The United Arab Emirates: Statehood and Nation-Building in a Traditional Society

By Heard-Bey, Frauke | The Middle East Journal, Summer 2005 | Go to article overview
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The United Arab Emirates: Statehood and Nation-Building in a Traditional Society

Heard-Bey, Frauke, The Middle East Journal

Nationals represent barely 20% of the population in the United Arab Emirates, but form the economically and socially privileged group of UAE citizens. The Rulers of the seven emirates were able to retain the historical loyalty of the "Emiratis" by advancing the economic development of the individual states, while Abu Dhabi-financed federal development helped to create a viable national state. Democratization is not of the same urgency as in some neighboring Gulf countries.

Following the death on November 2, 2004 of Shaykh Zayid bin Sultan Al Nahayyan, who had been the UAE's only President in 33 years of the country's existence as a modern state, it is an apt moment to take stock of the stage of this young nation's development. At the time of the imminent withdrawal of the British military and diplomatic protection between 1968 and 1971, when his emirate and a group of other small shaykhdoms had to decide on their political structure and future statehood, Shaykh Zayid had been an ardent advocate of political cooperation between the Gulf states, which were affected by this decision. Initially Bahrain and Qatar were expected to form part of a federal solution. When these two decided in July of 1971 to "go it alone" the seven Trucial States formed a federation, called the United Arab Emirates.1 The seven Rulers voted for Shaykh Zayid to be the UAE's first President. He was re-elected by them every five years. By the end of his life, Shaykh Zayid left behind a remarkably prosperous and stable country. Testimony to this was the spontaneous outpouring of sympathy from leaders all over the world, who came in person to Abu Dhabi to express their condolences. Many individuals and organizations who had benefited from his generosity joined the people of the UAE and the Gulf region in mourning the passing of their benefactor.


The United Arab Emirates does not fit ordinary norms - be they the ones of political and social structures or of economic assets. Just over a generation ago the population of the Trucial States was illiterate and after the decline of the pearling industry they became so poor that during the 1950s entire families emigrated to neighboring Qatar.2 Now, the UAE faces its biggest challenges because of its extreme and sudden wealth - not poverty. In many ways the UAE is still a developing country. Another surprising aspect of this extraordinary country is that Arabic is the declared official language of this Arab state, but Arabic is not the language used by the majority of the UAE's current inhabitants. Above all, it is the combination of the adopted federal form of government with the inherited role of the tribal rulers, which makes the UAE unique in terms of political structure and reality of governmental administration.

When this federation was proclaimed in 1971, the majority of the distant observers had their doubts about the viability of this precarious structure.3 More than 30 years later it may be argued that the unorthodox nature of the UAE's political makeup may have proven to be its strength and is likely to serve the country well enough for the foreseeable future.

The expectation now is that the foundations, which have been laid down in over three decades, will sustain lasting stability and prosperity into the future - even without the charismatic leader. Because the UAE has such an unusual political makeup, much depends on the function of its federal structure - more precisely on the relationship between the central administration of the Federal Government and the powers vested in the individual emirates' authorities.

Regular observers of the Gulf are struck by the way in which Dubai has launched into a multifaceted development drive. oil production is irreversibly in decline in Dubai. Now the desert, which in the past was common tribal grazing land, but for which the current generation has no use any more, is being turned into a source of instant wealth in the form of marketable real estate.

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The United Arab Emirates: Statehood and Nation-Building in a Traditional Society


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