Travel Misconceptions: Abu Dhabi

Travel Misconceptions: Abu Dhabi, UAE

One of my goals on The Atlas Heart is to break down travel misconceptions or judgments about places and ideas. Perhaps it could be that destination that everyone warns you not to visit because of how dangerous it is, or maybe you yourself had preconceived notions that were proven wrong once you arrived to where you were going.

My aim is to present a variety of different opinions and experiences through the eyes of other travelers. It’s important to hear travel stories from all different perspectives in life, I call it seeing the world through a kaleidoscope lens.

So, I’m starting my first ever guest posting series about these travel misconceptions we find throughout our lives and epic journeys. I’ve asked a few writers to talk about their own misconceptions and perhaps how they were proven wrong in their travels.

Without further ado, I’m happy to introduce the next guest poster for this series – Julie from Drive on the Left – talking about her time in Abu Dhabi. Take it away Julie!


There aren’t many places I travel where people express genuine concern for my safety. I tend to stick to frequently visited capitals of Europe, or heavily trod Southeast Asia. But last spring, upon booking a holiday to Abu Dhabi, the emails started rolling in.

My mom wanted to know how close the UAE was to any war zone. My in-laws wondered about how my personality would fit in a landscape of demure and obedient women (I think they meant that as a compliment). I worried about what to wear into the Grand Mosque, with their very stringent dress code.

The Middle East is one of the least understood and most misconstrued regions in the World. Thanks to recent conflicts in the region, and heavy press coverage of apparently wide ranging hatred of Americans, it’s easy to get swept into the fear. Even questions around proximity to war aren’t unfounded – not many people understand the distance between glittery Abu Dhabi and remote provinces of Afghanistan (answer: 1,600km, give or take).

So upon landing in the desert, I was hoping to be amazed, but bracing myself for a ‘less than pleasant’ experience.

For the most part, I needn’t have worried. Abu Dhabi has found itself a hub of tourism, given its massive international airport and catalogue of luxury hotels. To accommodate the mass of visitors, rules about social behaviour and decorum have been softened somewhat – Westerners are allowed to wear normal bathing suits in pools, and even gay couples can holiday without persecution, as long as they avoid public affections.

Travel Misconceptions: Abu Dhabi, UAE

However, in some ways, many of the traditional rules still apply. Visiting the Grand Mosque, one of the most impressive buildings I’ve ever seen, does require adherence to a specific strict dress code. I had to purchase some loose fitting, ankle-covering pants ahead of time, as my normal more fitted options wouldn’t be acceptable. Even the grand, opulent shopping malls that Abu Dhabi is known for have basic dress codes – no scantily clad teenagers here!

Less obvious, I noticed that when in public, the male half of a couple is usually addressed first, with strong eye contact, while the woman doesn’t usually interact. In taxis, my husband was asked for the fare. When we checked into our hotel, a newly built Western-branded tower of luxury, the receptionist welcomed my husband before acknowledging me. As the frequent manager of these situations, it was kind of nice to sit back and let someone else handle every transaction and conversation, but it didn’t come naturally.

From a safety perspective, instances of violence in the UAE are few and far between. The crime rate is quite low, and I never once feared for my safety in any way. In fact, it appeared to me that the sense of personal space is quite strong so I never felt crowded or that my Western sense of space was being violated.

That said, there are some rules in the UAE that are stricter than in other countries, so take note. Punishment for drug offenses is strict, and some OTC medications (like codeine in the UK), are prescription-based in the UAE. While alcohol is readily available in Western hotels and restaurants (though the prices are steep thanks to import taxes), many locals don’t drink alcohol, so we kept our drinking to a minimum and instead indulged in the most delicious non-alcoholic drinks ever. Juices, spritzes, you name it, if it has tropical fruit and a flower garnish, it is delicious and a great alternative to a cocktail.

Travel Misconceptions - Abu Dhabi, UAE

The UAE is candy for the senses. The food and drinks are delicious, the skyscrapers are awe-inspiring and the Grand Mosque truly must be seen to be believed. I would go back in a hot second, if only to take a spin at Ferrari World and do some luxury window shopping before relaxing at the hotel pool. But I’m not sure I’d move to the UAE – for a visitor, the cultural differences are an interesting novelty, but for a Western transplant, and a woman at that, I’m not sure I’d be comfortable with the more permeating differences that interfere in everyday life outside of the comfortable confines of the tourist attractions and luxurious hotels.

Julie Smith is an American expat in London. She and her husband Drew run the site Drive on the Left where they explore London, UK and the world, although not always in that order. Feel free to get in touch with them on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram!


 Travel Misconceptions - Abu Dhabi, UAE

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Interested in being a part of the travel misconceptions series? Make sure to contact me with an idea for your story, I’d love to have you on board! 

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Mimi McFadden

Travel Writer/Blogger at The Atlas Heart
Mimi founded The Atlas Heart to create a community of travelers inspired to see the world. The Atlas Heart is a space where you'll find anecdotes on slow travel, craft beer, outdoor adventures, and all the eccentric bits in between that this world has to offer.
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  1. Abu Dhabi is actually a place I wouldn’t really associate with being sketchy and dangerous… The outskirts, yes, but that city … No. It’s a huge metropolitan city and I feel like it would be just as dangerous as say NYC or LA!

    That being said, I definitely have this city on my PLACES TO VISIT list!

    1. Great point Gigi! I feel like Westerners tend to associate the Middle East with being more dangerous, and don’t really take into account the cosmopolitan side of some of these major cities. The UAE is definitely on my list of places to visit next too!

  2. Great article. I have been to Dubai, not Abu Dhabi, but I have only heard good things about Abu Dhabi from fellow travellers. It’s somewhere I would definitely love to visit.

    1. Thanks Amy, I would love to see Abu Dhabi too! I think it would be great for travel bloggers to explore more of the Middle East and breakdown some of the misconceptions we hear on a daily basis.

  3. Such an interesting post. I love travel but our travels have mostly been in the U.S.. We’ve been to 45 U.S. states, Jamaica, and Canada..hoping to visit Europe for our honeymoon. I never really thought of how much research one must do before you just up and leave for a new country. GREAT perspective.

    1. Thanks Chelsea! I loved reading Julie’s perspective on Abu Dhabi as well. I guess most of my travels started abroad so I’ve never thought of it that way, but you make a valid point. There can be a lot more to get used to when you’re traveling abroad vs. within the States (although there are quite a few cultural differences in parts of America too!).

  4. This is really interesting idea for a series! It can be tough to navigate a culture with such different values and social rules, and it’s super refreshing that Julie has such a great perspective about traveling as a Westerner (and a woman) in the Middle East.

    🙂 chloe //

    1. I’ve been enjoying reading all the entries I’ve received for the series so far – hearing about misconceptions from other travelers really has a way of making you think and opening up your mind in terms of travel, especially in certain areas of the world. 🙂

  5. This is such a great post – thank you! I’ve always wanted to travel to Abu Dhabi, but I know it’s so easy for people to have misconceptions just based on what they see on the news or what their friends say. I believe we grow so much when we travel, and I love learning about places I have never been from the people who have lived there or do live there, and live the day to day reality there. So thank you!

    1. Thanks Marlynn, I think Julie nailed it in talking about her experience as a Western woman traveling to the Middle East. I truly believe travel (and hearing other’s travel stories) can change your perspective and help you grow as an international citizen. Thank you for reading 🙂

  6. I’ve lived in Europe and in three different countries. I’ll admit, I’ve never had any interest in visiting countries in the Middle East. Perhaps this is the one place I might visit in the future!

    1. The Middle East has been more on my radar lately than it ever has before. I think reading such unique perspectives, such as this one from Julie, helps to make me think more about my own travels goals.

  7. Broadening the world’s horizons, one post at a time. This truly is the essence of how to bring the ‘family of man’ into recognition that we ALL can live harmoniously. Thanks, love!

    1. That’s the goal! Before I started traveling, reading other great writers in the form of books and blogs was the way that I broadened my horizons and changed my perspective. I hope some of these stories can do the same for others. 🙂

  8. This is fantastic! I have been wanting to visit Abu Dhabi for ages now but my hubs is reluctant. I will have to show him this! Your pictures are beautiful and it looks like a great time!

  9. Actually, Abu Dhabi is on my list.. but I always skip it to visit. Haha.. But after reading this post, maybe I need to pursue it now. Thanks for sharing!

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