Arriving freshly into the country and looking to hire a car was actually pretty easy. I entered on a 30 day tourist visa and was allowed to hire a vehicle and drive away quite happily on my UK licence.
My wife, on the other hand, had the beginnings of a work permit and residence visa, so her UK licence wasn't good enough, and she needed to wait until first her National ID card came through, before getting herself a local licence before she was allowed to drive our hire car. so I played taxi for a month, which was absolutely fine.
Then, however, I started the process of getting myself UAE Residency, which then made my UK licence invalid, so I wasn't legally allowed to drive our hire car. Great. But how do you go about getting your UAE licence?
Well, if you're a non-worker who is being sponsored to stay in the country by your legally employed spouse, you have to get permission from them to drive. So off I went, directed by a friend who'd done it already, to a local typist's office. There, for 20 Dirhams (about £3.50), a pair of niqab- and abaya-wearing ladies typed me up a letter of 'No Objection' in Arabic, stating that my wife, once she signed it (oh, fun and games on that one), was willing to let me drive around the place.
Then you need to have your driving licence translated into Arabic, and off you go to find a legal document translator. Next to the post office and two floors up in a nondescript building, 70 Dirhams (about £12) got me a friendly man to type up and stamp an Arabic version of my licence.
Where to then? Why, the Road Traffic Administration Building! Located an annoyingly long drive outside of the city centre, this place proves that not everywhere has that laid-back inefficiency of so many other places. All the government ones seem to be run as a laid-back, efficient ship. Once you go outside of those institutions, though, it's very hit and miss.
A very nice Chelsea fan at the front desk, who even showed me a picture of him and John Terry in his wallet, stamps all your documentation and sends you off to get your eyes checked. Waiting outside, you can even hear everyone else reciting the numbers from the wall. That makes the eye test fairly easy, even if you're half-blind.
Then there's a short queue before your actual licence is printed out for you, and away you go. It 'only' took about an entire day to get all of this sorted and, without a guide beforehand, would have been hugely frustrating.
The same thing happens when you buy a car. You have to walk from the showroom, handily located right next to the Admin building, to go and get your registration card and printed number plate. "What number would you like?" Fatima the traffic admin lady asked me. "A good one," I replied. Apparently she did, in fact, give me a good number, as it had a double-digit in it. Whether it's good because it's some sort of lucky omen, or good because you have less different individual numbers to remember, I'm not entirely sure.
Looking around other vehicles on the road, the most expensive cars tend to either have repeated numbers, or aim for low ones. Pity the poor man with the 4x4 the size of a supertanker who only managed to get 66664, compared to the happy Lamborghini owner who got hold of 77777.