Magazine article New Internationalist

United Arab Emirates [Country Profile]

Magazine article New Internationalist

United Arab Emirates [Country Profile]

Article excerpt

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 labal Ali duty-free industrial zone, are from outside the country. …

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