Culture of United Arab Emirates
United Arab Emirates (UAE), federation of seven independent states located in the southeastern corner of the Arabian Peninsula, part of the Middle East region. Once known as the Trucial States, the UAE became an independent country in 1971.
Each emirate (small state ruled by a hereditary chief called an emir) is centered on a coastal settlement and named for that settlement. The seven member emirates are Abu Dhabi (also known as Abū Zaby), ‘Ajmān, Dubai, Al Fujayrah, Ra’s al Khaymah, Ash Shāriqah, and Umm al Qaywayn. The city of Abu Dhabi is the federal capital, and Dubai is the largest city in the country.
The UAE is a desert country about the size of South Carolina. The nation is bordered by the Persian Gulf to the north, Saudi Arabia to the south and west, and Oman and the Gulf of Oman to the east.
Before the discovery of petroleum in the 1950s, the UAE was a group of largely undeveloped states under the protection of the British government. The oil industry brought rapid growth and modernization to the area, which helped the emirates break away from the control of the United Kingdom in the early 1970s. The bulk of the country’s oil is found in Abu Dhabi, making it the wealthiest and most powerful of the seven emirates. With a stable economy buoyed by the oil industry, the UAE boasts one of the highest standards of living in the world.
Land and Resources
The UAE is roughly crescent-shaped, extending for about 420 km (about 260 mi) from north to south and, at its widest, for about 480 km (about 300 mi) from east to west. The total land area, including its islands, is 83,600 sq km (32,300 sq mi). The country has a coastline, broken by inlets and dotted with islands and coral reefs, that extends 1,318 km (819 mi) along the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman.
Much of the UAE’s international border, running through empty desert, is undefined or disputed, and some minor border issues between the emirates are still unresolved. Most of the country is uninhabited desert, with a flat coastal plain consisting mostly of tidal salt flats. The land slopes down from the Al Ḩajar al Gharbī mountain range in the northeastern extremity of the country to an elevated desert plateau. The plateau slopes gently northward to the coast and westward to the Sabkhat Maţţī, a huge, sterile salt flat spreading into Saudi Arabia. The UAE’s highest point, at 1,527 m (5,010 ft), is Jabal Yibir. Some natural vegetation grows on parts of the plateau, sustained by rainfall runoff from the mountains.
Except in the mountains, the climate of the UAE is very hot and humid during the summer, with interior temperatures reaching 49°C (120°F). In winter, however, temperatures are relatively cool, ranging between 20° and 35°C (68° and 95° F). Rainfall is infrequent and scant and is largely confined to the mountains, where sudden storms can cause great damage and interrupt communications. The annual rainfall varies from an average of 43 mm (1.7 in) in Abu Dhabi to 130 mm (5.1 in) in Ra’s al Khaymah, with great variations from year to year. Sandstorms occur frequently and are associated with both the shimal, a powerful wind from the north or west, and the hot khamsin, coming from the south in summer.
There are no rivers or lakes in the UAE, but underground water deposits are found at several desert oases, including Al ‘Ayn and Līwā. Wells tap these natural aquifers (underground layers of earth or stone that hold water) to irrigate crops and provide drinking water. Some processed wastewater is also used for irrigation.
Along the flat Persian Gulf coast there are few wells — past pumping from the water table has greatly lowered it, rendering the water salty — and there are almost no cultivated areas west of the palm groves of Abu Dhabi. Ocean desalination plants, which convert saltwater to fresh water, are a main source of water for drinking, agricultural, and industrial needs in these areas.
Plant and Animal Life
The soil of the UAE is almost entirely sandy, limiting the varieties of plants that can grow. Palm, acacia, and tamarisk trees grow naturally in the oases and along the coast, and hardy shrubs and grasses survive in the desert. Irrigation around the major oases and cities supports the growth of eucalyptus trees, decorative plants such as bougainvillea, and fruits and vegetables.
In addition to livestock, such as camel, sheep, and some cattle, the UAE has numerous birds, including trained falcons for hunting. The desert oryx and gazelle have been preserved through conservation efforts, along with other wildlife previously hunted almost to extinction. The waters of the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman contain a variety of fish and crustaceans. The dugong, or sea cow, is also found along the coast.
The UAE’s proven oil reserves make up almost one-tenth of the world’s total, with about 85 percent of the oil located in the emirate of Abu Dhabi. Dubai and Ash Shāriqah also have significant reserves. Estimated natural gas reserves amount to about 3 percent of the world’s total, with Abu Dhabi again possessing the largest share. Other mineral resources include modest deposits of chrome, iron, copper, and uranium.
The government of the UAE has sponsored a massive forestation scheme designed to reduce soil erosion, protect crops from wind damage, and beautify cities. Although some endangered species have been protected, the country is a major exporter of reptile skins and a hub for the trade in illegal wildlife.
The UAE is a contributor to the increasing levels of air pollution in the Persian Gulf region. The country derives 100 percent of its electricity from thermal plants that burn fossil fuels, thereby releasing pollutants into the atmosphere. The UAE also has one of the world’s highest per capita rates of carbon dioxide emissions from industrial processes, as well as of petroleum consumption per capita. Pollution from petroleum processing facilities and oil spills also affect the coast. The government has ratified international environmental agreements pertaining to global warming, desertification, endangered species, hazardous wastes, water pollution, and ozone layer protection.
Most people living in the UAE (known as Emiris) are Arabs, a large majority of whom are city and town dwellers. A small number are nomadic (having no permanent home). The population has grown dramatically since the mid-1960s, largely due to the influx of oil workers to the country. Four-fifths of the UAE’s inhabitants are foreign workers and their families. The UAE also has a very youthful population, due to the large numbers of young foreign workers, a cultural preference for large families, and improved medical care.
The UAE had an estimated population of 4,621,399 in 2008, with a density of 55 persons per sq km (143 per sq mi). Some 86 percent of the country’s population is urban.
Abu Dhabi is the country’s capital and second largest city. The metropolis serves as the financial, transportation, and communications center of this major oil-producing area. The city is also a significant port and is home to a majority of the federal government ministries. The emirate of Abu Dhabi as a whole contains nearly 40 percent of the UAE’s total population.
Dubai, located in the emirate of the same name, is the largest city in the UAE and the main trading center of the entire Persian Gulf. It is home to the principal port facilities in the UAE as well as the country’s busiest airport, along with the headquarters of several federal ministries. Other major cities in the UAE include Ash Shāriqah, an important port and industrial hub in that emirate, and Al `Ayn, an educational and cultural center in the emirate of Abu Dhabi.
The native Emiris are Arabs, and generally a different tribe dominates each emirate. About half of the UAE’s non-native population are Asians (largely Indians, Pakistanis, Sri Lankans, Bangladeshis, and Filipinos), and most of the rest are Iranians or Arabs (primarily Jordanians, Palestinians, and Egyptians). A much smaller percentage comes from Europe and the United States. Although the disproportionate ratio of expatriates to Emiris has caused concern over the possible impact on the country’s security and social and cultural values, the level of tensions between the various ethnic communities is slight.
Language and Religion
Arabic is the official language of the UAE. English is also widely spoken, as are Hindi — the language of commerce — Urdu, and Persian. Islam is the country’s official religion, and all UAE natives and a majority of the expatriates are Muslim. More than 80 percent follow the Sunni branch of Islam, with the rest belonging to the Shia branch. The constitution guarantees religious freedom and other religions are represented, including Hinduism and Christianity.
Primary and secondary education is free to UAE nationals and primary education is compulsory between the ages of 6 and 14. Most teachers, at all levels, are from other Arab countries. In 2005 adult literacy rates were estimated to be 79 percent. This represents a dramatic increase since the introduction of universal public education under the UAE’s 1971 constitution. The United Arab Emirates University in Al ‘Ayn has grown rapidly since it opened in 1977. A network of technical colleges opened in the late 1980s.
Way of Life
The culture and society of the UAE are a blend of traditional and modern elements. The religion of Islam and the heritage of a traditional, tribal society form the basis of a stable and essentially conservative social structure. There is, however, a decidedly tolerant and cosmopolitan atmosphere — most notable in the emirate of Dubai — that gives resident non-Emiris opportunities to enjoy their own cultural and religious organizations. For most older women the home remains the sphere of activity; younger women, benefiting from their access to modern education, are playing an ever-wider role in the society. An estimated 15 percent of the UAE’s labor force is female, and women are increasingly represented in government posts.
Reflecting the mix of modern and traditional influences, clothing styles in the UAE are both Western and indigenous. Most Emiri men wear the dishdasha, a white, loose-fitting garment that is comfortable in hot weather. Most women wear the enveloping black abaya and a face mask called the burka, although this tradition is beginning to be abandoned by younger, educated women.
Most of the population enjoys modern air-conditioned housing, either in apartments or villa-style houses. The small rural population lives in a more traditional style, and some Bedouins still live nomadically in tents. Similarly, cuisine represents a blend of traditional Arab dishes, such as grilled lamb with spiced rice, with increasingly popular American and European foods.
Even though traditional sports such as falconry and camel racing remain popular in the UAE, newer sports, particularly soccer, have an enthusiastic following. The country also has a strong horse racing tradition; the annual Dubai World Cup is one of the richest events in the sport.
Traditional social rituals remain important, especially the Eid al-Fitr and the Eid al-Adha, the festivals that mark the end of Ramadan (the month of fasting) and the conclusion of the hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca) on the Islamic calendar. On special occasions Emiris perform traditional dances to musical accompaniment.
The commitment to preserving traditional arts and culture is evident at both the popular and governmental levels. Each emirate devotes considerable resources to maintaining museums and libraries. The Abu Dhabi Cultural Foundation sponsors major events on artistic, social, and other themes featuring Arab and other cultural traditions throughout the year. The foundation’s Center for Documentation and Research is a national archive where scholars from around the world can research the history of the UAE back to the earliest times. Ash Shāriqah has a fine arts museum and is home to a lively theater and literary scene. See also Arab Music; Arabic Literature.
Although disparities in the standard of living do exist between the emirates, there is almost no poverty in the UAE because its leadership has devoted a large part of Abu Dhabi’s wealth to the welfare of the poorer emirates. Drug trafficking and other crimes are not uncommon but confined mainly to the expatriate community.
Since the 1960s the UAE has progressed from a largely subsistence economy — mostly farming, fishing, and pearl harvesting — to a developed one that provides a very high standard of living. The main engine for the extraordinary growth and development of the economy has been the petroleum sector, although the non-oil trade has played a significant role and all the emirates have begun to diversify their economies. The 2005 gross domestic product (GDP) was $129.7 billion. The total workforce of the UAE was estimated at 2,664,251 in 2006, with 59 percent working in services.
A unique feature of the UAE’s economy is its dependence on foreign labor. More than 90 percent of the workforce is made up of people from other countries.
The UAE is rich in both oil and natural gas. Proven reserves amount to approximately 100 billion barrels of oil and about 5.7 trillion cu m (about 200 trillion cu ft) of natural gas. At present rates of production — 858 million barrels of oil per year — the UAE’s oil will last for more than 100 years. Its gas will last for more than 200 years. These resources directly contribute about one-third of the country’s GDP.
Manufacturing and Services
In addition to petrochemical production, other manufacturing has become important, with rapid growth in aluminum production, paint and clothes manufacturing, and food processing. There is a very active private commercial sector, and trading services and other businesses in Dubai are a major factor in the country’s economy. Community and social services such as teaching and government employment are significant sources of jobs.
Tourism has grown rapidly in the country over past few decades; many Europeans and other foreigners are attracted by the mild winter weather, extensive beaches, areas of scenic and historic interest, and opportunities for shopping in the suqs (markets). Hotels and other tourist facilities are modern and equipped with all the latest amenities.
Agriculture and livestock raising make up only 2 percent of the GDP. These pursuits are important, however, because the UAE has achieved a significant level of self-sufficiency in several food categories, including vegetables, eggs, and dairy products. The country is a major producer of dates for both domestic consumption and export. Many of the farms are small, but since agriculture is supported by generous government subsidies it is no longer considered a subsistence activity.
Due to its vast petrochemical resources, the UAE obtains its electricity almost exclusively from oil- and gas-burning power plants. The UAE’s plentiful fuel supply has made extensive desalination facilities and other energy-intensive activities possible.
The UAE has rapidly developed a highly efficient transportation infrastructure. With a total of 1,088 km (676 mi) of roads, modern highways connect all the emirates with each other and with Oman and Saudi Arabia. Dubai International Airport is the largest of the UAE’s six international airports. The country has numerous ports, including Mīnā’ Jabal ‘Alī in Dubai, one of the largest artificial deepwater ports in the world. Automobiles are the most commonly used form of transportation.
The UAE revolutionized its economy when it began exporting oil in 1962. Today, oil and gas exports amount to less than half of all export earnings, indicating the country’s success in diversifying its economy. In addition to oil, gas, and petrochemical products, exports include aluminum, paint, and various fruits and vegetables. Principal purchasers of UAE exports are Japan, South Korea, Singapore, India, Oman, and Iran; chief sources for imports are the United States, Japan, the United Kingdom, Germany, South Korea, and India. In 2000 the UAE earned $53.5 billion from exports, while imports cost $35.6 billion.
Through its membership in the powerful Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) the UAE has supported a moderate oil-pricing policy calculated to maximize its long-term benefit. The country also belongs to the Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries (OAPEC) that seeks to coordinate Arab oil policy. It is a founding member of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), which allows it to work with other member nations — Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, and Oman — to increase economic cooperation.
Currency and Banking
The currency of the UAE is the dirham, which can be divided into 100 fils. Its official exchange rate is fixed to the United States dollar, and was set at 3.6725 dirhams in 1997. The UAE Central Bank in Abu Dhabi is the bank of issue.
The UAE’s constitution, provisionally adopted at independence in 1971 and made permanent in 1996, established a federal government that leaves much power to the emirates. The government has executive, legislative, and judicial branches, but the executive branch dominates the political system. There are no political parties and no popular elections.
Although the governmental institutions are modern in form, the essence of political power is traditional and hereditary, with the ruling family of each emirate representing its dominant tribe. Politics is largely a process of satisfying the claims to power of ruling families and their factions as well as merchants and religious leaders.
Executive and Legislative
The highest political authority in the UAE is the Supreme Federal Council (SFC), sometimes called the Supreme Council of the Union (SCU), which consists of the seven emirate rulers. This council establishes general UAE policy. It usually meets four times a year, and it elects the president to indefinitely renewable five-year terms. Each ruler has a vote, but on substantive matters the dominant emirates of Abu Dhabi and Dubai can exercise veto power.
The Council of Ministers, appointed by the president, is both the federal cabinet and principal source of legislative authority. The SFC ratifies laws enacted by the Council of Ministers.
The Federal National Council (FNC) is the country’s nominal legislature, but this body has only an advisory role in the government. It does, however, have a significant function as a forum for discussion of important national issues. The 40 members of the FNC represent the various emirates. In December 2006 the first elections to the FNC were held. About 6,700 voters were hand-selected to pick 20 representatives to the FNC. The remaining 20 members were appointed. The constitution permits a popularly elected FNC.
The UAE’s judiciary consists of a supreme court and lower courts that preside over the different emirates. The legal system is based on the Sharia (Islamic law), but incorporates elements of Western legal systems in such areas as commercial law. Many legal disputes are decided by local customary practices under the supervision of the ruler of each emirate.
Because of the UAE’s oil wealth, citizens pay no taxes but receive generous social welfare benefits, including free medical care. Modern hospitals and health centers are concentrated in the larger cities, although most people across the country have access to at least basic care.
The armed forces of the UAE, called the Union Defense Forces (UDF), numbered 50,500 in 2004, with an army of 44,000 members, a navy of 2,500, and an air force of 4,000. A paid, professional force, the UDF relies heavily on officers and technicians from the United Kingdom, Jordan, and Pakistan, with many Omanis in the ranks of the ground forces.
The UAE joined the Arab League immediately after declaring independence in December 1971 and in the weeks following became a member of the United Nations (UN). It also belongs to the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (World Bank), the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).
Recent archaeological research indicates the presence of an advanced trading culture in the early 3rd millennium bc in the region that is now the UAE. The small trading states that emerged along the Persian Gulf coast were later overwhelmed by Persian empires — the Achaemenid Empire from the 6th to the 4th centuries bc and the Sassanian Empire from the 3rd to the 7th centuries ad. These empires took over and controlled the extensive maritime trade that the small states had already carried as far as China.
In the early centuries ad, Arab tribes flocked to the region. They came first from the southern coast of the Arabian Peninsula, then from the north, helping to make it receptive to the religion of Islam before the death of the prophet Muhammad in 632.
The Trucial States
Trade with India and China expanded in the early Islamic period, with Julfar in present-day Ra’s al Khaymah as one of the leading ports. European intervention in the gulf began with the Portuguese in the early 16th century. From the mid-17th century the British and Dutch competed for domination, with Britain the winner in the late 18th century. By about 1800 the Qawasim, the ruling clans of Ash Shāriqah and Ra’s al Khaymah today, had become a maritime power in the lower gulf, attacking ships from British-ruled India. The British defeated the Qawasim navy in 1819 and in 1820 imposed the first of several treaties that created and sustained a maritime truce, giving the name Trucial States to the emirates that now form the UAE.
By 1892 the British had assumed responsibility for the states’ foreign relations and external security. The emirates remained under British protection until 1971. The British, who were principally concerned with the security of Persian Gulf maritime commerce, rarely intervened in the area’s internal affairs. The most significant results of British domination of the area were the establishment of general peace, the introduction of the Western concept of territorial states, and the creation in 1952 of the Trucial States Council to promote cooperation among the seven emirates. This council provided the basis for the Supreme Federal Council of the UAE.
In 1968 the British announced plans to withdraw before the end of 1971, and the Trucial States, Bahrain, and Qatar announced plans to federate. These plans collapsed when, as British troops withdrew from the region in September 1971, Bahrain and Qatar declared independence separately. On December 2, 1971, six of the seven Trucial States announced their unification as the United Arab Emirates. The seventh emirate, Ra’s al Khaymah, joined the union in 1972.
From the very beginning the UAE faced challenges that many felt would doom the new federation to failure. There were border disputes with Saudi Arabia and Oman and strong rivalries among the emirates. Also during 1971, Iran seized the islands of Abū Mūsá, Ţunb al Kubrá (Greater Tunb), and Ţunb aş Şughrá (Lesser Tunb) in the Persian Gulf, all of which had previously been claimed by the UAE.
Threats to regional stability since that time have included the 1979 Iranian Islamic Revolution, the Iran-Iraq War (1980–1988), and Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990. The UAE survived these dangers and prospered largely because it has used the oil wealth of Abu Dhabi to the benefit of all Emiris as well as to promote the UAE’s security in the international arena.
The UAE has also been a force for moderation in the politically turbulent Middle East, cooperating closely with the United States and its allies to defeat aggression by Iraq in the 1991 Persian Gulf War. In 1993, along with the other Persian Gulf Arab states, the UAE supported the Israeli-Palestinian peace accord.
In domestic affairs, the UAE became involved in a major financial scandal in 1991 when international regulators closed down worldwide operations of the Bank of Credit and Commerce International (BCCI) on fraud and forgery charges. UAE president Zayed was a founding shareholder of BCCI, and Abu Dhabi businesses and investors lost approximately $2 billion. In late 1993 the government of Abu Dhabi filed a civil suit against BCCI and 13 of its top officials. In 1994 the former chief executive of the bank pleaded guilty in U.S. federal court to charges of fraud, conspiracy, and racketeering.
Politically, the country has been stable for decades, with Abu Dhabi emir Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan leading the country from its inception until his death in late 2004. His eldest son, Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed al-Nahyan, succeeded his father as ruler of Abu Dhabi and became the new president of the UAE.
In 2005 al-Nahyan announced that political reforms would eventually lead to an elected parliament. In December 2006 the first elections since the UAE was founded were held in three stages of balloting. About 6,700 citizens, representing less than 1 percent of the citizenry, were hand-selected to vote for 20 representatives to the Federal National Council (FNC), the advisory panel that is the country’s nominal legislature. The remaining 20 representatives in the 40-member FNC were appointed. All of the candidates for the FNC were selected by the government. About 1,000 women were among the voters, and at least one female candidate was elected. The council was expected to debate a new constitution, which would reportedly pave the way for wider participation in elections.