The United Arab Emirates (UAE) is a small country with extensive oil and gas reserves, bordering Saudi Arabia and Oman. It enjoys a unique strategic location by the Arabian Peninsula, overlooking the southern approach to the Strait of Hormuz, a vital transit point for world oil.
The Emirates has a desert climate, with high temperatures all year around, with cooler temperatures in the eastern mountain area.
The UAE has an area of approximately 82,880 sq km, an area slightly smaller than the state of Maine. It is a flat country made up of coastal areas and desert wastelands and only one percentage of the land is arable. Dust and windstorms are frequent problems caused by the flat terrain. Other geographical-related issues are desertification, pollution from oil spills and a decreasing availability of fresh water. The latter is due to limited access to freshwater sources and the low rainfall; the UAE is one of the world’s 10 most water scarce countries. To address this shortfall, the UAE has built desalination plants. The desalination process has recently become more expensive due to concentrated wastewater resulting from the desalination, making the water in the Gulf even more salty.
For centuries the sheikhdoms that make up the United Arab Emirates have been individual competing dynasties. There was a lot of conflict between the sheikhdoms as each struggled for power in the region. During the 17th-19th centuries, the area became known as the Pirate Coast because raiders based there harassed foreign ships. In 1820, the sheikhdoms signed a peace treaty with England promising not to attack ships on the India trading route. However, raids did take place intermittently until 1853, when the Trucial Sheikhdoms agreed to “perpetual maritime peace.”
The United Kingdom formed a union with the sheikhdoms and mediated disputes between them; in return, they agreed to give their land only to the United Kingdom. This agreement continued until 1968.
The treaty between England and the seven Trucial states dissolved over time. They tried to form the Arab Emirates along with Bahrain and Qatar. The arrangement only lasted until 1971. When terms of the union could not be agreed upon, Qatar and Bahrain declared themselves to be independent states. On December 1, 1971, the Trucial Sheikhdoms (Abu Dhabi, Ajman, al-Fujairah, Sharjah, Dubai, Umm al-Quwain, and Ra’s al-Khaimah) declared themselves independent and on December 2nd, they formed the United Arab Emirates.
The UAE is now a constitutional monarchy federation that has developed into a modern and wealthy country. It is relatively moderate in the area of foreign policy, which has given them an important role in diplomacy in the region.
The political system is based on a constitution that explains the structure of the political and constitutional organization of the country. The UAE is constantly developing its political system and seeks to make it more responsive to their society’s needs and the country’s economic growth.
Each of the seven emirates has its own leader, appointed by the president. Traditionally the leader of Abu Dhabi is elected as president and the leader of Dubai is the prime minister, even though this is not a written rule. The current head of state is the ruler of Abu Dhabi, President Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, and the head of government is the ruler of Dubai, Vice President and Prime Minister Muhammad bin Rashid Al Maktoum.
According to the constitution, most of the power rests in the hands of the individual emirs (leaders) of each emirate; however, in recent years more power has been given to the federal government. The highest constitutional authority in the UAE is the Federal Supreme Council (FSC). The council consists of the rulers from each of the seven emirates and has both legislative and executive powers. Choosing among the councils’ own members, they appoint the president and vice president. The FSC elects a cabinet that is headed by the prime minister. The cabinet is responsible for managing all internal and foreign affairs.
The Federal National Council (FNC) is the legislative body and the consultative council to the FSC. The council comprises of 40 members. Half of the members are appointed by the FSC and the other half is appointed by public election every four year. Prior to the election in 2006, all members were appointed by the FSC. This was the first time the public had access to political participation and was a big reformation of the country’s political system. The elections are based on individual candidates since political parties are prohibited.
The legal system in UAE is based on both civil law and sharia laws. Islam is the state religion according to the constitution and the principle source of law but the legal system has changed and modernized more recently. Sharia laws are mainly enforced in criminal and social law cases for Muslims. Islamic law is not applied to non-Muslims. Commercial disputes are usually solved by civil courts. In 2017, a change in marriage laws was made to allow non-Muslim couples to marry and divorce in a place of worship of their own faith.
Since many of the laws in the country are based on sharia, there is strict regulation regarding alcohol and drugs. For example, it is illegal to drink and to be under the influence of alcohol in public.
His Highness Sheikh Mohammad Bin Rashid Al Maktoum has launched government plans called UAE Centennial 2071, in which he aims to make the UAE the best country in the world over the next five decades. Leaders will achieve this goal by developing knowledge, supporting science and research, and involving their youth in leadership training. This is an extension of Sheikh Mohammed’s UAE Vision 2021 which has similar objectives.
INTERNATIONAL & REGIONAL ISSUES
The UAE has been deeply engaged in the war in Yemen. They entered the war in March 2015 together with a Saudi led coalition with the aim to combat the extremist opposition, help the nation reach political stabilization and restore President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi and his government. The war is ongoing and Houthi rebels are still controlling Sanaa, the capital of Yemen. The participating countries of the coalition have begun to go in different directions. While Saudi Arabia is concerned about Iranian influence in the Gulf, the Emirates are guided by geostrategic interests. Beginning in early 2018, the UAE began backing southern separatists whose goal is to re-establish a distinct southern Yemen state. The separatists are opposed to a united Yemen led by Hadi which seemingly contradicts the objective of the Saudi led coalition. However, by supporting this group through arms and funding, the UAE could gain access to and influence over important and lucrative waterways that could be used for transporting gas and oil. The UAE has also been involved in providing humanitarian aid and emergency assistance to the Yemeni population.
The UAE has given approximately 100,000 Syrian refugees residency permits, a much smaller amount than Syria’s immediate neighbors Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. However, the UAE has contributed more than 700 million USD to refugee aid efforts and host countries.
As a member of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) the United Arab Emirates has, along with neighboring countries, created regional unity and stability. This part of the Middle East has been more stable than others, but this stability has been challenged recently. The tension between Qatar and the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Egypt escalated in June 2017. Together with the other quartet countries, the UAE cut off all economic and diplomatic ties with Qatar. They expelled all Qatari nationals from the country, ordered their citizens in Qatar to return, as well as suspended air, land, and sea travel to and from the country. This was a response to Qatar’s continues behavior of breaking agreements, undermining the security of its neighbors, and allegedly funding and supporting non-state Islamist terrorist actors. Another underlying reason for this blockade was the threat of power; perceived power imbalances have been important in shaping Arab politics since the Arab Spring, particularly between Qatar and the Emirates. In both Libya and Egypt, for example, the two countries were supporting opposite sides of the revolutionary forces. Saudi Arabia, the powerhouse in the Gulf, has gradually moved closer to the Emiratis. The resolution of the diplomatic crisis remains uncertain. There has not been any discussion of military sanctions but any outcome of this dispute will have an impact on the region.
The UAE is profoundly wealthy and has one of the highest GDPs in the world. In less than 50 years, the UAE has developed from a simple Bedouin society, where fishing and agriculture were the main livelihoods, into one of the most modern countries in the world with highly advanced infrastructure. The country’s wealth is derived from the hydrocarbon industry; the UAE’s oil reserves are the seventh-largest and its gas reserves are the fifth-largest in the world. Oil and gas output stands for around 30% of the country’s GDP, a decrease from previous years as the country has, like its neighbors, explored ways to reduce its dependence on diminishing supplies of fossil fuels by diversifying its economy.
UAE leadership has initiated and engaged in a national development plan on the federal level and economic diversification programs on regional levels. The government has fostered a good business climate by boosting investments and creating open and vibrant capital markets. Like other Gulf States, these initiatives strive to create long-term roadmaps for economic progress that align policies, build human potential and cultivate the private sector. Common themes in these development plans include the nationalization of the workforce, which currently relies heavily on expatriate labor, as well as increased participation in the global economy.
The Abu Dhabi Investment Authority (ADIA) is a sovereign wealth fund owned and supervised by the emirate of Abu Dhabi. ADIA is the third-largest sovereign wealth fund in the world and the biggest in the Middle East. The fund is financed by oil revenue surplus, with a mission to create long-term prosperity for Emirati citizens. The portfolio is diversified and consists of a variety of global assets in both developed and emerging markets. According to a Wall Street Journal report, ADIA has around 50 billion USD worth of real estate holdings across 41 countries; however, as is the case in national investment in public companies, ADIA does not have a majority ownership in these holdings nor does it seek to manage them.
In an attempt to move away from its oil dependency, the UAE has invested heavily in alternative energy sources. The government has taken advantage of the constant access to sunlight and the country is now one of the world’s largest providers of concentrated solar power.
The United Arab Emirates, particularly Dubai and Abu Dhabi, has spent billions of dollars on development and infrastructure. Its extravagant hotels and man-made attractions, active nightlife, and international ambiance have made Dubai the top tourist destination in the Middle East. The UAE has become very accessible with two state owned carriers flying to over 155 destinations around the globe. Emirates airline, owned by the government of Dubai, is now the world’s fourth largest airline with the world’s biggest fleets of Airbus A380s and Boeing 777s.
The government of Dubai expects the airline industry to contribute 32% to their GDP by 2020.
The UAE has become a desirable country in which to work and do business due to the absence of income tax along with the presence of free economic zones and free-trade zones. With its geographic location enabling an eight-hour (or less) flight for two-thirds of the world’s population, the United Arab Emirates has successfully developed into a natural regional hub for many companies in various industries.
Population of UAE
The UN estimates the United Arab Emirates has a population of over 9 million people. The population is relatively old with only 20% being under 14, while 61% are adults between 25 and 54.
A majority of the population is foreign nationals; only about 20% of the population holds Emirati citizenship. There is a large expatriate workforce; in fact 96% of the workers are foreigners. With over 200 nationalities, the majority of the expats are from India, followed by Pakistan, Bangladesh and other Asian, European and African countries. The foreign workers are mainly employed in the construction industry and in the private sector, while UAE nationals are more present in the public sector.
The UAE has been criticized for its treatment of foreign workers as well as its limited freedom of speech protections by governments, human rights groups, and international organizations but the government has undertaken measures to protect migrant workers. In 2017, it made several modifications to its domestic workers law: a 24-hour toll-free hotline allows workers to file complaints, and penalties have been imposed for employers violating worker’s rights. Nonetheless, there is more to be done to reduce the abuse and exploitation of migrant workers.
The government operates a comprehensive health care system that provides free services to citizens while non-citizens can obtain services for a low-cost. There is a growing private healthcare sector that is more specialized. Malaria, measles and polio have been eradicated. Because of the high standard of healthcare, the average life expectancy for most Emiratis is 77 years, one of the highest in the region.
Education is a priority in the UAE and the illiteracy rate has dropped to less than 1 per cent. In 2016, the government allocated 21.2 percent of the federal budget to education. The government is trying to empower its youth by regularly updating the curriculum and developing mentorship programs to help students. Public education is free for students through the university level. Education is mandatory through 9th grade. From Kindergarten through 6th grade, students are taught in gender-segregated classes. In 2003, the Dubai Knowledge Zone was created in Dubai Internet City, a hub for e-campuses and internet-based schools that encourage innovation and a knowledge-based economy.
Women have been increasingly involved in the country’s progress and development. The constitution guarantees equal rights between genders and the government has initiated many reforms to change social norms in order to empower women and engage them in the workforce. According to the World Economic Forum’s 2016 Global Gender Gap Report, the UAE is the leading country in the region with regards to gender equality. The government reports that seventy percent of university graduates are women, fifty percent of employees of the space program are women, 66 percent of public jobs are held by women, more than 25 percent of cabinet-level ministers are women, and the law requires female board members in every company. Women have made remarkable achievements in the last decade alone. In 2008, the first female judge was sworn in. In 2013, the country appointed its first female Permanent Representative to the UN. In 2015, the UAE appointed the first female president of the Federal National Council. There are also eight female ambassadors abroad and 20 percent of the diplomatic corps are women.
Over 76 percent of the population is Muslim. The percentage is lower than other Gulf States because of the heavy reliance on foreign labor. The majority of Muslims in the UAE are Sunni; roughly 16 percent are Shia. The UAE constitution states that Islam is the official religion. The government regulates what is said in sermons by sending guidance to the sheikhs. Islamic studies are mandatory for Emirati students but Christians and Hindus are free to practice their religion. Emiratis are traditionally conservative but the UAE is one of the most liberal countries around the Arabian Peninsula, especially in Dubai.
In similarity to other Muslim countries, the official work-week in the UAE is from Sunday to Thursday. Fridays are reserved for prayer. During the holy month of Ramadan, working hours are usually shortened by two to three hours.
Each of the UAE’s seven distinct emirates has its own identity. Nevertheless, Emirati culture is held together by Islamic ideas, Bedouin traditions and the culture of sea-people along the coast. In recent years, the oil boom has shaped society as a result of the massive amounts of money that were dedicated to rapid growth and industrialization.
As development in the UAE has skyrocketed, Dubai and Abu Dhabi have established media zones to attract media organizations. Reuters, Sony, Fox, and CNN, as well as Middle Eastern broadcasters like MBC, Orbit Showtime Network, and Sky News Arabia have offices in the UAE. The UAE has one of the highest internet penetration rates in the Arab world, with more than 90 percent of people having regular internet access, and more than 40 percent of its residence using Facebook at least once a month. However, there is extensive regulation of media content, filtering at the ISP level, and censorship of foreign publication. Legislation dictates prison for internet content intended to “deride or damage” the state’s reputation or “display contempt” for Islam. The computer animated television Freej tells the story of four older Emirati women living in Dubai, coping with the developmental boom in the area. The show debuts new episodes each year during Ramadan.
Reading, literature and the preservation of the Arabic language in such a diverse society are highly valued. In 2015, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid launched the Arab Reading Challenge for children throughout the Arab world. The Abu Dhabi International Book Fair has been around for about twenty years and offers an opportunity for international authors to showcase their work to publishers. The public can also attend sessions on the current state of Arabic literature.
The two art hubs in the United Arab Emirates are Abu Dhabi and Dubai. There are many museums and galleries that house the growing modern art collection and some of the traditional art forms. Traditional art forms include pottery, boat making, jewelry, rugs, and Islamic calligraphy. The United Arab Emirates is quite global in its outlook and often features displays from other Middle Eastern countries and beyond.
In collaboration with France, the Louvre Abu Dhabi opened up its doors in November 2017 and is the first museum of its kind in the Middle East. This is a big step toward their new post-oil-age and an effort to make UAE a top cultural destination. This is a way to show their recognition of the importance of art and education, and to bring cultures together.
Music is extremely popular in the UAE. Emirati music and dance was traditionally performed to entertain workers who accomplished something successful.
Today it’s performed to express happiness during special occasions, such as Eids — religious holidays — and weddings. The traditional music relies heavily on drums, tambourines and musical instruments that were used by the Bedouin — the area’s original, nomadic tribes.
In addition to the traditional music and folk dances, there is a large underground pop music movement among the youth, especially expats. Dubai’s famous and lavish nightlife has attracted many well-known international singers, DJs and dancers.
UAE is the home to many movie sets including ones for Iron Man, Jumper and The Kingdom. Several Bollywood films have also been filmed there. The UAE has built a “studio city” in hopes of promoting the film industry. A number of domestic and international film festivals are held in Dubai and Abu Dhabi.
Kandura is the national attire for men, which is an ankle length, long-sleved and loose-fitting robe, usually in white. Other colors and materials of the kandura are commonly worn during the colder moths of the year. The length of the kandura reveals social status and a longer kandura represents higher socio-economic belonging.
Women traditionally wear the abaya, a long-sleeved, floor length and loose-fitting dress, usually in black. Like their neighbor countries, both men and women usually cover their hair and women of Bedouin origin often cover their face more fully. Traditionally women wear a gishwa, which is a thin veil used to cover the face.
Men wear a ghutrah, made from a square piece of cloth, that is wrapped around the head in various styles. An agal is a headband that is usually worn to keep the ghutrah in place and is a more formal way of dressing. Under the ghutrah they wear a ghafiyah, a close fitting knit white cap.
The style of clothing is very similar between the Gulf States. Although, modest details on the kandura and abaya can help distinguish the difference between countries. This includes even the way men wear the ghutrah, which can help distinguish their heritage.
The UAE, specifically Dubai, has come to be known as a luxury tourist destination. Beautiful hotels, restaurants and resorts have been built, alongside architectural feats such as the world’s tallest building, largest fountain, biggest shopping mall, and largest man-made island.
There are several modern features of architecture in addition to historical sites, such as the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, Qasr al-Hosn, and the Bastakia District.
There are plenty of entertainment parks including the Ferrari World Abu Dhabi where you can find the world’s fastest roller coaster. At Dubai Miracle Garden you will find the world’s largest natural flower garden with over 109 different flowers.
The Burj Khalifa (above, middle), at a height of 2,716.5 feet (828 meters) with 160 stories, is the tallest building in the world. It holds the world records for the highest number of floors, highest occupied floor, tallest free-standing structure, highest outdoor observation deck, elevator with the longest travel distance and tallest service elevator.
Emiratis enjoy being in the desert and falconry is a tradition that continues to be popular among locals. The falcons were traditionally used by the Bedouins for hunting and it is still a part of the culture to train the falcon and hunt with them. Owning a falcon has also become a matter of pride and is almost seen as prestigious as owning an Arabian horse. Falconry was recognized as a living human heritage by UNESCO in 2016.
Because of the desert terrain, the traditional sports of horse and camel racing are still popular. Camel racing is an integral part of the culture and takes place at a special track and money prizes are involved. Horse racing is more common, since there are more equestrian clubs and people have access to lessons and equipment.
The coastal location and hot climate have made water sports a hobby of many. Being known as a former fishing society, Emiratis have a long tradition of spending time boating and sailing.
Football is the nation’s most popular sport and Zayed Sports City Stadium in Abu Dhabi is the biggest sport complex in the Middle East. The big South Asian population has made cricket the second most popular sport in the UAE.
Abu Dhabi started hosting Abu Dhabi Grand Prix in 2009, a Formula One motor race that has become very popular and attracts many tourists and celebrities. The race is held every fall at Yas Marina Circuit, one of the world’s most technologically-advanced Formula One circuits. Yas Marina Circuit encourages the growth of sporting culture and is being used for numerous purposes, including the Colour Run and business events.