned, less exciting, but much more stable and grounded. Dubai is exciting, vibrant, and unpredictable.
This filters down to the type of jobs on offer, buildings to live in, or more relevant to this site, schooling you can expect. Dubai boasts curricula from around the world, at every conceivable price point. The UAE version of the North London Collegiate School, opened in 2017 and is currently the country's most expensive with fees topping out at 130,000 AED. It will be surpassed next year by the arrival of New York import Dwight. There are private schools however with fees of less than 5,000 AED.
The pipeline of schools in Abu Dhabi is markedly slower, in part because it plans. The emirate's education regulator determines curriculum, price points, school sizes, and locations of its new schools at a level that would not be conceivable in its more commercially led, laissez faire neighbour. The result is less choice for parents, but a more homogeneous set of schools less prone to bubbles. The most expensive school in the capital is another UK import, Cranleigh, at 76,000 AED.
Both Dubai and Abu Dhabi do have regular school inspections however, so in addition to checking WhichSchoolAdvisor.com, and our sister site, SchoolsCompared.com, prospective parents can access official reports on schools. Other emirates are not there yet, although schools across the UAE are suject to MoE inspections. Their findings however are not made so public.
Even though we do not believe in a UAE guide as such what we can do here is generalise excessively and give you the 2 minute guide of where you're likely to live: Dubai, Abu Dhabi or Sharjah.
Dubai: Ever evolving 21st century commercial centre of the UAE. Glitz, glam, man made islands, the home of the world tallest building, and even a UAE Nikki Beach. Millennial heaven on earth. Home of tourism, finance and banking, and logistics. Exciting, but never settled or calming. If you're bored of Dubai, you're likely bored of life.
Abu Dhabi: The capital of the UAE. Sensible, grown up, responsible, slow. Not as service oriented, but still a 5-star destination. Process driven. Home of the federal government, alternative energy in Masdar, and the all important oil and gas industry. It has money, but like the super rich doesn't always like to spend it. At its best its attractions are just jaw dropping (the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, The Louvre, Al Saadiyat Island in general), at its worst it has that greyness and drabness that infects all cities where bureaucracy and complacency has been allowed to set in.
Sharjah: Up to the 1970s very much the cultural centre of the UAE. To this day Sharjah still packs a powerful punch when it comes to Islamic art and literature. The emirate borders Dubai and often unfairly is seen as its cheaper alternative. Rents are considerably lower. It is also dry.
The other emirates of the UAE are less expat centred, and more focused on serving the indigenous Emirati community. These emirates are Ajman, Fujairah, Ras al Kaimah (currently a focus of federal investment and a tourism push) and Umm al-Quwain. Strides are being made across all of the emirates of the UAE to catch up and balance development through infrastructure, free trade zones, commercial incentives and inducements.
Ras Al Khaimah in particular is in the process of ramping up provision of education within the emirate, in recognition that its ambitious economic growth plans need to be fuelled by a strong supporting infrastructure - and that includes private schools. Ras Al Khaimah Economic Zone (Rakez) will house around 13,000 companies.
The best, probably only way to truly understand the UAE is of course to come and visit it. Keep an open mind and if you give it enough time you'll learn to love it. Do not listen to those that say the country has no culture. It does - you just cannot define that by the number of theatres or books published. In terms of the characteristics of its people, the customs and the cuisines the UAE offers a unique experience that is in many ways truly extraordinary.