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United Arab Emirates: Country Profile


United Arab Emirates: Country Profile

The United Arab Emirates



Official country name: United Arab Emirates
Area: 32,000 sq miles (82,880 sq km)
Population: 4.4 million (2007 est.). About four-fifth of the UAE’s population is foreign.
Median age: 30.1
Ethnic Groups: Emirati Arabs, 19 percent, other Arabs and Iranians 23 percent, South Asian 50 percent, others, 8 percent, based on 1982 estimates. GDP and GDP per capita: $163.1 billion and $32,985 (2006 estimates)

Government and Politics:

The UAE is a federation of seven autonomous emirates: Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Ajman, Al Fujayrah, Sharjah, Ras al Khaymah, and Quwayn. The Federal Supreme Council, the highest authority in the Emirates, is made up of the seven unelected rulers of each emirate. The council elects the president to a 5-year term. The president appoints the prime minister. Half the 40-seat legislative Federal National Council is appointed by the seven emirs; 20 members are elected to 2-year terms by 6,689 Emiratis, including 1,189 women, who are all appointed by seven emirs. There are no free elections or political parties in the Emirates.


The UAE is 80 percent Sunni Muslim, 16 percent Shiite Muslim, and 4 percent Hindu and Christian. Unlike neighboring Saudi Arabia, where non-Muslim worship is forbidden, the emirates have donated land where 24 Christian churches were built—but no synagogues or Buddhist temples. Shiites worship freely, but the government doesn’t support Shiite institutions and employs no Shiites in top governmental posts.


Before the 1950s, the United Arab Emirates was a poor country of fishermen and pearl divers. Then oil was discovered. The UAE sits on 9 percent of the world’s oil reserves. Exports began in 1962, and the emirates were transformed. The country invests lavishly in infrastructure, education, industry and finance. The absence of income and sales taxes attracts immigrant laborers looking for work, especially in construction and the oil industry, and investors. Oil exports accounted for 40 percent of the UAE’s total in 2006. Manufacturing, construction and services also power the economy.


The UAE’s military numbers 61,000 soldiers. It has close relations with the United States, allowing the Pentagon use of UAE ports and land to support operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. The U.S. military has about 1,800 personnel posted in the UAE. In 2000, the UAE signed an $8 billion contract to buy 80 U.S. F-16 fighter jets equipped with air-to-air missiles, with additional, smaller contracts since. Since 2005, the UAE has received $2.2 billion in counter-terrorism aid from the United States.

Human Rights, Civil Rights and Media:

Although the country is less authoritarian and repressive than its neighbors, the UAE’s commitment to political and human rights reform is poor. Freedom of assembly is forbidden and laborers’ working conditions are barely regulated, but the regime has tolerated a few demonstrations. The Emirates have made better progress in women’s rights. Two women are appointed to the federal cabinet. In Sharjah emirate, seven women serve on the 40-seat consultative council. About 10% of the diplomatic corps is female. Speech is strongly regulated. Dubai has an Electronic Commerce and Media Zone Authority where media are freer.


Its long and relatively languid association with the currents and movements of the Arab Peninsula aside, the UAE’s history as such is brief. It was a set of seven sheikhdoms under a British protectorate between the 19th century and 1972, when Britain withdrew. The UAE was formed as an independent, federal nation in 1971, and the Abu Dhabi Petroleum Co., whose emirate controls about 80 percent of the country’s oil, was nationalized in 1975. The country has been an oasis of calm since, although Iran unilaterally seized three Persian Gulf islands it had shared with the UAE—two in 1971, one in 1992.

Current Issues:

The UAE’s greatest fear is an Islamist surge that would threaten the regime’s consultative, but unrepresentative, hold on power — especially a Shiite surge potentially aided by Iran from across the Persian Gulf. The UEA has replaced its reliance on Britain with reliance on the United States for military protection, but has been critical of U.S. actions in Iraq, which the UAE sees as having enabled a Shiite take-over of the country. Much of the terrorist financing of 9/11 channeled through the UEA’s financial centers. The Arap Spring of 2011, however, appears not to have affected the UAE--so far.
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