United Arab Emirates
History & Background
Few countries in history have experienced, in less than four decades, a huge shift in income and development comparable to that of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) during the last part of the twentieth century. The UAE developed a public national educational system in a thirty year period that is similar to what Western countries established in over a hundred year period. Since the early 1960s the UAE has emerged from relative obscurity in global affairs to become one of the wealthiest and most dynamic of the smaller countries of the world. The rapid infrastructure development in virtually every corner of the country provides visual evidence of immense change. Public and private construction and modern consumption patterns are in evidence throughout the country.
Developing a diversified economic base and sophisticated modern cities equipped with advanced telecommunications, electricity, and utilities are among many measures being taken by the UAE federal government to provide a high standard of living and quality of life and to advance the skills and human resources of its citizens. Social development efforts, most particularly the nurturing of the country's citizens or "human capital," have been a priority of the UAE government since the early years of the federation. Immense resources have been applied to provide modern social and economic development infrastructure in education, health, and social welfare.
The United Arab Emirates is a federation of seven independent states located in the southeastern corner of the Arabian Peninsula. It is in a very tough geopolitical neighborhood. The politics of the region includes differences in geographical names. The "Persian" or "Arabian Gulf" borders the region to the north, Saudi Arabia to the south and west, and Oman to the east. Before the discovery of oil in the 1950s, the UAE was a group of low-income emirates under the protection of the British. Oil brought rapid growth and modernization to the area, and these small states became independent as the UAE in 1971.
Most of the country is desert but the UAE's proven oil reserves make up almost one-tenth of the world's total oil, with about ninety percent of the UAE's oil in the emirate of Abu Dhabi. It is quite hot during the summer months (May to October), with temperatures reaching 49C (120F).
Population estimates of the country in 2000 ranged from 2.6 to nearly 3 million. About 85 percent of the country's population is urban. Abu Dhabi is the largest city and is the national capital. It serves as the financial, transportation, and communications center of a major petroleum-producing area. Abu Dhabi also has a large port and is home to federal government ministries and embassies. Dubai is the main trading center of the entire Gulf, has the principal port facilities of the UAE as well as its busiest airport, and has several large commercial enterprises. The UAE has four other international airports.
Several features of the UAE's demography are unusual. The population in 1995 was 15 times larger than it was in 1965, largely due to the immigration of male expatriate workers. Four-fifths of the UAE's inhabitants are foreign workers and their dependents. The UAE also has a very youthful population because of the influx of young foreign workers, a cultural preference for large families, and greatly improved medical care. There is a significant imbalance in the sex ratios, with some national expatriate groups having about ten males for every female.
The native population of the UAE is overwhelmingly Arab. Generally a different tribe dominates each emirate. About two-thirds of the UAE's non-native populations are Asians (largely Indians, Pakistanis, Sri Lankans, Bangladeshis, and Filipinos), and the other third are Iranians or Arabs (primarily Jordanians, Palestinians, and Egyptians). Although the huge population share of expatriates has caused some concern over its possible impact on security and on social and cultural values, the level of tensions between the various ethnic communities is slight. The UAE is noted for a very low level of crime; violent behavior is rare. Standards for public conduct are high. Expatriates may be expelled for minor law violations. There are a sizeable number of undocumented residents who have overstayed temporary visas and are casually employed.
Arabic is the official language of the UAE. English is also widely spoken, as are Hindi, Urdu, and Persian. Islam is the official religion of the country and all Emiratis and a majority of the expatriates are Muslims. The constitution guarantees religious freedom and there are some Christian churches in the country. The density of mosques in the urban areas is very high. Two or three mosques may be in sight of one another.
The culture of the UAE is a blend of traditional and modern elements, which is open to many types of influences and change. The religion of Islam and the heritage of a traditional, tribal Arab society form the basis of a stable and conservative social structure. Censorship of media is routine. There is, however, a degree of openness and a tolerant atmosphere that permits expatriates opportunities to enjoy familiar entertainments and leisure activities, including the discreet use of alcohol.
The most conservative arenas of life in the UAE concern women and male-female interaction. For most Emirati women the home remains the basic sphere of activity. Younger women, benefiting from their access to modern education, are playing a wider role in society but, with only about fourteen percent of the small overall Emirati labor force being female, their numbers are few. Arranged marriages are the norm and family members carefully restrict the conduct of young women. Marriage to a cousin or within one's class is a preferred form. The number of Emirati men marrying non-Emirati women has increased in recent years and is considered by the government a threat to national culture that requires intervention. The government is actively involved in promoting marriages among its nationals.
Reflecting a mix of modern and traditional life, clothing styles include Western and indigenous dress and the national dress of several other countries. A great variety of dress is manifest in public places, including that of groups from South and Southeast Asia. Most Emirati men wear the dishdasha, a white, loose-fitting garment that is comfortable in hot weather. Most women wear the black abayah and some also wear a facemask called the burka, although this tradition is less common among younger women.
Most of the population has modern air-conditioned housing, either in apartments or villa-style houses, a great contrast with the simple dwellings of forty or more years ago. The small rural population lives in a more traditional style, and a few Bedouins still live nomadically in tents. Similarly, local foods represent a blend of traditional Arab dishes, such as grilled lamb with spiced rice, with South Asian, Chinese, European and increasingly popular American fast foods readily available in urban areas.
Traditional sports, such as falconry and horse and camel racing, remain popular with newer sports, particularly soccer (football). Tribal identities continue to be expressed through loyalty to some UAE football teams. There are several internationally known and broadcast competitions held each year in the UAE in golf, tennis, horseracing, auto cross, motor-rallying, and powerboat racing. Most Emiratis enjoy family-centered entertainment, including routine visits with a network of friends and relatives and watching video media at home. Cell phones are in common use throughout the country and contribute to daily interaction.
Traditional Islamic rituals remain important, especially the Eid al-Fitr and the Eid al-Adha, the festivals that mark the end of Ramadan (a month of fasting) and the conclusion of the haj (pilgrimage to Mecca) on the Islamic calendar. On special occasions Emiratis perform traditional dances to musical accompaniment. The commitment to preserving traditional arts and culture is evident both at the popular level and in the political leadership. Each emirate devotes considerable resources to maintaining museums and libraries. Sharjah has developed nine museums within extensive arts and culture district and a vast University City complex, which includes the campuses of five institutions of higher learning.
There is a strong commercial tradition in the UAE and trading relationships with other countries are longstanding. Trade with India and China expanded in the early Islamic period, with Julfar (in present-day Ras al Khaymah) one of many areas currently being examined by archaeologists, serving as one of the leading ports.
European intervention in the area began with the Portuguese in the early sixteenth century. From the mid-seventeenth century the British and Dutch competed for domination, with Britain coming out on top. By about 1800, the Qawasim, the ruling clans of Sharjah and Ras al Khaymah today, had become a maritime power in the lower gulf, attacking ships from British-ruled India. Labeling their opponents as "pirates," the British defeated the Qawasim fleet 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. By 1892 the British had taken over the states' foreign relations and external security and the states remained under British protection until 1971.
The British, who were principally concerned with the security of the UK-India trade routes and Gulf maritime commerce, rarely directly intervened in the states' internal affairs. The British drew upon a small but sophisticated group of civil servants to manage political and military relations. The most significant results of British domination were the establishment of an embryonic government bureaucracy, a general peace, the introduction of the Western concept of territorial or nation-states, and the creation in 1952 of the Trucial States Council to promote cooperation among the seven rulers, which provided the basis for the future leadership of the UAE.
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