Country, Middle East, southwestern Asia.
It is a federation of seven states on the eastern coast of the
Arabian Peninsula. They are the emirates of Abū Ẓabī (Abu Dhabi), Dubayy
(Dubai), ʿAjmān, Al-Shāriqah (Sharjah), Umm al-Qaywayn, Raʾs al-Khaymah,
and Al-Fujayrah. Area: 32,280 sq mi (83,600 sq km). Population (2005
est.): 4,690,000. Capital: Abu Dhabi. The indigenous inhabitants are
Arabs, but there are a large number of South Asian and Iranian migrant
workers. Languages: Arabic (official), English, Persian, Urdu, Hindi.
Religions: Islam (official; predominantly Sunni); also Christianity,
Hinduism. Currency: UAE dirham. The UAE’s low-lying desert plain is
broken by the Ḥajar Mountains along the Musandam Peninsula. Three
natural deepwater harbours are located along the Gulf of Oman. The UAE
(mainly Abū Ẓabī) has roughly one-tenth of the world’s petroleum
reserves and significant natural gas deposits, the production of which
are the federation’s principal industries. Other important economic
activities include fishing, livestock herding, and date production. The
federation has one appointive advisory board; its chief of state is the
president, and the head of government is the prime minister. In 1820 the
British signed a peace treaty with the region’s coastal rulers. The
area, formerly called the Pirate Coast, became known as the Trucial
Coast. In 1892 the rulers agreed to entrust foreign relations to
Britain, but the British never assumed sovereignty; each state
maintained full internal control. The states formed the Trucial States
Council in 1960 and in 1971 terminated defense treaties with Britain and
established the six-member federation. Raʾs al-Khaymah joined it in
1972. The UAE aided coalition forces against Iraq in the Persian Gulf
Official name Al-Imārāt al-ʿArabīyah al-Muttaḥidah (United Arab
Form of government federation of seven emirates with one advisory body
(Federal National Council )
Chief of state President
Head of government Prime Minister
Capital Abu Dhabi
Official language Arabic
Official religion Islam
Monetary unit dirham (AED)
Population estimate (2008) 4,660,000
Total area (sq mi) 32,280
Total area (sq km) 83,600
1Twenty seats are appointed by the rulers of the 7 emirates and 20 seats
(as of December 2007) are indirectly elected by the nearly 7,000 sheikhs
in the U.A.E.
federation of seven emirates along the eastern coast of the Arabian
The largest of these emirates, Abū Ẓaby (Abu Dhabi), which comprises
more than three-fourths of the federation’s total land area, is the
centre of its oil industry and borders Saudi Arabia on the federation’s
southern and eastern borders. The port city of Dubai, located at the
base of the mountainous Musandam Peninsula, is the capital of the
emirate of Dubayy (Dubai) and is one of the region’s most vital
commercial and financial centres, housing hundreds of multinational
corporations in a forest of skyscrapers. The smaller emirates of
Al-Shāriqah (Sharjah), ʿAjmān, Umm al-Qaywayn, and Raʾs al-Khaymah also
occupy the peninsula, whose protrusion north toward Iran forms the
Strait of Hormuz linking the Persian Gulf to the Gulf of Oman. The
federation’s seventh member, Al-Fujayrah, faces the Gulf of Oman and is
the only member of the union with no frontage along the Persian Gulf.
Historically the domain of individual Arab clans and families, the
region now comprising the emirates also has been influenced by Persian
culture owing to its close proximity to Iran, and its porous maritime
borders have for centuries invited migrants and traders from elsewhere.
In the 18th century, Portugal and The Netherlands extended their
holdings in the region but retreated with the growth of British naval
power there; following a series of truces with Britain in the 19th
century, the emirates united to form the Trucial States (also called
Trucial Oman or the Trucial Sheikhdoms). The states gained autonomy
following World War II (1939–45), when the trucial states of Bahrain and
Qatar declared independent statehood. The rest were formally united in
1971, with the city of Abu Dhabi serving as the capital. The stability
of the federation has since been tested by rivalries between the
families governing the larger states of Abū Ẓaby and Dubayy, though
external events such as the Persian Gulf War (1990–91) and an ongoing
territorial dispute with Iran have served to strengthen the emirates’
The emirates comprise a mixed environment of rocky desert, coastal
plains and wetlands, and waterless mountains. The seashore is a haven
for migratory waterfowl and draws birdwatchers from all over the world;
the country’s unspoiled beaches and opulent resorts also have drawn
international travelers. Standing at a historic and geographic
crossroads and made up of diverse nationalities and ethnic groups, the
United Arab Emirates present a striking blend of ancient customs and
modern technology, of cosmopolitanism and insularity, and of wealth and
want. The rapid pace of modernization of the emirates prompted travel
writer Jonathan Raban to note of the capital: “The condition of Abu
Dhabi was so evidently mint that it would not have been surprising to
see adhering to the buildings bits of straw and polystyrene from the
crates in which they had been packed.”
The United Arab Emirates is bordered by Qatar to the northwest, Saudi
Arabia to the west and south, and Oman to the east and northeast. It is
slightly smaller in area than Portugal. Since the early 1990s the
emirates have been in a dispute with Iran over the ownership of three
islands: Abū Mūsā and Greater and Lesser Tunb (Ṭunb al-Kubrā and Ṭunb
al-Ṣughrā). In addition, the border with Saudi Arabia has never been
defined, which was not an issue until Saudi Arabia began production at
the Shaybah oil field in the border region in 1998.
Nearly the entire country is desert, containing broad areas of sand.
Some of the world’s largest sand dunes are located east of ʿArādah in
the oases of Al-Liwāʾ. Important oases are at Al-ʿAyn about 100 miles
(160 km) east of Abu Dhabi. Along the eastern portion of the Musandam
Peninsula, the northern extension of the Ḥajar Mountains (also shared by
Oman) offers the only other major relief feature; elevations rise to
about 6,500 feet (2,000 metres) at their highest point. The Persian Gulf
coast is broken by shoals and dotted with islands that offer shelter to
small vessels. There are, however, no natural deepwater harbours; both
Dubayy’s Port Rāshid and the gigantic Port Jabal ʿAlī, 20 miles (32 km)
southwest of Dubai city, are man-made, as are major ports in Abū Ẓaby,
Al-Shāriqah, and Raʾs al-Khaymah. The coast of the Gulf of Oman is more
regular and has three natural harbours—Dibā, Khawr Fakkān, and Kalbā.
The United Arab Emirates has no perennial streams nor any regularly
occurring bodies of surface water. Precipitation, what little falls, is
drained from the mountains in the form of seasonal wadis that terminate
in inland salt flats, or sabkhahs, whose drainage is frequently blocked
by the country’s constantly shifting dunes. In the far west the Maṭṭī
Salt Flat extends southward into Saudi Arabia, and coastal sabkhahs,
which are occasionally inundated by the waters of the Persian Gulf, lie
in the areas around Abu Dhabi.
The climate is hot and humid along the coast and is hotter still, but
dry, in the interior. Rainfall averages only 4 to 6 inches (100 to 150
mm) annually, though it fluctuates considerably from year to year. The
average January temperature is 64 °F (18 °C), while in July the
temperature averages 91 °F (33 °C). Summertime highs can reach 115 °F
(46 °C) on the coast and 120 °F (49 °C) or more in the desert. In
midwinter and early summer, winds known as the shamāl (Arabic:
“norther”) blow from the north and northwest, bearing dust and sand.
Plant and animal life
Because of the desert climate, vegetation is scanty and largely limited
to the low shrubs that offer forage to nomadic herds; but millions of
trees, notably mangroves, have been planted in Abū Ẓaby and have
provided habitats for various species. In the oases, date palms are
raised together with alfalfa (lucerne). Fruits are grown, and the
Al-ʿAyn oases east of Abu Dhabi are known for their mangoes. Animal life
includes domesticated goats, sheep, and camels, together with cattle and
poultry, which were introduced in more recent times. Wildlife consists
of predators such as the caracal, sand cat (Felis margarita), and the
Ruppell’s (Vulpes ruppelli) and red foxes; larger animals such as the
Arabian oryx and Arabian and Persian gazelles; smaller mammals such as
the cape hare, lesser jerboa, and various types of gerbil; and a variety
of snakes and lizards. The gulf waters harbour schools of mackerel,
grouper, tuna, and porgies, as well as sharks and occasional whales. In
the 1990s the government initiated a conservation and management program
to preserve and protect desert animal and plant life.
Only about one-fifth of the emirates’ residents are citizens. The
remainder are mostly foreign workers and their dependents, with South
Asians constituting the largest of these groups. Arabs from countries
other than the United Arab Emirates and Iranians account for another
significant portion. Southeast Asians, including many Filipinos, have
immigrated in increasing numbers to work in various capacities.
Languages and religion
The official language of the United Arab Emirates is Arabic. Modern
Standard Arabic is taught in schools, and most native Emiratis speak a
dialect of Gulf Arabic that is generally similar to that spoken in
surrounding countries. A number of languages are spoken among the
expatriate community, including various dialects of Pashto, Hindi,
Balochi, and Persian. English is also widely spoken.
About three-fourths of the population is Muslim, of which roughly
four-fifths belong to the Sunni branch of Islam; Shīʿite minorities
exist in Dubayy and Al-Shāriqah. There are also small but growing
numbers of Christians and Hindus in the country.
Settlement patterns and demographic trends
The population of the United Arab Emirates is concentrated primarily in
cities along both coasts, although the interior oasis settlement of
Al-ʿAyn has grown into a major population centre as well. Several
emirates have exclaves within other emirates.
The federation’s birth rate is one of the lowest among the Persian
Gulf states, and the infant mortality rate has decreased substantially.
Owing to the large number of foreign workers, more than two-thirds of
the population is male. The country’s death rate is well below the world
average, and the average life expectancy is about 75 years. The major
causes of death are cardiovascular disease, accidents and poisonings,
The federation’s economy is dominated by the petroleum produced in the
Abū Ẓaby and Dubayy emirates. The wealthiest of the emirates, Abū Ẓaby
contains nearly one-tenth of the world’s proven oil reserves and
contributes more than half of the national budget.
Agriculture and fishing
Agricultural production—centred largely in the emirates of Raʾs
al-Khaymah and Al-Fujayrah, in the two exclaves of ʿAjmān, and at
Al-ʿAyn—has expanded considerably through the increased use of wells and
pumps to provide water for irrigation. However, agriculture contributes
only a small fraction of gross domestic product (GDP) and employs less
than one-tenth of the workforce. Dates are a major crop, as are
tomatoes, cucumbers, and eggplants, and the United Arab Emirates is
nearly self-sufficient in fruit and vegetable production. The country
also produces enough eggs, poultry, fish, and dairy products to meet its
own needs but must import most other foodstuffs, notably grains. The
Arid Lands Research Centre at Al-ʿAyn experiments with raising crops in
a desert environment. Most commercial fishing is concentrated in Umm
al-Qaywayn, and the emirates have one of the largest fishing sectors in
the Arab world.
Resources and power
Oil was discovered in Abū Ẓaby in 1958, and the government of that
emirate owns a controlling interest in all oil-producing companies in
the federation through the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC).
Petroleum production contributes about one-third GDP but employs only a
tiny fraction of the workforce. The largest petroleum concessions are
held by an ADNOC subsidiary, Abu Dhabi Marine Operating Company
(ADMA-OPCO), which is partially owned by British, French, and Japanese
interests. One of the main offshore fields is located in Umm al-Shāʾif.
Al-Bunduq offshore field is shared with neighbouring Qatar but is
operated by ADMA-OPCO. A Japanese consortium operates an offshore rig at
Al-Mubarraz, and other offshore concessions are held by American
companies. Onshore oil concessions are held by another ADNOC company,
the Abu Dhabi Company for Onshore Oil Operations, which is likewise
partially owned by American, French, Japanese, and British interests.
Other concessions also are held by Japanese companies.
Petroleum production in Dubayy began in 1969. There are offshore oil
fields at Ḥaql Fatḥ, Fallah, and Rāshid. Dubayy owns a controlling
interest in all oil produced in the emirate. Al-Shāriqah began producing
oil in 1974; another field, predominantly yielding natural gas, was
discovered six years later. In 1984 oil production began off the shore
of Raʾs al-Khaymah, in the Persian Gulf. Dubayy produces about one-third
of the country’s total output of petroleum.
The federation’s natural gas reserves are among the world’s largest,
and most fields are found in Abū Ẓaby. In the late 1990s the United Arab
Emirates began investing heavily to develop its natural gas sector, both
for export and to fire domestic thermal power plants; at the beginning
of the 21st century, however, crude petroleum exports continued to far
outstrip exports of natural gas.
The emirates have attempted to diversify their economy to avoid complete
dependence on oil, and manufacturing has played a significant part in
that effort. A petrochemical industrial complex has been established at
Al-Ruways, 140 miles (225 km) southwest of Abu Dhabi city, with a
petroleum refinery, a gas fractionation plant, and an ammonia and urea
plant. Dubayy’s revenues have been invested in projects such as a dry
dock and a trade centre; expansion of its airport began in 2002, and
additional hotels have been built, including the striking Burj al-ʿArab
(Tower of the Arabs), which opened in the late 1990s. Construction on
the city’s Burj Dubai (“Dubai Tower”) continued in 2007, when the
project, then still in progress, became both the world’s tallest
building and the tallest freestanding structure. Al-Shāriqah has built a
cement plant, a plastic-pipe factory, and paint factories. Manufacturing
accounts for about one-seventh of GDP and employs a comparable
proportion of the workforce.
The Central Bank of the United Arab Emirates was established in 1980,
with Dubayy and Abū Ẓaby each depositing half of their revenues in the
institution. The bank also issues the UAE dirham, the emirates’ national
currency. There are commercial, investment, development, foreign, and
domestic banks as well as a bankers’ association. In 1991 the worldwide
operations of Abū Ẓaby’s Bank of Credit and Commerce International
(BCCI), partly owned by the ruling family, were closed down after
corrupt practices were uncovered, and the emirate subsequently created
the Abu Dhabi Free Zone Authority to develop a new financial centre. The
emirates’ first official stock exchange, the Dubai Financial Market (Sūq
Dubayy al-Mālī), was opened in 2000, followed by the Dubai International
Financial Exchange in 2005.
Finance is an important component of the emirates’ economy, and the
country’s liberal banking regulations have made it a popular destination
for foreign funds, both open and clandestine. Dubai in particular has
become a major world banking centre and a hub for unofficial financial
institutions known as ḥawālahs (or hundīs), which specialize in
transferring money internationally beyond state regulation. While such
institutions are used primarily to transfer remittances, they also have
been a way for terrorist organizations and criminal groups to move and
launder illicit funds.
Trade has long been important to Dubayy and Al-Shāriqah. Even before the
discovery of oil, Dubayy’s prosperity was assured by its role as the
Persian Gulf’s leading entrepôt. (It was known especially as a route for
smuggling gold into India.) In 1995 the United Arab Emirates joined the
World Trade Organization and since then has developed a number of
free-trade zones, technology parks, and modern ports in order to attract
trade. The large free-trade zone of Port Jabal ʿAlī was developed during
the 1980s and has done much to attract foreign manufacturing industries
interested in producing goods for export.
Exports are dominated by petroleum and natural gas. Imports consist
primarily of machinery and transport equipment, gold, precious stones
and foods. Major trading partners include Japan, western European
countries, South Korea, and China. A large amount of trade is in
reexports to neighbouring gulf countries.
The service sector, including public administration, defense, tourism,
and construction, employs roughly two-fifths of the workforce and
accounts for some one-fifth of GDP. Tourism has played an increasing
role in the economy since the late 1990s. In order to develop its
tourism sector, the government has encouraged hotel, resort, and
restaurant construction and airport expansion.
Labour and taxation
Expatriate workers constitute about nine-tenths of the labour force, and
more in some private sector areas. Conditions for these workers often
can be harsh, and at the beginning of the 21st century, the state did
not allow workers to organize. Like other gulf states that depend
heavily on foreign workers, the emirates have attempted to reduce the
number of foreign employees—in a program known as Emiratization—by
providing incentives for businesses to hire Emirati nationals. There are
no personal taxes in the United Arab Emirates, and corporate taxes are
only levied on oil companies and foreign banks. The bulk of government
revenue is generated from nontax incomes, largely from the sale of
petroleum products. In the early 21st century the expatriate labour
issue persisted despite landmark developments. New laws were instituted
that ban work during the heat of the midday hours in summer and that
prohibit the use of children (largely expatriate) as jockeys in camel
races. In addition, a number of strikes and protests in 2005 by unpaid
expatriate labourers against a major construction and development
company were resolved in favour of the workers. Early in 2006, the
government announced the drafting of a new law permitting the formation
of unions and wage bargaining; later that year, however, it instead
passed a law permitting the deportation of striking workers, and worker
organization remained illegal.
Transportation and telecommunications
An excellent road system, developed in the late 1960s and ’70s, carries
motor vehicles throughout the country and links it to its neighbours.
The addition of a tunnel to the bridges connecting Dubai city and the
nearby commercial centre of Dayrah facilitates the movement of traffic
across the small saltwater inlet that separates them. The cities of Abu
Dhabi, Dubai, Sharjah, Raʾs al-Khaymah, and Al-Fujayrah are served by
international airports; a sixth airport at Al-ʿAyn was completed in the
mid-1990s. The airport at Dubai is one of the busiest in the Middle
East. The federation has a number of large and modern seaports,
including the facilities at Dubayy’s Port Rāshid, which is serviced by a
vast shipyard, and Port Jabal ʿAlī, situated in one of the largest
man-made harbours in the world and one of the busiest ports in the gulf.
Of the smaller harbours on the Gulf of Oman, Al-Shāriqah has a modest
port north of the city. In September 2009 the first portion of a
remote-controlled rapid-transit metro line—the gulf region’s first metro
system—began operations in Dubai. Additional public transit projects,
including monorail service in Abu Dhabi and linkages to the Saudi rail
networks, were under consideration.
The state-controlled Emirates Telecommunications Corporation, known
as Etisalat (Ittiṣālāt), is a major telecommunications provider in the
country. Radio, television, telephone, and cellular telephone service is
prevalent and widely used. In 2000 Etisalat began providing Internet
service, and the emirates soon had one of the largest subscriber bases
per capita in the Middle East. In 2005 a second licensed operator,
Emirates Integrated Telecommunications Company (du), began providing
telephone and high-speed Internet service, and in 2006 they reached an
agreement with Etisalat to link their networks.
Government and society
The highest governmental authority is the Supreme Council of Rulers,
which is composed of the quasi-hereditary rulers of the seven emirates.
The president and vice president of the federation are elected for
five-year terms by the Supreme Council from among its members. The
president appoints a prime minister and a cabinet. The unicameral
legislature, the Federal National Council, is an advisory body made up
of 40 members appointed by the individual emirates for two-year terms. A
provisional constitution was ratified in 1971 and was made permanent in
1996 by the Supreme Council.
The United Arab Emirates has a federal system of government, and any
powers not assigned to the federal government by the constitution
devolve to the constituent emirates. Generally, the distribution of
power within the federal system is similar to those in other such
systems—for example, the federation government administers foreign
policy, determines broad economic policy, and runs the social welfare
system—and a significant amount of power is exercised at the individual
emirate level, notably in Abū Ẓaby and Dubayy.
The constitution calls for a legal code based on Sharīʿah (Islamic law).
In practice, the judiciary blends Western and Islamic legal principles.
At the federal level the judicial branch consists of the Union Supreme
Court and several courts of first instance: the former deals with
emirate-federal or inter-emirate disputes and crimes against the state,
and the latter cover administrative, commercial, and civil disputes
between individuals and the federal government. Other legal matters are
left to local judicial bodies.
Until the beginning of the 21st century, there were no political parties
in the emirates, and no elections were held. In late 2006 a limited
number of participants were permitted to vote in the first-ever
elections. An electoral college of about 7,000 (less than 1 percent of
the population) was eligible to participate in the selection of half of
the membership of the advisory Federal National Council; the other half
was to remain designated by appointment. On the whole, leadership in
each emirate falls to that emirate’s most politically prominent tribe
(an agnatic lineage group composed of a number of related families), and
the paramount leader, the emir, is selected by the notables of the
ruling tribe from among their number—this is usually, but not always, a
son of the previous emir. Each tribe, however, has its own leader, or
sheikh, and a certain degree of political pluralism is necessary to
maintain the ruling family’s position. This is largely facilitated by
the institution called the majlis, the council meeting. During the
majlis the leader hears grievances, mediates disputes, and disperses
largesse, and, in theory, anyone under the leader’s rule must be granted
access to the majlis.
The emirates’ defense forces were merged in 1976, but the forces in
Dubayy and Abū Ẓaby have retained some independence. The Supreme Council
has made the right to raise armed forces a power of the national
government. In 2006 the Supreme National Security Council, which
included the president, prime minister, and chief of staff of the armed
forces, among others, was formed to deal with the emirates’ security
needs. The number of uniformed military personnel is high for a country
the size of the emirates, as is total military spending per capita. Most
personnel are in the army, but the emirates maintain a small navy and
air force, and a large number of expatriates serve in the military.
Health and welfare
Hospital services are free to nationals, and medical services are
concentrated in Dubayy and Abū Ẓaby, which have numerous hospitals,
child-welfare clinics, and other health facilities. In the late 1990s
the emirates began privatizing health care, which led to a significant
rise in the number of hospitals and physicians. Government spending on
health care has also increased.
A considerable proportion of government spending, at both the federal
and local levels, is devoted to constructing and financing housing and
to developing civil infrastructure such as power, water, and waste
removal. The federation government makes housing available to citizens
through direct low-interest loans, subsidies on rental units, and grants
of housing at no charge, and thousands of Emiratis have taken advantage
of these programs.
Education in the emirates is free and mandatory at the primary level for
all children from ages 6 to 12. Secondary education is not compulsory.
There are a number of fine institutions of higher education in the
emirates, and both boys and girls attend public school. Female students
far outnumber males at the United Arab Emirates University, which opened
at Al-ʿAyn in 1977, and Zayed University (1998) provides women with
technical education. At the beginning of the 21st century, more than
three-fourths of the population was literate, and the female literacy
rate exceeded that for men.
The cultural traditions of the United Arab Emirates are rooted in Islam
and resonate with the wider Arab world, especially with the neighbouring
states of the Persian Gulf. The federation has experienced the impact of
Islamic resurgence, though Islam in the emirates is generally less
austere than in Saudi Arabia. Tribal identities in the United Arab
Emirates remain fairly strong, despite urbanization and the presence of
a large expatriate community, and the family is still considered the
strongest and most cohesive social unit.
Daily life and social customs
In several ways, change is apparent in the federation’s cultural life.
Changes in attitudes toward marriage and the employment of women are
discernible. Some women are now given more choice in a marriage partner,
and they have gained greater access to education and some types of
professional work. New forms of entertainment, ranging from football
(soccer) matches to DVD players, have affected taste and behaviour.
Although few Emiratis retain the lifeways of their
forebears—practicing a nomadic lifestyle or plying the Persian Gulf in
search of fish and pearls—many traditional modes of living continue. The
major Islamic holidays, including the two ʿīds (festivals), ʿĪd al-Fiṭr
and ʿĪd al-Aḍḥā, are observed among the Muslim majority, and traditional
dress is still the norm. For women, traditional attire consists of a
light chemise known as a dirʿ, which is often worn beneath a more ornate
dress (thawb). Beneath the dress a sirwāl, a type of loose trouser, is
worn. Outside the home or in the presence of strangers, women still
cover themselves with a dark cloak known as an ʿabāyah and cover their
heads with a scarf called a shāl, which may also serve as a veil (ḥijāb
or burquʿ). Fabrics are often delicate, colourful, and highly
embroidered, and Emirati women wear a variety of fine gold and silver
The traditional garb for men consists of a long, simple, ankle-length
garment known as a dishdashah (or thawb). Usually made of white cotton,
the dishdashah may also be of a heavier material and may be made in a
variety of colours. The standard head covering is the ghuṭrah, a light
scarf (usually white or white and red checkered, also known as a
kaffiyeh) held in place by a black cord of camel hair known as an ʿiqāl.
Colour, style, and material of head-wear may vary among groups.
Emirati cuisine reflects the variety of cultural influences that the
country has experienced over the centuries. Hummus, fūl (spiced bean
paste), falafel, and shāwurmah (shwarma; broiled meat served on flat
bread) are dishes standard to the Arab world, whereas the influence of
Iranian cuisine can be seen in the Emirati preference for rice as a
staple and ingredients such as saffron, cardamom, and rose water as
flavouring in desserts. As in all countries of the region, lamb and
chicken are the preferred meats, and fresh fruits—including dates, figs,
lemons, and limes—vegetables, and unleavened bread (khubz) are daily
fare. The preferred drink is coffee, served in the popular fashion—hot,
strong, and sweet.
As is true of other countries of the Arabian Peninsula, traditional arts
such as pottery, weaving, and metalworking occupy a prominent place in
cultural life. The manufacture of handicrafts is an economic mainstay
for smaller villages, providing goods to sell in the souks (open-air
markets) that lie at the heart of small towns and large cities alike.
Traditional storytelling remains a much-admired art form, and Emirati
culture, like Arab culture on the whole, esteems poetry, whether it is
classical, contemporary, or the Bedouin vernacular form called nabaṭī.
Traditional music, such as the ḥudāʾ—sung originally by caravanners
while on the trail—is enjoyed alongside popular music from abroad, and
traditional dances such as the ʿayyālah (often called ʿarḍah), a type of
sword dance, are performed on special occasions.
The Ministry of Information and Culture sponsors a number of events
annually, including plays and music festivals, and helps support the
numerous folklore associations in the emirates. The Sharjah Theatre
Festival brings together talent from all seven emirates. Annual
international book fairs in Sharjah and Abu Dhabi cities are highly
regarded, and film festivals in the emirates are gaining in popularity
and reputation. The Dubai Air Show has become a major regional event.
Dubai Museum is located in al-Fahīdī Fort and features displays on
Bedouin life, local history, dances, and musical instruments. The fort
is also home to a military museum. Al-ʿAyn is the site of a museum
devoted to Bedouin culture and the emirates’ pre-oil history. Sharjah
city features a noted natural history museum. Dubai city is growing as a
centre for regional film, television, and music production.
Sports and recreation
Sports are popular in the United Arab Emirates and are strongly
supported by the government. The Ministry of Youth and Sports oversees
and encourages the many groups, clubs, and associations that provide
sports-related activities. Football (soccer) is the most-watched
spectator sport, and horse racing also enjoys widespread popularity. The
federation is also a major centre for camel racing, a traditional sport
that became increasingly popular late in the 20th century, and for
falconry, once an important means of hunting. Dubayy hosts many
international sporting events, most notably for golf, tennis, rugby, and
boat racing. The country made its Olympic debut at the 1984 Summer
Media and publishing
The news media are concentrated in Abū Ẓaby, Dubayy, and Al-Shāriqah. A
number of daily newspapers are published, in both Arabic and English.
Radio and television programs are broadcast daily from Abū Ẓaby, Dubayy,
Al-Shāriqah, and Raʾs al-Khaymah, in those same languages.
This discussion focuses on the United Arab Emirates since the 19th
century. For a treatment of earlier periods and of the country in its
regional context, see Arabia, history of.
In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the dominant tribal
faction was the Āl Qawāsim (singular: Qāsimī), whose ships controlled
the maritime commerce (notably fishing and pearling) concentrated in the
lower Persian Gulf and in much of the Indian Ocean. Attacks on British
and Indian ships led to a British naval attack in 1819 that defeated the
Qāsimī forces, and the British became dominant in the region.
The Āl Qawāsim thus lost power and influence in the region, and the
Banū Yās tribal confederation of Abū Ẓaby (Abu Dhabi) became dominant.
The Banū Yās were centred on the Al-ʿAyn and Al-Liwāʾ oases of Abū Ẓaby,
and their strength was land-based. Under the leadership of the Āl Nahyān
(members of the Āl Bū Falāḥ tribe), the Banū Yās have been the most
powerful element in the region since the mid-19th century. The principal
sheikhs along the coast signed a series of agreements during that
century—a general treaty of peace in 1820, the perpetual maritime truce
in 1853 (which gave the Trucial Coast its name), and exclusive
agreements in 1892 restricting their foreign relations to British
discretion—and the sheikhdoms became known as the Trucial States.
A council of the Trucial States began to meet semiannually in 1952 to
discuss administrative issues. In January 1968, following the
announcement by the British government that its forces would be
withdrawn from the Persian Gulf by late 1971, Trucial Oman and the
sheikhdoms of Qatar and Bahrain initiated plans to form a confederation.
After three years of negotiations, however, Qatar and Bahrain decided to
become independent sovereign states, and the former Trucial States,
excluding Raʾs al-Khaymah, announced the formation of the United Arab
Emirates in December 1971. Raʾs al-Khaymah joined the federation in
The struggle for centralization
Abū Ẓaby initiated a movement toward centralization in December 1973,
when several of its former cabinet members took positions with the
federal government. In May 1976 the seven emirates agreed to merge their
armed forces, and in November of that year a provision was added to the
constitution that gave the federal government the right to form an army
and purchase weapons. Conflicts regarding centralization within the
government in 1978 prompted Dubayy and Raʾs al-Khaymah to refuse to
submit their forces to federal command, and Dubayy began purchasing
weapons independently. A proposal to form a federal budget, merge
revenues, and eliminate internal boundaries was rejected by Dubayy and
Raʾs al-Khaymah, in spite of strong domestic support. Dubayy ended its
opposition, however, when its ruler, Sheikh Rāshid ibn Saʿīd al-Maktūm,
was offered the premiership of the federal government; he took office in
July 1979. Sheikh Zāyid ibn Sulṭān al-Nahyān of Abū Ẓaby served as
president of the United Arab Emirates from 1971 to his death in 2004,
when he was succeeded by his son Sheikh Khalifa ibn Zāyid al-Nahyān as
ruler of Abū Ẓaby and president of the emirates. Sheikh Rāshid of Dubayy
died in 1990, and his positions as ruler of Dubayy and vice president
and prime minister of the United Arab Emirates were assumed,
successively, by his sons Sheikh Maktūm ibn Rāshid al-Maktūm (1990–2006)
and, since 2006, Sheikh Muhammad ibn Rāshid al-Maktūm.
In 2006 the United Arab Emirates held its first elections. A very
limited electoral college was permitted to vote for the selection of
half of the membership of the advisory Federal National Council, the
other half of which would remain designated by appointment.
The regime of Ruhollah Khomeini in Iran and the subsequent Iran-Iraq War
(1980–88) created problems for the United Arab Emirates. The resurgence
of Islamic fundamentalism posed a double threat to the federation’s
stability by generating unrest among the Iranian Shīʿites living in the
emirates and providing inspiration to the growing numbers of young
activist Sunnis, who found the existing political order unsupportive and
uncommitted to upholding Islamic values.
Fighting during the Iran-Iraq War broke out within a few miles of the
emirates’ coast when Iran and Iraq began to attack tankers in the
Persian Gulf. The intensity of such threats moved the emirates to join
with Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Kuwait to form the Gulf
Cooperation Council (GCC) in 1981. The council was designed to
strengthen the security of its members and to promote economic
cooperation. The United Arab Emirates joined Saudi Arabia and the other
GCC states in condemning Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990. It provided
facilities for Western military forces and contributed troops for the
liberation of Kuwait in early 1991. The emirates also became a member of
both the United Nations and the Arab League in 1991.
The emirates, backed by fellow GCC members, objected vigorously when
in 1992 Iran strengthened its control over the disputed islands of Abū
Mūsa and the Tunbs (Ṭunb al-Kubrā and Ṭunb al-Ṣughrā), both seized by
Iran in 1971. Iran continued to engage in development activities on the
islands throughout the decade, including the establishment of an airport
on Abū Mūsa and a power station on Ṭunb al-Kubrā in 1996, further
straining relations between the two countries; by 2006 no conclusive
resolution to these disputes had been reached. The emirates responded by
moving closer to the Western powers while maintaining a confrontational
stance toward Iran.
In the late 1990s the federation was one of only three
countries—along with Pakistan and Saudi Arabia—to recognize the Taliban
regime of Afghanistan. The emirates broke relations with that group in
2001, however, when the Taliban refused to extradite Islamic militant
Osama bin Laden, accused of organizing the attacks on the World Trade
Center in New York City and on the Pentagon outside of Washington, D.C.,
on September 11.
In early 2006 a fierce debate emerged over the move by state-owned
Dubai Ports World (DP World) to take over management of a number of U.S.
ports through its acquisition of the British firm that had previously
run the ports. Citing security fears, the U.S. Congress threatened to
block the deal, which was supported by Pres. George W. Bush. Though
political confrontation was averted when DP World committed to divesting
of the ports shortly thereafter, the incident provoked strong
international debate. In 2007 state-backed Dubai Aerospace Enterprises
was also forced to back out of its proposal to purchase a majority stake
in the Auckland International Airport in New Zealand; the deal,
supported by airport board officials, was faced with overwhelming local
council and public opposition.
Jill Ann Crystal