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Spread out over desert and coastland, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) is an oil-rich Middle East federation comprised of seven emirates (sheikdoms). It's located to the east of Saudi Arabia and to the south of Iran, separated by the Persian Gulf.

Ranked fourth in the world in oil resources, the UAE has one of the world's fastest-growing economies and, in Dubai, one of the globe's hottest tourist destinations. The UAE is a fascinating mix of old and new, where flashy shopping malls rise up alongside flavorful old-world souks (outdoor markets). Outside the urban areas are ancient archaeological sites and old fishing villages. It's a country with both a record-setting building boom (the tallest building in the world will be completed in Dubai in 2009) and a still-vibrant Bedouin culture, one that learned to survive in harsh desert conditions for hundreds of years.

Once a British protectorate, the UAE came together as one country when the seven emirates united in 1971. In Dubai it has luxury Western-style resorts, cutting-edge architecture, and international cuisine, but many of its enduring customs reflect the beliefs of the largely Muslim population (particularly during the holiest of the Muslim holidays, the month-long Ramadan, when visitors are asked not to eat, drink, or smoke in public places). This means that alcohol is sold mainly in hotel bars and restaurants, and dressing modestly (by Western standards) in public is recommended. Arabic is the official language, but English is widely spoken.