The UAE seems, at first glance, to have got rather left behind in the process of twentieth-century state-formation. When the British departed in December 1971, they left behind seven little sheikhdoms whose territories consisted almost entirely of desert, whose combined population numbered barely quarter of a million, and whose hereditary rulers had a history of mutual suspicion and antagonism.
Eighteen years on, the system of feudal emirs remains in place, albeit with the trappings of a modern state and its requisite bureaucracy superimposed. Each emirate is an autonomous entity. Each emir is a member of the UAE Supreme Council which rules the state by decree, unhindered by anything more democratic than a Federal National Council whose 40 members are appointed by - you guessed it - the emirs.
The emirates are theoretically equal within the Union. In practice, the biggest, most populous and wealthiest - Abu Dhabi - is the most powerful. Dubai comes second in the hierarchy and Sharjah third, with the other four - Ras al-Khaimah, Ajman, Fujairah and Umm al-Qaiwain - depending, in effect, on the largesse of the big three to stay afloat.
It is this largesse which is the key to the UAE's existence - Abu Dhabi and Dubai, and possibly Sharjah, could survive economically as single entities, the others could not; the UAE exists because the smaller emirates are subsidized by the big ones.
It is questionable whether the UAE would have survived the turbulence of its early years without the rise in world oil prices in 1973, a little over a year after it came into being. Oil is very much the mainstay of the UAE's economy. Abu Dhabi has by far the most of it, Dubai and Sharjah have modest reserves and all the smaller emirates, except Fujairah, have at least a trickle.
But apart from oil, virtually everything else of economic significance in the UAE has to be imported. Not only are food, consumer goods, labour and the raw materials used in industrial production imported; a great many of the companies which operate here, especially Dubai's Jabal Ali duty-free industrial zone, are from outside the country.
The UAE's reliance on foreign imports, particularly of people, has had the most profound effect on the character of the place. The British colonial administration formally defined the borders of each emirate for the first time in 1951 after a diplomat had travelled around the country by camel asking the Bedouin tribes which sheikh they owed allegiance to. The few towns in those days were mostly small ports; there was little sign of affluence and foreign visitors were a rarity.
But the last 20 years in particular have seen a spectacular transformation. Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Sharjah have large urban centres, dominated by sleek, decidedly non-Middle Eastern architecture. Each emirate has an international airport and tourist facilities, as well as a huge expatriate population, most of it from the Indian sub-continent. Indigenous Arabs now form a little under a quarter of the UAE's 2.2 million inhabitants. Apart from the fact that none of the taxi drivers appear to know any street names, perhaps what most strikes the visitor to many quarters of Abu Dhabi or Dubai is the sound of Urdu, rather than Arabic, on the streets. And perhaps the most remarkable thing about Sharjah, apart from the prostitutes who fly in on charter flights from the former Soviet Union, is its cricket ground, which plays host to international tournaments.
The indigenous Arabs have little interest in cricket, but they get the best of everything else. Health services and education are free for citizens (few migrant workers qualify). Their per-capita income is among the highest in the world.
Politics is largely a matter for the ruling families. There is no representation, no organized labour and little redress for the grievances of expatriates in a judicial system which has often caught the eye of international human-rights organizations. Foreign labourers form the vast majority of those on the receiving end of such punishments as public flogging and beheading.