On Christmas Day, thousands of couples and families wander through the various exhibits at Abu Dhabi’s Louvre. Among the priceless items on display is a vase designed by Keith Haring and impressionist paintings from the likes of Manet and Renoir. It is an impressive feat, resulting from the city council’s $6 billion investment in the arts.
Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates, has sought to establish itself as the cultural hub of the country, distinguishing it from Dubai, which is famous for its shopping malls and restaurants.
The UAE is a relatively new country, formed as a federation of seven emirates. Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Fujairah, Ajman, Sharjah and Umm Al Quwain were the founder members in 1971, with Ras al Khaimah joining the following year. Qatar and Bahrain took part in the country’s founding talks too, but subsequently withdrew.
Previously, the seven sheikhdoms were known as the Trucial States, allied to the British under a series of 19th-century protectoral treaties. The UAE’s population has grown rapidly, from just 70,000 at its founding to 9.4 million today. With the discovery of oil in the 1950s, the country has undergone a massive economic and industrial expansion.
Millions of people from around the world settle here, seeking work and the prospect of increased prosperity afforded by the UAE’s lack of taxation on income. Aside from oil, the country’s economy is largely tourism-based, with 7.8 million migrants supporting its financial and service sectors and making up the majority of the country’s population. By contrast, Emirati citizens are only a small minority and enjoy free education, housing and healthcare.
Much of UAE’s rapid development can be attributed to the exploitation of migrant workers. Cases of withheld wages, confiscated passports and racial discrimination have been well-documented.
Dubai’s Expo 2020, held a year late due to Covid restrictions, saw a new metro station built two hours from downtown Dubai. Expo was advertised as an opportunity for every country to showcase its technological and cultural offerings, attracting businesses and celebrities alike. But workers, primarily from India and other Global South countries, had a different experience. In order to secure work, many paid fees to recruiters and became heavily indebted, even though such practices are illegal in the UAE. Upon arrival, wages were reportedly not fully paid on time, and workers faced racial discrimination.
The government has attempted to rehabilitate its image in line with the sensibilities of the Western expats who now call it home. Dubai opened the Gulf’s first metro system in 2009, complete with women-only carriages and driverless trains. Disabled people, known as ‘people of determination’, are being granted increased protection from discrimination, as well as exemption from public transport, vehicle registration, parking, museum and public park fees.
In 2022, the government announced the country’s first ever corporation tax, in line with neighbouring Qatar and Saudi Arabia, with the rate beginning at nine per cent on profits exceeding $102,000 per year. However, individuals can still gain income from employment, real estate or equity investments without paying any tax. Recent economic reforms suggest the UAE is attempting to shed its reputation as a country solely dependent on oil revenues. But reform of the political system – fashioned to service the exploitation of natural resources and overseas labour – remains a distant prospect.
AT A GLANCE
LEADER: Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan.
ECONOMY: GNI per capita $41,770 (Saudi Arabia $46,130; UK $49,420).
Monetary unit: Emirati dirham.
Main exports: crude and processed oil, natural gas, aluminium, precious metals and gemstones.
The UAE is the seventh largest producer and the sixth largest exporter of oil. Its largest trading partner is China.
HEALTH: Under-5 mortality 6.4 per 1,000 live births (Oman 11, UK 4). Maternal mortality 3 per 100,000 live births.There are 181 doctors per 100,000 residents. In Dubai and Abu Dhabi, private hospitals vastly outnumber government-run facilities.
ENVIRONMENT: Per capita CO2 emissions: 20.50 metric tonnes. 80% of the UAE is desert. Air quality in the cities is poor due to airborne sand and dust; smog and poor visibility are usual. Fresh water is scarce and agriculture is threatened by further desertification. The UAE has pledged to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050 and will host the COP 28 UN Climate Change conference in November 2023.
CULTURE: Emirati culture blends influences of Arabian, Persian and Islamic cultures, along with those of the Indian subcontinent and east Africa. 'Barjeel' wind towers are a defining feature of Emirati architecture.
RELIGION: Muslim 76%, Christian 9%, other 15%. Islam is the official religion. Freedom of worship is outlined in the country’s constitution, on the proviso that it does not conflict with the law or moral guidance of the country.
LANGUAGES: Arabic (official). Other languages commonly spoken are Hindi, Malayalam, Urdu, Pashto, Tagalog and Persian.
Human Development Index: 0.911, ranked 26th globally out of 191 countries (Saudi Arabia 0.875; Oman 0.816).
INCOME DISTRIBUTION ★✩✩✩✩
While a lot of wealth exists in the country, the majority of it is concentrated in the hands of rich Emiratis. The country’s economy is heavily reliant on migrant workers, who make up 88% of the population and are poorly paid. The poverty rate, defined as a daily income of less than 80 dirhams ($22) is 19.5%.
98.13% (95.8% for women, 92.56% for men). Unlike Emirati citizens, children of expats are not entitled to free schooling. Private international schools follow a British or US curriculum.
LIFE EXPECTANCY ★★★★✩
Has climbed rapidly from 41 in 1950 to 79 today (Oman 75, UK, 82). Migrant workers remain at risk of potentially fatal workplace accidents.
POSITION OF WOMEN ★★✩✩✩
Women technically enjoy the same legal status, access to education and inheritance rights as men. However, some rights are dependent on the approval of a male ‘guardian’. Women require a court order to get a divorce, and marital rape is not criminalized. Dubai’s ruler reportedly kidnapped and imprisoned his own daughter after she attempted to leave the country.
Freedom of expression is supposedly guaranteed under the constitution, but the press is subject to censorship and the UAE has become a world leader in electronic surveillance.
SEXUAL MINORITIES ★✩✩✩✩
Homosexuality is illegal and punishable by death, though this penalty is rarely carried out. Gay men risk deportation and imprisonment, but many Western LGBTQI+ expats are attracted to the region and there exists a quiet, underground, gay nightlife scene.
There are no democratic elections in this autocracy made up of seven monarchies. Political parties are not allowed to exist and criticism of the government attracts strict penalties.