The United Arab Emirates Today: The UAE; from Bold Dream to Spectacular Reality in One Generation

By Curtiss, Richard H. | Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, December 1995 | Go to article overview
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The United Arab Emirates Today: The UAE; from Bold Dream to Spectacular Reality in One Generation


Curtiss, Richard H., Washington Report on Middle East Affairs


THE UNITED ARAB EMIRATES TODAY: The UAE; From Bold Dream to Spectacular Reality in One Generation

By Richard H. Curtiss

Demographers know that residents of the United Arab Emirates generally rank third (after Japan and the United States) among the world's top non-European nations in annual surveys of per capita gross domestic product. First-time visitors to the Middle East also note that two UAE cities, the ports of Abu Dhabi and Dubai, have the most spectacular urban skylines in the region, comparable to the familiar rows of glass and steel towers rising abruptly from the water's edge in Hong Kong and Manhattan. Middle East experts also marvel at the tens of thousands of acres of dense greenery--date plantations, vast fields of wheat and vegetables that make the country self-sufficient in those respects, sprawling grassy city parks planted with flowering tropical trees and shrubs, and seemingly endless windbreaks along the highways of arid-lands trees and shrubs--all in a sun-baked land that only 30 years ago was largely lifeless salt flats and wind-blown desert sand dunes.

The facile explanation is petroleum, lots of it, and the wise use of its revenues and by-products. But the story is considerably more complicated--and interesting--than that. Much of it revolves around the personality and imagination of Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, ruler of the Emirate of Abu Dhabi and president of the United Arab Emirates, and the sustained and systematic manner in which he has turned his boldest dreams into reality.

The UAE is a federation of seven adjoining Emirates which was created after the British government announced in 1968 its intention to withdraw its armed forces from the Arabian Gulf. Three of the Arab emirates of the Gulf, Kuwait, Bahrain and Qatar, chose to go it alone along with the sultanate of Oman. Another seven of the emirates, formerly called the Trucial States, formed a federation in 1971 to be governed by a supreme council of rulers. Sheikh Zayed of Abu Dhabi, which has an area roughly equal to that of the other six emirates combined and which also was the first of the seven emirates to produce petroleum in large quantities, was elected president by his peers on the supreme council. He subsequently has been re-elected unanimously at successive five-year intervals.

Sheikh Zayed's grandfather, Sheikh Zayed bin Khalifa Al Nahyan, ruled Abu Dhabi from 1855 to 1909, the longest reign in the emirate's history. He was succeeded by Sheikh Sultan, Sheikh Zayed's father, who ruled from 1922 to 1926. After a brief reign by an uncle, Sheikh Zayed's elder brother, Sheikh Shakhbut, assumed power in 1928 in a thinly populated land whose people made their living largely from pearling and fishing

The 1930s was an era of catastrophic economic decline throughout the Arabian Gulf because, in 1934, the Japanese introduced cultured pearls into world markets. This precipitated a collapse of the Gulf pearling industry, upon which the economies of all of the Gulf emirates had been based for centuries. Because of its agricultural areas around the inland oases of Al Ain and Liwa, Abu Dhabi suffered incrementally less than some of its neighbors. In general, however, the regional economic depression lasted through World War II and afterward until the first petroleum geologists arrived in the area.

As the time oil explorations began in Abu Dhabi in the early 1950s, Sheikh Zayed was the representative of his brother, the ruler of Abu Dhabi, in Al Ain. The name means spring, or fountain, in Arabic and the area generally was designated on English-language maps of the time as the Buraimi Oasis.

At the time it was a cluster of small villages built around a great pool of water that marks the spot where an underground aquifer gushes to the surface of the desert. Inhabited since the Stone Age, parts of the area were claimed not only by Abu Dhabi but also by Oman and Saudi Arabia.

Sheikh Zayed received his political and diplomatic seasoning in dealing with the tribes and villagers of the area, which eventually was divided between Abu Dhabi and Oman after Saudi Arabia withdrew its claim in return for concessions elsewhere.

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