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Summary Article: ABU DHABI from Capital Cities around the World: An Encyclopedia of Geography, History, and Culture
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Image from: United Arab Emirates in Philip's Encyclopedia

Abu Dhabi is the capital and second-largest city after Dubai in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), a federation of seven emirates or principalities in the Middle East on coast of the Persian Gulf on the southeastern Arabian Peninsula. It is also the capital of the Emirate of Abu Dhabi. The city is located on a small triangular island in the Persian Gulf that is just off shore from the mainland and is connected to the mainland by a short bridge. The population of Abu Dhabi is about 900,000. In addition to its role as government center for the UAE, it is also one of the world's leading producers of oil and natural gas and a major exporter. Income levels and living standards for citizens are correspondingly high. In recent years, oil revenues have been applied to diversification of the economy, such that the city is now also a leading financial and banking center, and is a center of tourism, retailing, real estate development, and industrial production.

Historical Overview

Oil was discovered in Abu Dhabi in 1958 and the commercial production began in 1962. Before then, Abu Dhabi was but a small town of local importance only. Its origins are traced to 1793 when members of the Bani Yas Bedouin tribe migrated there because of the presence of fresh water. The Al Nahyān family was part of that first migration and is the ruling family of Abu Dhabi till today. Pearling, which was an early basis of the economy, declined with the rise of the cultured pearl industry in Japan in the 1930s. The emirates were a protectorate of Great Britain from the 19th century until 1971, and have since been united into a federation of absolute monarchies government by a president chosen by the seven emirs. At that time, Abu Dhabi was chosen as the capital for the federation. Economic growth had been slow during the very conservative long rule of Sheikh Shakhbūt ibn Sultān Āl Nahyān (1928–1966), but then picked up when his younger brother Zāhid ibn Sultān took over and began investing in infrastructure to support the development of a petroleum-based economy. The city has since grown very rapidly and has one of the world's leading construction projects, with considerable development of impressive skyscrapers, commercial centers, new airport, roads, international hotels, sports facilities, and many other projects.

Major Landmarks

The Sheikh Zayed Mosque, now nearing completion, is one of the most opulent and beautiful newly built religious structures in the world. It is the world's sixth-largest mosque and can accommodate as many as 40,000 worshippers, including up to 7,000 in the main prayer hall. The waterfront of Abu Dhabi is a spectacular stretch of gleaming high-rises, shopping malls, and recreation places. There are sandy beaches as well. Khalifa Park has an aquarium, museum, and other attractions. Yas Island, located off the main island on which Abu Dhabi is situated, has a famous Formula 1 automobile racetrack and is the site of the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.

Culture and Society

The official state religion of the UAE is Islam and Arabic is the official language. However, the population is highly mixed ethnically, so other languages are spoken and foreign residents have the freedom to practice their own faiths. Native-born Emiratis are a minority in their own country, and native-born Abu Dhabians are a minority in their emirate and its capital city. The majority of inhabitants of the UAE, Abu Dhabi Emirate, and the city of Abu Dhabi are foreign expatriate workers. Some hold such specialized, well-paying jobs as engineers and architects, but the majority of inhabitants are laborers or service workers and earn far less. More than one-half of the total population is from India and Pakistan. Other sources of workers are Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somalia, Iran, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, and the United Kingdom. The enormous oil wealth of Abu Dhabi assures its own citizens a very comfortable living with many benefits provided by the government. Foreigners live well too, but are clearly in a lower class of residence. Abuses of human rights have been reported, including sexual abuse of female domestic workers from abroad, human trafficking, and perpetuation of indebtedness on the part of foreign workers, especially those from South Asia, turning them into de facto indentured servants.

Further Reading
  • Al Fahim, Mohammed. From Rags to Riches: A Story of Abu Dhabi. London Center of Arab Studies London, 1995.
  • Davidson, Christopher M. Abu Dhabi: Oil and Beyond. Columbia University Press New York, 2009.
  • Tatchell, Jo. A Diamond in the Desert: Behind the Scenes in Abu Dhabi, the World's Richest City. Black Cat Publishing New York, 2009.
  • Copyright 2013 by Roman Adrian Cybriwsky

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