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United Arab Emirates

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.

Flag of UAE

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?’

Fact file

Monetary unit
Main exports
Human Development Index
Last profiled http://www.newint.org/issue325/title325.htm

At a glance

Country profile: Star rating: 

  • Income distribution
  • Life expectancy
  • Position of women
  • Freedom
  • Literacy
  • Sexual minorities
  • NI Assessment (Politics)