New Internationalist

United Arab Emirates

Issue 434

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) has undergone many transformations throughout its history, but it has often been associated with glamour. From its earliest days when it was governed by Cleopatra, to its inception as the global provider of fine pearls, it is now home to a 7-star luxury hotel, an indoor ski mountain, and is featured in the latest Sex and the City film. However, all of this glamour has not come without a price – especially in political and environmental terms.

Realizing that oil and gas revenues are finite, each of the seven Emirates that comprise the country have diversified their economies in various ways. The seat of political and economic power, Abu Dhabi, focused on Islamic banking and financial markets. Dubai, the most visited of the Emirates, aimed to bring in high-end tourism, and carried out a rather frenzied building of megatowers and land reclamation projects that expanded the area’s territory into land masses in the shapes of the continents of the world, palm trees, and other novel forms. When the credit crunch hit, Dubai’s economy suffered and Abu Dhabi was forced to provide a bailout.

Even if Dubai’s economy has been at least temporarily rescued, the same cannot be said for its environment. Not only does this desert state hold several verdant golf courses for tourists, the temperatures of the sand on some of its beaches are even cooled so that 7-star guests need never worry about burning their tender soles! With even polo ponies living in state-of-the-art air-conditioned quarters, and with virtually no public transport, it is unsurprising that the Worldwide Fund for Nature ranked the UAE as having the worst per capita carbon footprint in the world. The government acknowledges this issue and has invested in renewable energies to some extent, but freely admits that as long as there is a need for fresh water and temperatures in the Gulf region remain high, environmentally costly desalination and air conditioning will continue unabated.

Politically, the UAE is interesting, if not exactly progressive. Once known as the Pirate Coast due to the questionable control exerted by its ports over passing shipping in the Persian Gulf, the British did a ‘protection’ deal with the local Emirs in what then became known as the Trucial States at the beginning of the 19th century, and they became official British protectorates in 1892. The relationship with Britain continued until independence in 1971, at which point Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Ajman, Fujairah, Sharjah and Umm al Qaiwain formed the United Arab Emirates, with Ras al-Khaimah joining a year later.

Just prior to this point, oil was discovered in Abu Dhabi and, as the richest and most powerful of the Emirates, it was decided that this state would serve as the political capital. Sheikh Zayed, the ruler of Abu Dhabi at the time, is thought of as the founding father of the nation.

The very name of the nation implies that it will continue to be governed by Emirs, absolute monarchs, though the United States has been pressuring the UAE to democratize more of its institutions. With such a high standard of living, as well as dizzying per capita incomes, however, there seems to be little appetite among most UAE citizens for democratic protest or reform. As one cynical expatriate stated: ‘Why live in a democracy when you can live in a glamocracy instead?’

Cheryl Morris
United Arab Emirates Fact File
Leader Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayad Al Nahyan.
Economy GNI per capita $26,210 (Saudi Arabia $15,500, UK $45,390).
Monetary unit Dirham
Main exports Oil, gas.
People 4.5 million. Annual population growth rate 4.1%. People per square kilometre 58 (UK 253).
Health Infant mortality 7 per 1,000 live births (Saudi Arabia 18, UK 5). Lifetime risk of maternal death 1 in 1,000 (UK 1 in 8,200).
Environment Sustainability is a strange concept in a country that gained its wealth from fossil fuels and rests on its reputation as having one of the most conspicuous of consumer cultures. The Rub’ al-Khali desert covers almost all the country. Scarcity of water and food security are two concerns the government is currently addressing.
Culture Islamic with a very modern and moneyed twist. The local people are mostly Bedouin descendants but 74% of the population in the 15-64 age-group are foreign workers, mostly from India, Egypt and other Arab states.
Religion Islam (97%), predominantly Sunni, though religious freedom is guaranteed in the constitution, and there are several churches and Hindu temples.
Language Arabic, although English is widely spoken.
Sources UNDP, UNICEF, World Bank, CIA, Economist Intelligence Unit.
Last profiled link July 2000
United Arab Emirates ratings in detail
Income distribution
Very good amongst UAE citizens. Skilled foreign workers are also generally paid well, though unskilled workers must survive on about $360 per month. About 90% of the population has access to clean water, health services and sanitation. There is a cradle to grave welfare state to service all citizens. The incomes of Abu Dhabi and Dubai are much higher than those in the other Emirates, but the poorer states are subsidized.
Previously reviewed
2000
Life expectancy
77 years (Saudi Arabia 73, UK 79).
Previously reviewed
2000
Literacy
90%. Surprisingly, the literacy rate is higher for females (94%) than males (86%). There is gender parity at both primary and secondary level.
Previously reviewed
2000
Position of women
Women’s rights are enshrined in the constitution; 65% of all university students are women, but only 15% of the workforce is female. Attitudes to women working are opening up, however, and cheap childcare, though not state controlled, is abundant. There are no laws dictating women’s dress, but most local women wear the traditional abaya.
Previously reviewed
2000
Freedom
Some areas of government are democratically elected but political freedom is not exactly UAE’s strong suit. The country scores only 3.7 out of 10 on the index of political freedom, compared with 5.05 for both Iraq and Palestine. Political parties are not permitted.
Previously reviewed
2000
Sexual minorities
Homosexuality is illegal. Sodomy between consenting adults can carry anything from a 5-year jail term to the death penalty.
NI Assessment (Politics)
The UAE is one of the most tolerant countries in the Gulf region. But its very name indicates that it is still a monarchy ruled by the decrees of the Emirs, and this is unlikely to change. Half the advisory body to the government was elected for the first time in 2006 – but only by an electorate specially appointed by the Emirs.

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