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Definition: Abu Dhabi from Collins English Dictionary


1 a sheikhdom (emirate) of SE Arabia, on the S coast of the Persian Gulf: the chief sheikhdom and capital of the United Arab Emirates, consisting principally of the port of Abu Dhabi and a desert hinterland; contains major oilfields. Pop: 476 000 (2005 est). Area: 67 350 sq km (25 998 sq miles)

from World and Its Peoples: Middle East, Western Asia, and Northern Africa

The United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.) is a confederation of seven small sovereign states ruled by traditional monarchs. The states, which stretch between the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman, formed a loose confederation after Great Britain withdrew from the region in 1971. Each state is divided into more than one piece, and the jumble of enclaves makes the map of the emirates resemble a jigsaw puzzle. Until the discovery of oil and natural gas in the region in the 1960s, the emirates were poor and underdeveloped. The coast of the emirates is now lined by modern cities, whose citizens have a high standard of living.

Permission: Marshall Cavendish


The flag of the United Arab Emirates has three horizontal stripes, from top to bottom, green, white, and black, with a vertical red band at the hoist (the side next to the flagpole). The colors are those traditionally used by Arab nations, but in the case of the United Arab Emirates, no symbolism is implied.

The flag of the United Arab Emirates.


1st century BCE-3rd century CE

Greek cultural influences reach the Gulf Coast.

7th century CE

The coastal communities convert to Islam.


Portuguese traders arrive on the coast.

by 1500

The region is home to pirates who operate from small coastal ports.


Portuguese traders visit the region's ports and establish bases.

early 18th century

The Al Qasimi family establishes Ras al Khaymah.


The Bani Yas tribes journey from the interior to found Abu Dhabi and later establish Dubayy.


Abu Dhabi is founded by the Al Nahayan family.


The Al Mualla dynasty founds Umm al Qaywayn.

late 18th century

The British establish trading links. British forces begin to attack those of the powerful Qawasim tribal confederation that dominates the region. The Al Nuaimi family establishes Ajman.

early 19th century

The Al Maktum family creates the emirate of Dubayy, and the Al Qasimi dynasty establishes Ash Shariqah (Sharjah).


The British destroy Qawasim ships and force the coastal sheikhs to suppress piracy.


The British impose treaties on the sheikhs. The peace (truce) they secure gives the region the name Trucial Coast.


The local rulers sign treaties with the British, giving Great Britain control of their foreign relations.


Ras al Khaymah is incorporated into Ash Shariqah (Sharjah).


Ras al Khaymah is reestablished under the Al Qasimi dynasty.


Fujayrah becomes a separate emirate.


The seven rulers of the emirates establish a Trucial Council.


Oil is first struck in commercial quantities in the emirates.

1970s and 1980s

Discovery of oil transforms the economy. The Gulf cities become modern cities.


The British protectorate ends and the emirates become independent. Abu Dhabi, Ajman, Dubayy, Fujayrah, Ash Shariqah (Sharjah), and Umm al Qaywayn form a loose confederation. Each emirate retains control of its own rich mineral resources.


Ras al Khaymah, which had initially stayed out of the federation, joins the United Arab Emirates. Ras al Khaymah had a territorial dispute with Iran concerning small islands in an oil field in the Persian Gulf but as a very small emirate did not have the strength to protect its interests.


The United Arab Emirates join five other Gulf states to form the defensive Gulf Cooperation Council.


The emirates participate in the U.S.-led coalition that drives Iraqi invaders from Kuwait in 1991.



Western Asia, bordering the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman


Hot and dry; milder in the mountains


32,000 sq. miles (82,880 sq. km)


817 toiles (1,318 km)

Highest point

Jabal Yibir 5,010 feet (1,527 m)

Lowest point

Beside the Persian Gulf 0 feet (0 m)


Low coastal plain merging with sand dune-covered desert in the center and south; mountains in the east

Natural resources

Petroleum, natural gas

Land use

Arable land

0.8 percent

Permanent crops

2.3 percent


96.9 percent

Major rivers


Major lakes


Natural hazards

Dust storms and sandstorms


Source: Emirati census, 2005

Urban population

86 percent



Abu Dhabi




Al-Ayn Ajinan

369,000 190,000

Ras al Khaymah


Fujayrah Um in al-Qaywayn

58,000 41,000

Khawr Fakkan


The fort at Al-Ayn, a detached part of Abu Dhabi, is one of the oldest remaining buildings in the emirate.

Permission: Topham



254 miles (410 km)

Saudi Arabia

283 miles (457 km)




(2005 census)

Population density

116.8 per sq. mile (45.1 per sq. km)

Population growth rate

4 percent a year


16.1 births per 1,000 of the population

Death rate

2.2 deaths per 1,000 of the population

Population under age 15

20.6 percent

Population over age 65

0.9 percent

Sex ratio

105 males for 100 females

Fertility rate

2.4 children per woman

infant mortality rate

13.5 deaths per 1.000 live births

Life expectancy at birth

Total population

75.7 years


78.3 years


73.2 years



Emirati dirham (AED)

Exchange rate (2007)

SI = AED 3.7

Gross domestic product (2007 estimate)

$145.8 billion

GDP per capita (2007 estimate)


Unemployment rate (2001)

2.4 percent

Population under poverty line



$152.1 billion (2007 CIA estimate)


594,7 billion (2007 CIA estimate)


Official country name

United Arab Emirates

Conventional short form


Former names

Trucial Coast, Trucia! Oman,

Trucial States


U.A. E






Official language


Capital city

Abu Dhabi

Type of government

Confederation of monarchies

Voting rights


National anthem

"Emirati Tahiat Alalam"

(The Emirati anthem)

National day

National Day, December 2, 1971

Modern hotels line the waterfront of Dubayy, the commercial capital of the United Arab Emirates.

Permission: Topham, P. M. Rhodes




Highways (all paved)

676 miles (1,088 km)

Navigable waterways



International airports


Paved runways



Ethnic groups

Emirati Arab

19 percent

South Asian

50 percent

Non-Emirati Arab and Iranian

23 percent

Other (mainly Europeans and East Asians)

8 percent


Sunni Muslim

80 percent

Shia Muslim

16 percent

Hindu and Christian minorities

4 percent



over 40 percent

Languages of southern Asia (mainly Hindu and Urdu)

50 percent

Farsi, English, and other minorities

under 10 percent

Adult literacy

77,9 percent


The United Arab Emirates is a confederation of seven absolute monarchies; in each monarchy a hereditary ruler, the emir, holds power. Since the confederation formed in 1971, many areas of government have been pooled, but some emirates, particularly Dubayy and Ras al Khaymah, have resisted centralization.

A provisional constitution was agreed at independence in 1971, when the emirates ceased to be protectorates of Great Britain. The constitution, which was made permanent in 1996, is unlike other national constitutions in that its primary purpose is to define and regulate those powers surrendered by the constituent states to the federal government and those powers retained by the local rulers. The constitutions of other nations define terms of office, elections, legislative powers, and voting rights, but the document that regulates how the United Arab Emirates is governed deals with none of these issues, as they do not apply.


The principal government body is the Federal Supreme Council, which has seven members: the reigning monarchs of each of the seven emirates. The deliberations of the council are private. The hereditary rulers choose one of their number to be chief of state for a renewable five-year term. However, although the chief of state is called president, his status is not like that of the president of a republic—he is the presiding official of a council of monarchs. From 1971 through 2004, Sheikh Zaid bin Sultan al-Nahayan (c. 1918-2004), the ruler of Abu Dhabi (the largest emirate in terms of area and population), was the president. He was succeeded as chief of state of the federation by his son, Sheik Khalifa bin Zaid al-Nahayan (born 1948).

The council chooses a federal prime minister and other ministers. Both prime ministers since the confederation was formed have been members of the ruling family of Dubayy, an emirate that has nearly as many inhabitants as Abu Dhabi. Members of the seven ruling families dominate the executive. The 40-member Federal National Council is sometimes called a parliament. It has, however, no legislative authority. The council comprises eight members from Abu Dhabi and from Dubayy, six from Ash Shariqah (Sharjah) and from Ras al Khaymah, and four each from the small emirates of Ajman, Fujayrah, and Umm al Qaywayn. The representatives of Abu Dhabi and Dubayy have a veto. The ruler of each emirate appoints council members to serve a two-year term.

Sheik Zaid bin Sultan al-Nahayan (c. 1918-2004), the monarch of Abu Dhabi, was chief of state of the United Arab Emirates from independence until his death.

Permission: Corbis, Jacques Langevin

The chief of state must address the Federal National Council to outline policies and events. The constitution allows the council to establish general policies, but it may not initiate legislation. The council discusses laws made by the government but, in practice, may not amend or reject them. However, no law is enacted until sanctioned by the council.


Each emirate has its own government, presided over by its hereditary ruler. The individual emirates retained considerable powers, including mineral rights—oil and natural gas—and control of oil revenues. Both Abu Dhabi and Dubayy retain their local armed forces as well as contributing to the federal armed forces.

There are no representative institutions—although the cities of Abu Dhabi and Dubayy have appointed municipal authorities—and government is largely in the hands of the ruling families.


The first small emirate in the region was formed early in the eighteenth century when the Qawasim (Al Qasimi) tribe established Ras al Khaymah. Other states followed: Dubayy and Abu Dhabi in the 1760s, Umm al Qaywayn and Ajman late in the eighteenth century, and Ash Shariqah (Sharjah) at the start of the nineteenth century.

The emirates grew piecemeal, and the lands ruled by the Qawasim merged and divided several times. Ras al Khaymah was absorbed by Ash Shariqah (Sharjah) from 1990 to 1921, Fujayrah emerged in 1942, and Kalba existed as a state from 1903 to 1952.


At the beginning of the nineteenth century, the British intervened in the region to prevent the ruling clans of the Qawasim in Ash Shariqah (Sharjah) and Ras al Khaymah from raiding ships on the way to British India. The British defeated the Qawasim in 1819 and 1820, and imposed on the small states the first of several treaties that enforced a maritime truce. By these and subsequent treaties, the rulers of the emirates ceded responsibility for their foreign relations and external security to Great Britain.

The discovery of oil in the late 1950s brought a remarkable transformation to an impoverished region. Within half a century, the emirates had one of the highest standards of living in the world, attracting large numbers of foreign workers from other Arab countries, southern Asia, the Philippines, Iran, Europe, and North America. As a result, in modern times the local Emiratis form only 19 percent of the total population.


In 1952, the rulers of the seven remaining states formed the Trucial States Council to promote cooperation. By the 1970s, when the British withdrew from the region, various plans for confederation had been discussed. Eventually, in December 1971, the emirates formed the United Arab Emirates (UAE), initially with six members—Ras al Khaymah joined in February 1972. Within the new nation, which became independent on December 2, 1971, individual emirates have considerable sovereignty, each retaining control of its own oil resources.

Since independence, the federal government has had territorial disputes with Saudi Arabia, Oman, and Iran, and maneuvered a careful balancing act during the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988). In 1981, the confederation was a founding member of the regional Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), an economic and collective security organization. However, in 1990, in a reversal of its earlier policy of avoiding collaboration with foreign military powers, the United Arab Emirates was allegedly the first Arab Gulf state to propose joint military cooperation with the United States to deter Iraq from carrying out its declared hostilities against Kuwait.

The emirs of the seven states of the Trucial Coast sign the treaty creating the United Arab Emirates on December 2, 1971.

Permission: Corbis, Ramesh Shukla

The United Arab Emirates regarded cooperation with the United States over Kuwait as evidence of a lack of Arab unity on a critical security issue, and a failure on the part of the GCC. U.S. forces were based in the emirates during 1990-1991, and Emirati troops joined the international military coalition that liberated Kuwait city. Afterward, the Emirati federal government initially supported expanding the GCC mandate to include an alliance with Egypt and Syria. However, realizing this policy was not likely to take place, the United Arab Emirates opted for a longer-term security relationship with the United States.


The Arab Bedouin culture of the seven states of the United Arab Emirates is overlain by influences from southern Asia, other regions of the Arab world, and the West. After the 1950s, oil wealth brought hundreds of thousands of workers from abroad, and with them came new arts, music, literature, architectural styles, and cuisines.

Cultural change has been rapid. Abu Dhabi was the first of the emirates to export oil, beginning in 1962. Other emirates followed, and their economies and societies were transformed by their new wealth. People more than 50 years old can recall a desert state very different from today's modern cosmopolitan cities.


The influx of foreign workers brought the biggest cultural changes. In modern times, about 50 percent of the inhabitants of the United Arab Emirates are South Asians, while a further 23 percent are non-Emirati Arabs or Iranians, and 8 percent are either Europeans or East Asians. The newcomers brought other languages, and, although Arabic is the confederation's official language, it is the first language of only about 40 percent of the population. Urdu and English are both widely spoken, and English is effectively the nation's second language. The literature of the Indian subcontinent and the English-speaking world are widely available, and works by Arab writers from Egypt, Syria, and other Arabic-speaking states find a ready readership.

The Emirates are more liberal and tolerant than many of their neighbors. The city of Dubayy aims to become a center for the media, and this goal is helped by the freer speech allowed in the city than in most other Gulf states. In 2000, the Emirates created an Electronic Commerce and Media Zone Authority to attract media outlets. Television channels include several pan-Arab broadcasters, among them Emirates Dubayy TV, Abu Dhabi TV, MBC, and Al-Arabiya, an all-news channel. Domestic television channels include Ajman TV and Ash Shariqah (Sharjah) TV. The United Arab Emirates has numerous Arabic-language radio stations, including Abu Dhabi Radio, Ras al Khaymah Radio, and Al-Arabiya FM. Free FM broadcasts in English, and City FM broadcasts in English and Urdu. Radio Asia broadcasts in Hindi, Urdu, and Malayalam.


Economic prosperity has affected all areas of life in the Emirates, as this once-insular developing society has embraced modernization and Westernization. New skyscrapers, with shiny surfaces of glass and steel, are among the tallest buildings in western Asia. While architecture once reflected Islamic design and a functionality suiting a hot, arid climate, most modern structures would not look out of place in North America. Some people advocate better integration of traditional styles and new technology in buildings. The cities of the Gulf coast are lined with housing projects built as permanent housing for the nomadic Bedouins as well as industrial and more upscale domestic developments. Visually, the most exciting new project is The Palm, a luxury vacation and residential resort in construction on land reclaimed from the sea off Dubayy.

Although Islamic restrictions influence art, precluding the depiction of living creatures, the Emirates promote the development of artistic talent, often expressed in abstract art to avoid restrictions. Local artists have entered the international art scene, and a national art gallery has opened in the city of Ash Shariqah (Sharjah), which now hosts exhibitions by artists from around the Gulf, western Asia, and the wider artistic world. Changes in the economy feed the art scene: wealthy collectors, usually members of the seven reigning families, are in evidence, and Emirati artists have generous patrons.

Calligraphy and abstract patterns are the forms of decoration most seen in the United Arab Emirates. Wall hangings and carpets use geometric motifs. Artisans make jewelry, silverware, and dhows (fishing boats).

Bedouins in the desert told stories and shared poetry. As in other preliterate societies, oral traditions were prized and literature was verbally handed down from generation to generation. Competitions for storytelling, poetry recitation, and recitation of the Muslim holy book, the Koran, remain popular.


The entertainment and leisure activities favored by the Emiratis are often different from those enjoyed by South Asian and Western expatriates. Local people watch camel racing—a sport that is not as dominant as it was—and horse racing. The Dubayy World Cup horse race has the highest prize money in the world, and members of the ruling family of Dubayy are international patrons of horse racing and other equestrian sports. Soccer is popular, and South Asian residents follow cricket, which has established a base in Ash Shariqah (Sharjah). Other sports popular with Western residents include yachting, swimming, diving, golf, rugby, and tennis.

Traditional music and dance are sponsored by the federal government, and established skills create a climate for invention in music. The Gulf's pearl divers had a rich singing repertoire, while hudaa are songs sung to travelers to bless them on their journey. Alongside local styles, the music of the Indian subcontinent and the West are also performed. Traditional dance is accompanied by singing and music of the tamboura, a simple harp, and drums of various sizes. The manior, a percussion instrument worn like a garment around the waist, is a characteristic instrument. To play it, the musician dances, thereby creating a clacking sound.

Street Cry (at right), ridden by U.S. jockey Jerry Bailey (born 1957), wins the 2002 Dubayy Gold Cup, an international horse race with a $6 million prize.

Permission: Corbis, Reuters/Russel Boyce


Festivals are accompanied by feasting. A ceremonial mansaf, a whole lamb, served with spiced rice, appears on special occasions such as Muharram (the Islamic New Year), Eid al-Adha (the Feast of Sacrifice), Eid al-Fitr (breaking of the fast at the end of Ramadan), and the ascension of the Prophet. These and other Islamic festivals follow the lunar calendar. Some other public holidays are celebrated according to the Western calendar. They include New Year's Day, the anniversary of the accession of the chief of state, and National Day, December 2.

Daily meals usually start with mezes: small dishes of appetizers that can be a substantial meal in themselves, such as hummus (a sauce of chickpeas, garlic, lemon, and olive oil) and tabbouleh, which is a salad made from cracked wheat and flavored with parsley, tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, and olive oil. Stuffed grape leaves are another popular dish, and seafood is abundant. Arabic coffee is served after every meal.


The United Arab Emirates was created in 1971, when the British withdrew from the region. Seven emirates joined the confederation, and the first national government was formed. Prior to this, the provision of health, education, and other facilities was the responsibility of individual emirates. There was also a substantial private sector.

Some of the emirates had been transformed after the 1950s when the commercial development of oil resources began. However, not all the emirates had oil, and the development of the poorer emirates lagged behind. Since the formation of the United Arab Emirates, development has been much more even, and rapid social developments and improvements have taken place, all funded by oil wealth.

The Jumeirah Mosque in Dubayy City is one of several impressive mosques in the city. Although only 40 percent of the population is Arab and only 19 percent Emirati, 96 percent of the residents of the United Arab Emirates are Muslims.

Permission: Shutterstock, Vishal Shah

About 80 percent of native Emirati are Sunni Muslims, while the remainder follow the minority Shia branch of Islam. Emirati Arabs account for no more than 19 percent of the total population of the United Arab Emirates. The overwhelming majority of residents are foreigners from other parts of the Arab world, southern Asia, Iran, East and Southeast Asia, Europe, and North America, who have come to the emirates for work. About 40 percent of the total population is ethnic Arab, but the largest group is Indians and Pakistanis, who make up about 50 percent of the population. About 2 percent of the population is Iranian.


Since 1971, the emirates have devoted much of their revenue to social welfare. Education is a high priority, and the federal government has made schooling free to every resident but compulsory only at the elementary level (ages 6 to 12). There are now more than 300,000 children in public schools throughout the country. Boys and girls have equal access to education but are taught in separate schools. Each village has a primary school, and the cities have secondary schools with boarding facilities. Most teachers, at all levels, are from other Arab countries. The literacy rate in the United Arab Emirates has increased from 20 percent in 1980 to 77.9 percent in 2003. More women than men can read: 81.7 percent of Emirati women can read and write, but only 76.1 percent of Emirati men are literate.

There is also a large private education sector. Nearly 40 percent of students in the emirates are enrolled in private schools. A number of these schools teach in the languages of the emirates' various expatriate communities: English, French, German, and Urdu schools follow the curriculum used in the home country.

In 1977, the Emirates National University was established in the eastern city of Al-Ayn to provide higher education for the United Arab Emirates. The university is modeled on U.S. practice and carries out instruction in Arabic and English. It has nine faculties: arts; science; education; administrative and political sciences; law and Sharia (Islamic law); agriculture; engineering; medicine and health sciences; and postgraduate studies. The federal government encourages students to attend university by offering them financial support and monetary prizes when they graduate. Students who wish to pursue graduate degrees abroad are financed by the government. There is also a university for women, Zayed University at Abu Dhabia and Dubayy. Many female students in the United Arab Emirates are from more conservative Arab countries, taking advantage of educational opportunities that are not available for them at home. Three-quarters of the students at Al-Ayn are women, and in the United Arab Emirates, female graduates outnumber male graduates by about 2 to 1. In 1988, four colleges of technology, two for men and two for women, were opened for Emirati nationals, offering a more technically oriented curriculum.


Since the commercial exploitation of oil, the role of women in Emirati society has changed. Before 1960, there were few opportunities for women, who were tied to the home and their family. By 1988, however, women constituted 6.2 percent of the labor force. In the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Health, four out of every five employees are female. Most primary and secondary school teachers and health care workers are women.

Although women may own property and businesses, there are inequalities in other areas. For example, while Muslim men may marry women "of the Book" (in other words, Christians or Jews), Emirati women may marry non-Muslims only if the man converts to Islam. Men may travel abroad at will, but women require permission from a responsible male relative. Women are allowed to divorce their husbands, and they are normally granted temporary custody of male children until they reach the age of 7 and custody of female children until they reach the age of 13, when custody is transferred to the father.


Before 1960, medical services were limited in the United Arab Emirates, and almost all surgery had to be performed abroad. Oil wealth financed enormous investment in health care, and today, the most complex surgery—including open heart surgery and organ transplants—is routinely available. There are 32 public hospitals, including the 374-bed Al Wasl Hospital in Dubayy, which specializes in pediatrics and maternity care. There are also 130 outpatient clinics throughout the United Arab Emirates. Health care is free for all Emirati citizens, but since 1982, due to reduced oil revenues and a change of attitude toward foreigners, noncitizens have to pay for all health care services except emergency care and child and maternity care. The confederation also has 14 private hospitals.

The emirates support a nationwide health education program, and efforts have been made to develop effective preventive medicine. Vaccination and prevention programs help to control diseases that were once common among children, such as malaria, measles, and tuberculosis. The infant mortality rate has decreased to 13.5 deaths for every 1,000 births, which is lower than United Nations targets. The federal Ministry of Health has also introduced a care system for the elderly. Although old people are traditionally cared for at home, there are support systems to help families provide modern care. Life expectancy is 78.3 years for women and 73.2 years for men.

The emirates have an extensive social welfare network that includes family care centers aimed at solving domestic problems and training women in domestic skills and handicrafts. Widows, orphans, the elderly, the disabled, and others unable to support themselves receive social security payments. Other benefits for Emirati citizens include free housing and subsidized furnishings. However, the federal Ministry of Public Works and Housing reported in 1992 that 70 percent of the 15,000 government-built, low-income houses had become uninhabitable because of damage from saline groundwater, failure to grant proprietary rights, and reductions in house maintenance grants.

Abu Dhabi

In the late 1940s, Abu Dhabi was a small fishing village set on a T-shaped island adjoining the southern shore of the Persian Gulf. In modern times, Abu Dhabi is a booming modern city that is often called the Manhattan of the Middle East. At the 2005 census, Abu Dhabi had 578,000 inhabitants.

The settlement was founded in 1761, when a clan of Arabs belonging to the Bani Yas group of tribes moved from the inland oasis of Liwa to the island. In time, Abu Dhabi became the capital of one of the small emirates along the coast, but it remained overshadowed by Dubayy and Ash-Shariqah (Sharjah). A century ago, Abu Dhabi was home to about 5,000 to 6,000 people, most of whom were involved directly or indirectly in the fishing industry, particularly pearl fishing.


The discovery of oil in 1958—and its commercial exploitation from 1962—transformed Abu Dhabi. Large-scale development began in 1966, when Sheikh Zaid bin Sultan al-Nahayan (c. 1918-2004) came to the throne. Abu Dhabi was the leading oil producer on the Trucial Coast, and Sheikh Zaid used oil revenue to turn the small town into a city dominated by skyscrapers. Where there was desert, there is a now a city filled with modern buildings, large gardens and parks, and tree-lined boulevards. Dotted between the gleaming multistory towers are a few older traditional structures. The city's major buildings include the emir's palace, the Abu Dhabi International Exhibition Center, large mosques, and many luxurious hotels.

Downtown Abu Dhabi has almost no old buildings left among its skyscrapers.

Permission: Shutterstock, Vladimir Maravic

The corniche sweeps along the shore carrying traffic from the downtown area to the spreading suburbs. There are oil refineries nearby, such as on Umm an-Nar Island, and factories producing light industrial goods border the built-up area. The city has one of the largest artificial harbors in the world. Many industrial and service workers have emigrated from southern Asia.


When the seven emirates of the Trucial Coast formed a confederation in 1971 and 1972, Abu Dhabi—the capital of the largest and economically most powerful emirate—became the capital, initially only on a temporary basis. The city houses government buildings, most of the federal ministries, and other institutions—such as the state television and broadcasting facilities—as well as foreign embassies. The headquarters of many of the oil corporations operating in the United Arab Emirates are based in Abu Dhabi.

Abu Dhabi is becoming a popular international tourist resort. The city's attractions include beaches, Al Hisn Fort, a boatyard making traditional dhows (fishing boats), a petroleum exhibition, and a heritage village, but, for many people, the main attraction is shopping. Abu Dhabi has the world's largest duty-free shopping center, and it holds an annual shopping festival for bargains in early March.


Dubayy is the largest city in the United Arab Emirates and the capital of the emirate of Dubayy, which consists of little more than the city. In the nineteenth century and the early twentieth century, Dubayy was the principal center on the Trucial Coast. Its only rival was its eastern neighbor, Ash-Shariqah (Sharjah).

Dubayy may have been founded early in the eighteenth century. During the nineteenth century, it was a small town on a creek that was home to pearl fishers. It was the seat of a tiny emirate that maintained its independence by playing off its neighbors, one against another, and by signing a commercial treaty with Great Britain as early as 1835.


In the first half of the twentieth century, the rulers of Dubayy encouraged trade, and the city became an important port. Merchants settled in the growing city, many from southern Asia. The discovery of oil in 1966 led to the boom that allowed the city to develop into a modern metropolitan area that was home to 1,200,000 people at the latest census in 2005.

Oil was found offshore and is stored in three huge submarine tanks, known as the Three Pyramids of Dubayy. The city has oil-related industries as well as an aluminum smelter, a dry dock for tankers, and a large artificial deepwater harbor, Port Rashid. Much of the labor force comes from southern Asia, while oil corporation staff come from North America and Europe. Citizens of Dubayy form a minority in the city. Dubayy's oil reserves were only a fraction of those of neighboring Abu Dhabi, but the city-state prospered through trade and an early decision to diversify its economy.

Dubayy's skyline is pierced by modern multistory buildings, such as this luxury hotel.

Permission: Topham

Dayrah, originally a separate trading settlement on the opposite side of the creek from Dubayy, has long since been swallowed by urban development and is now the city's commercial quarter. Most of the major banks and insurance corporations in the Gulf have their headquarters in Dayrah. Tourism and retail are major sectors of the city's economy. Dubayy is sometimes called the City of Gold, because of its large trade in gold, silver, pearls, diamonds, and other jewelry, and its history of gold smuggling into India. The city has modern shopping malls, multistory international hotels, and some of the tallest buildings in western Asia, including the Emirates Towers and Dubayy World Trade Center. The most luxurious housing and hotels are in the Jumeira Beach Road district.

Some older buildings remain, including several palaces and the wind tower houses, which have an ingenious form of ventilation, built by merchants in the nineteenth century. Al-Fahid Fort, now Dubayy Museum, has exhibits on the city's pearl diving history. Dubayy has many sports facilities, including horse- and camel-racing tracks.


Dubayy's oil will run out long before that of its larger neighbor, Abu Dhabi. The city-state is, therefore, diversifying more rapidly. The city's most spectacular project is Palm Island. This island resort, under construction offshore, is shaped like a palm tree, with shopping malls, 50 hotels, and recreation facilities concentrated on the trunk and luxury housing

developments on the fronds. Within a decade, Palm Island should be home to 10,000 people, including many foreign residents. Palm Island—one of the world's largest engineering projects—is visible from space. A larger project, The World, is also under construction.


The United Arab Emirates is a confederation of seven emirates that were poor until the discovery and exploitation of oil and natural gas beginning in the 1950s. The emirates now enjoy one of the highest standards of living in the world. Development has been rapid, and both the appearance of the cities and the demographics of the population have dramatically changed.

The United Arab Emirates, formerly British protectorates, regained national sovereignty in December 1971, when the British withdrew from the region. The federation was formed at the same time, although the northern emirate of Ras al Khaymah did not join the United Arab Emirates for two months.


The speed at which development took place led to social and environmental problems. The local population had neither the numbers nor the right qualifications to staff the oil, natural gas, and many attendant service industries that flourished overnight. The emirates came to rely on foreign workers, and the local population, known as Emiratis, now account for only 19 percent of the residents. South Asians (from India and Pakistan) make up 50 percent of the population, and non-Emirati Arabs, mainly Egyptians, Yemenis, Palestinians, Jordanians, and Lebanese, contribute another 21 percent. There are also foreign workers from Iran, the Philippines, Europe, and North America. The foreign workers form 90 percent of the labor force, and this makes the economy of the United Arab Emirates potentially vulnerable to the international political climate.

The government has increased spending on the creation of employment opportunities for Emiratis. While local people largely do not wish to take the lower paid and lower status jobs that are largely filled by South Asian workers, growing numbers of educated Emiratis often have difficulty obtaining suitable employment for their level of education.

Overdependence upon oil makes the emirates vulnerable to price fluctuations in the world oil market. When the price is high, the United Arab Emirates receives additional revenue for government expenditure and development programs. When the price falls, development priorities are rescheduled. However, the United Arab Emirates has been one of the most successful nations in the region in diversifying its economy. Oil alone now accounts for around one-quarter of the emirates' GDP (gross domestic product), the total value of all the goods and services produced by a country in a given period. However, oil exports still finance a large proportion of government spending, which in turn drives other sectors of the economy.

At confederation, it was agreed that individual emirates should retain control of their own oil and natural gas revenues. Not all the emirates have oil reserves, and this is reflected in differences in economic development between them. Abu Dhabi, the emirate with the largest oil reserves, alone accounts for 60 percent of the GDP of the United Arab Emirates. Dubayy, with smaller oil reserves but with a well-developed service and manufacturing sector, contributes 25 percent of the GDP. Ash Shariqah (better known as Sharjah) contributes 9 percent to the GDP, while the remaining four emirates—all, except Ras al Khaymah, without any oil or well-developed services or manufacturing sector—contribute the remaining 6 percent. Smaller states, such as Ajman, which has few resources, have benefited from federal government investment.


The United Arab Emirates is a major player in the global oil industry; the emirates are normally the world's fourth-largest oil producer. The emirate of Abu Dhabi alone contains around 10 percent of the world's oil reserves. Dubayy, Ash Shariqah (Sharjah), and Ras al Khaymah have significant but much smaller amounts. Oil production in Abu Dhabi began in 1958. The government of Abu Dhabi has a controlling interest in all the oil corporations that operate within its borders. Abu Dhabi has both offshore oil fields, including the large Umm ash-Shaif field, and smaller onshore fields. Dubayy became an oil producer in 1969, and the government of the emirate owns the corporations that operate its Fallah, Haql Fath, and Rashid oil fields. Ash Shariqah (Sharjah) began producing oil in 1974 and also has a natural gas field. The only other emirate that is an oil producer is Ras al Khaymah, which has small offshore fields toward the middle of the Persian Gulf.

Permission: Marshall Cavendish

The Emirates also have an estimated 3 percent of the world's natural gas reserves, with Abu Dhabi again possessing the largest share. At present rates of production, the United Arab Emirates' oil will last for more than 100 years and its gas for more than 200 years. Other natural resources include modest deposits of chrome, iron, copper, uranium, and fish stocks in the waters of the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman.

The hot, dry United Arab Emirates has almost no groundwater except in a few desert oases, such as the oases of Liwa and Al-Ayn in Abu Dhabi, and in the mountains of Ras al Khaymah and Fujayrah. The emirates have one of the world's highest per capita consumption rates of water, largely because of generous federal government subsidies for the water industry. At present, desalination provides about 80 percent of the domestic supplies. Desalinated water is also used in agriculture, particularly in horticulture. The emirates will have to invest further in desalination to meet their growing demand for water.


The emirates of Ras al Khaymah and Fujayrah contain the main agricultural centers, as they both have better access to water than the other emirates. Agriculture and livestock contribute only 1.8 percent of the GDP. However, the emirates have achieved a significant level of self-sufficiency in several food categories, including vegetables, watermelons, eggs, and dairy products. The emirates are a major date producer for both domestic consumption and export. Many of the farms are small, but since agriculture is supported by generous federal government subsidies, it is no longer a subsistence activity. Fishing is important in some cities, and in small emirates, such as Ajman and Umm al Qaywayn, that have no oil, fishing and agriculture assume a greater importance. A wide variety of fish and crustaceans are harvested, largely for local consumption.


The federal and emirate governments encouraged diversification to avoid overdependence upon oil. Abu Dhabi in particular has used its abundant natural gas to fuel new industries, including petrochemicals and fertilizers. Abu Dhabi now has an important aluminum smelting industry, and aluminum and aluminum-related industries account for 60 percent of the non-oil exports of United Arab Emirates. Dubayy has dry docks and a widening variety of manufacturing industries, and the Jabel Ali Free Zone (JAFZ) in Dubayy hosts 2,500 international firms from more than 100 countries. Most of the manufacturing activity in JAFZ and other free zones elsewhere in the emirates is light engineering and final-stage assembly of goods, mostly electronics. Ash Shariqah (Sharjah) produces plastics, paint, and cement. The federal government is encouraging the development of the hi-tech sector, but the industry is still in its infancy. The construction industry is a major employer, and the major Emirati companies are based in Dubayy. Construction corporations grew rapidly during the 1990s building boom, but the emirates are now oversupplied and the industry is generally unstable, alternating between buoyancy and slumps. Some traditional industries survive, including boatbuilding, decorative arts, and pearling.


Community and social services, such as teaching, health care, and government employment, are significant sources of livelihood. The emirates also boast one of the most highly developed banking and financial sectors in the region. Dubayy International Financial Center, a financial and commercial equivalent of a free zone, is the cornerstone of the United Arab Emirates' strategy for becoming the regional financial and commercial center.

Tourism has grown rapidly, and Dubayy has firmly put itself on the international tourist map with high-profile resort and hotel construction projects, including The Palm, an artificial island off Dubayy that will provide luxury hotel accommodation as well as very expensive homes. East of The Palm, a larger project—The World, a series of 200 artificial islands that will form the shape of the continents—is in the early stages of construction. Dubayy caters to top-of-the-market vacations and attracts visitors with major sports events, including motor racing and the world's richest horse race. Abu Dhabi City is famous for retailing, and its shopping festivals attract tourists from Europe and southern Asia.


Trade is also booming as each emirate has established a free zone—an area in which duties and taxation are not imposed—to encourage foreign companies to set up there. Dubayy City is now a major financial center, and the emirates earn foreign currency by providing financial services to other nations in the region.

Through its membership in the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), the United Arab Emirates has supported a moderate oil-pricing policy calculated to maximize earnings in the long term. Crude oil exports now account for only 45 percent of the emirates' export earnings, indicating its success in diversifying the economy. In addition to oil, natural gas, and petrochemical products, exports include aluminum, paint, and various fruits and vegetables.

In 2007, the emirates exported goods and services worth an estimated $152.1 billion, and imported goods and services worth an estimated $94.7 billion, giving a substantial balance of trade surplus. The principal recipients of exports from the emirates in 2006 were Japan (which took 25.8 percent of the exports), South Korea (9.6 percent), Thailand (5.9 percent), and India (4.5 percent). Imports include finished consumer products and heavy engineering equip-ment, chemicals, food, and vehicles. The main sources of imports in 2006 were the United States (11.5 percent) China (11 percent), India (9.9 percent) Germany (6.2 percent), Japan (5.8 percent), Great Britain (5.6 percent), France (4.1 percent), and Italy (4 percent).


The United Arab Emirates rapidly developed a highly efficient transportation infrastructure as the oil industry boomed, the major cities grew, and service industries flourished. The emirates have a total of 676 miles (1,088 km) of roads, all of which are paved. An additional 2,330 miles (3,750 km) of trails are not classified as roads. The principal highway runs along the Persian Gulf, linking the capitals of six of the seven emirates (from west to east): Abu Dhabi, Dubayy, Ash Shariqah (Sharjah), Ajman, Umm al Qaywayn, and Ras al Khaymah. The seventh emirate, Fujayrah, lies on the Gulf of Oman coast. There are no railroads.

The modern city of Dubayy, the financial center of the United Arab Emirates, stretches along the coast from Dubayy Creek, the site of the original settlement.

Permission: Shutterstock, Arteki

The ambitions of different emirates lead to some duplication of transportation facilities, particularly airports. Although the United Arab Emirates is relatively small, it possesses six international airports, the largest of which is Dubayy International Airport. There are six main ports, including the two busiest, Jabel Ali and Port Rashid, which together form the port of Dubayy. The emirates have a modern telecommunications system, and in 2006, there were more than 1.3 million telephone lines. The number of cellular mobile telephones is around 5.5 million—greater than the number of Emiratis. Around 1.7 million people in the emirates have Internet access.

Citation: "United Arab Emirates." World and Its Peoples: Middle East, Western Asia, and Northern Africa. Marshall Cavendish Digital, 2011. Web. 15 November 2011.

Copyright © 2007 Marshall Cavendish Corporation

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