People seem to drive even faster than usual on the E10 highway, near the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix circuit. Impatient commuters race recklessly through the traffic, battling for pole position like characters from Wacky Races. In front of me a school bus swerves across three busy lanes in a belated attempt to reach the off-ramp. I'd bubble-wrap my children before letting them anywhere near one of the bright yellow vehicles.

Abu Dhabi is the capital of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and the starting point for my Arabian jaunt. The Gulf region is an ideal winter stopover between Hong Kong and Europe. From November to April temperatures are comfortable, car hire and petrol are inexpensive and there's no shortage of sandy wilderness for 4x4 desert adventures.

I set out from the Corniche, a sweeping promenade that hugs a crescent of white sand and sapphire seas. The burgeoning city skyline serves as a backdrop and features a waterfront big wheel, which is closed when I visit. In the early October heat, it would be like riding on a rotisserie.

The Grand Mosque is a must-see - if you can get to it. I spot the iconic structure from the highway but miss my turning and end up jockeying for position on the 27-lane Al Mafraq Bridge. Before I know it, Dubai is looming vertically on the horizon.

The obsessively irrigated emirate has an anything-is-possible aura, best appreciated with a visit to the Palm Jumeirah, a man-made island of reclaimed land in the shape of a giant palm tree. The residential beachside community has the manicured feel of Discovery Bay; golf carts trundle between residents clubs and estate agents advertise newly completed developments with phrases such as "contemporary oasis" and "luxury redefined". Not everyone is living the high life, though.

A crew of labourers from the subcontinent toil in temperatures far exceeding anything ever recorded in Hong Kong. Behind them sleek yachts and the ultra-luxurious Burj Al Arab hotel gleam unattainably. There's a pecking order among foreign workers in the UAE. Indians from the state of Kerala speak English and land jobs as engineers, shopkeepers and taxi drivers. Their poorer, less-educated compatriots from Bihar state team up with Bangladeshis and Nepalese to do the heavy lifting.

I press on, unsure where the cranes of Dubai end and those of Sharjah begin. There's so much construction taking place in the UAE that the coat of arms should feature a cement mixer alongside the golden falcon.

A whistle-stop tour of Sharjah brings me to the Central Market, a stylish souk with more than 600 shops and the Chamber of Commerce building, where I arrive just in time to see its graceful Islamic curves gilded by the sinking sun.

Ras al-Khaimah is next and feels like a sleepy backwater but only because I've come from Dubai. The traffic thins and amber sand dunes replace urban landscapes. Of all the emirates, "RAK" has the highest proportion of UAE citizens - and most of them seem to be taking English lessons.

If anywhere has more expat teachers than Hong Kong, it's the UAE. I've arranged to stay with some friends who work at the local college, having traded Lamma Island for the wide open spaces of Ras al-Khaimah.

We're soon comparing lifestyles. Steve and Katerina have a spacious house near the beach with a sandy backyard - perfect for their young children. I live in a box. They have the expense of running two cars as public transport is non-existent - but so is income tax. We have pollution, they have sandstorms. They endure hot sticky summers; we endure hot sticky summers. I make it a tie.

I quickly settle into life as a Gulf expat and discover where to go for cheap beer and delicious Lebanese food. I join regulars at the golf club bar and photograph the sunset from the haunting ruins of Dhayah Fort. My only regret is not being able to stay until the camel-racing season gets under way.

There are no border formalities or customs checks between the seven emirates that make up the federation but driving into Oman is a different story. Passports are thumbed and departure taxes levied. Hire-car insurance documents are scrutinised and entry visas issued. It all takes about 30 minutes and might have been quicker had officers on the Omani side not been engrossed in a football match on television.

The Musandam Peninsula is separated from the rest of Oman by a hefty swathe of the UAE. The rugged enclave entices visitors with off-road trips that are beyond the limitations of my Hyundai hatchback. Still, there's plenty to see along the road to the drowsy port town of Khasab - from fishing villages to forts, date plantations and dhows.

A dhow excursion is a junk trip without alcohol. Our traditional vessel sets course for the strategically sensitive Strait of Hormuz before steering into Khor Sham, a dramatic 16km-long fjord hemmed in by crumbling craggy peaks. Iran shimmers in the distance and dolphins skim and somersault on our flanks.

We snorkel off Telegraph Island, where, in 1864, the British set up a relay station to boost messages along the Persian Gulf cable. A posting to the lonely locality was known by operators as "going around the bend". Isolation, fierce summer heat and the unwanted attention of hostile tribes meant that the expression soon ceased to have a geographical sense and came to describe one's state of mind.

Back in Khasab I pop into the Ministry of Tourism office, which, according to its website, "aims to promote Oman internationally as a quality destination for responsible tourists". When I explain that I'm writing a magazine article on the Musandam Peninsula, the clerk shakes his head. His department has been told not to provide any information or promotional literature to travel writers.

"But that's why you're here," I say.

"I'm only following orders," he counters, employing the universal civil service "don't blame me" phrase.

Government officials, eh? They're enough to send anyone around the bend.