Some people have asked me if I plan on studying Arabic. As any one who has heard me speaking Japanese horribly after my twelve years of living in Japan will tell you, there's no point. If I haven't learned Japanese with being married to a Japanese woman and living in Japan as long as I did, I don't have a lot of hope with Arabic. There's another reason. I would consider English to be the dominant language here.
While not everyone here speaks English, people will try to communicate in English. Keeping in mind that 80% of the population of the U.A.E. is foreign, Arabic isn't as dominant a language as you would think. I'm sure in some circles, it's the only thing spoken. I just don't travel in those circles. Also, I live in one of the main cities where most of the foreign population lives.
Here's the breakdown of the population as I've seen it:
Construction workers. I don't have much contact with them so I would have no idea what languages they speak or their level of English. Because of the nature of their jobs, I would imagine that they have little or no English ability and that they speak their native language and a pidgin (mixture of languages) of Arabic and English.
Taxi drivers. For the most part, the taxi drivers in the newer taxis speak passable English. In a lot of cases, it is near native. In fact, the drivers with a high level of English tend to be the most chatty and have a pretty interesting opinions of Abu Dhabi. The drivers of the older taxis tend to have pretty poor English. Some guys have been pretty good, but for the most part, you'd better know how to get where you're going if you get into one of those cabs.
Housekeepers, cleaning staff, nannies. We just got a house cleaner who comes from India. Her English is fine, but strongly accented. My wife had trouble understanding her at first, but now she's getting used to it. The staff of helpers at work seem to speak English pretty well. The guy who washes my car every day had no difficulties making himself understood when he asked if I had a car. The Filipino nannies who my wife comes into contact with in her day to day life (who confused my wife as a nanny at first) speak English fine.
Shop and restaurant staff. Here for obvious reasons they have to be fluent in English. Sometimes there will be a communication issue and I have to switch to teacher-speak, but usually there's no problem. I have no idea how well they speak Arabic. The staff tend to be a combination of Filipino, Egyptian, and other Arab countries. While I don't think that the Filipinos speak Arabic, there are enough Arab-speaking staff that it's not a problem if a Non-English speaking Emirati needs help, there's not an issue.
Emiratis. The only real contact I have with the native population is with my students. While they have huge issues with listening (no problems with understanding, mind you, problems with paying attention long enough to hear what I'm saying) there aren't any real communication problems. I would say that even though their English isn't great, it's certainly good for a second language. I would imagine that almost all of my students would have no problems with casual contact with a shop staff in English only. I don't think it would ever be an issue with all the Arab-speaking staff around, but in dealing with a cashier, for example, there wouldn't be an issue.
Co-workers. Everyone I work with speaks immaculate English. That said, there are a lot of conversations going on around my desk in other languages. In the brief time I was sitting near the English-teaching staff, most people's native language was English. Now that I'm over by the Math department, I hear a lot of other languages, mainly French and Arabic.
It's strange that even though the language of the U.A.E. is Arabic, English seems to be more widely accepted as the national language. Recently, the Ministry of Education has been working on revamping of the education system here. There's been a push to make English the language of instruction in the Kindergarten to 12th grade system. While I wouldn't mind learning a few greetings in Arabic and working on my pronunciation so I don't slaughter my students' names, I don't really feel the need to learn the language of a country when even the local government wants its citizens to be fluent in English. And I'm lazy.