LOCATION: United Arab Emirates (UAE)



RELIGION: Islam (Sunni Muslim majority)


The United Arab Emirates (UAE) is a confederation of seven sheikdoms (regions headed by a sheik or emir), or emirates, located on the shore of the Persian Gulf. Its Bedu (Bedouin) tribes were converted to Islam during the seventh century AD . The following centuries were marked by continual wars and violence between rival dynasties.

After signing two peace treaties with Britain (1820 and 1853), the emirates became known as the Trucial States. The formal relationship established between Britain and the kingdoms of the southern Gulf lasted until 1971. At that time, Bahrain and Qatar became independent states. On December 2, 1971, the emirates of Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Sharjah, Ajman, Umm al-Qaiwain, and Fujairah formed the UAE. In February 1972, the emirate of Ras al-Khaimah united with them as well. Because Abu Dhabi is the largest and most powerful of the seven emirates, its emir is designated the president of the UAE.

The discovery and production of oil in 1962 brought new wealth into the area. Emirians, who had been among the poorest people in the world, soon became some of the wealthiest. Proven oil reserves in Abu Dhabi are estimated to last for another 200 years at the current rate of production.


The UAE is located on the southern coast of the Persian Gulf, and the northwestern coast of the Gulf of Oman. The total area of the UAE is 30,000 square miles (82,880 square kilometers), which is about the size of the state of Maine. Abu Dhabi is by far the largest emirate, and Dubai is the second-largest. The land is mostly desert, with a mountain range in the north and oases scattered across the sands. The emirate of Ras al-Khaimah is called the "garden spot" of the UAE because its land is very fertile.

The population of the UAE is estimated at 2.3 million people. Only about 20 percent (460,000 people) of these are UAE citizens. The rest are foreign workers.


The official language, and the native language of UAE citizens, is Arabic. Languages spoken by foreign workers include English, Hindi, Urdu, Persian, and Tagalog.

"Hello" in Arabic is marhaba or ahlan. Other common greetings are As-salam àlaykum, "Peace be with you," with the reply of Wa àlaykum as-salam, "And to you peace." Ma'assalama means "Goodbye." "Thank you" is Shukran, and "You're welcome" is Àfwan; "yes" is na'am and "no" is la'a. The numbers one to ten in Arabic are: wahad, ithnayn, thalatha, arba'a, khamsa, sitta, saba'a, thamanya, tisa'a, and àshara.


Pearl divers in Abu Dhabi traditionally left their homes during the entire four-month pearling season. The following folk song depicts the hope and patience of an Emirian woman awaiting the safe return of her loved one:

Neighbor of mine, my adventurous sailor shall return.

Neighbor of mine, he shall return from the world of dangers.

With perfumes, precious stones, rose-water, and incense he shall return.

He shall return, and to see him again will be like seeing the Moon.


Native-born Emirians are all Muslims (followers of Islam). Most of the foreign workers are also Muslims, although there are also Hindus and Christians. The majority of Emirians are Sunni Muslim, with a small Shi'ah minority.

The Islamic religion has five "pillars," or practices, that must be observed by all Muslims: (1) praying five times a day; (2) giving alms, or zakat, to the poor; (3) fasting during the month of Ramadan ; (4) making the pilgrimage, or hajj, to Mecca; and (5) reciting the shahada (ashhadu an la illah ila Allah wa ashhadu in Muhammadu rasul Allah ), which means "I witness that there is no god but Allah and that Muhammad is the prophet of Allah."


Secular national holidays include National Day (December 2), and New Year's Day (January 1). The emirates also celebrate their own holidays. For example, in Abu Dhabi August 6 is a holiday marking the accession of Shaykh Zayed. Other official holidays are Muslim ones. There are two main Muslim holidays: Eid Al-Fitr is a three-day festival at the end of the holy month of fasting, Ramadan. Eid Al-Adha is a three-day feast of sacrifice at the end of the month of pilgrimage (hajj) to Mecca. Families who can afford it slaughter a lamb and share the meat with poorer Muslims. Other holidays are the First of Muharram, or the Muslim New Year; al-Mawlid An-Nabi, the Prophet Muhammad's birthday; and Eid al-Isra wa al-Miraj, a feast celebrating Muhammad's nocturnal visit to heaven. Friday is the Islamic day of rest, so most businesses and services are closed. All government offices, private businesses, and schools are also closed during Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha.


The first word spoken to a baby is Allah (God). After birth, the next important event in a boy's life is circumcision. It is performed at the age of seven and formally makes him a member of the religious community.

Traditional arranged marriages still take place today. The groom pays the bride a dowry, or mahr. This becomes her property, no matter what happens. The mahr has two parts. The muqaddam is a dowry given before the wedding; this allows the bride to buy things for herself and her new home. The second part, the muta'akhir, is a form of insurance for the woman in the event of divorce. The groom pledges in a contract that he will pay the bride an agreed-upon amount if he should divorce her.


Emirians talk a great deal. They speak loudly, repeat themselves often, and interrupt each other constantly. Conversations are highly emotional and full of gestures. When talking, Emirians make physical contact much more often than Westerners do. They also stand much closer together. People of the same sex often hold hands while talking or walking. In former days, members of the opposite sex (even married couples) never touched in public.


Before the discovery and production of oil, conditions in the UAE were very primitive. Emirians had no electricity, running water, or sewage disposal system. There were no paved roads or telephones. Housing consisted of the bare minimum needs for shelter. Since oil production began in 1962, conditions have rapidly improved. Today almost all Emirians live in thoroughly modern homes in modern cities. Medical care is still not up to Western standards, but it is improving.


Marriages are traditionally arranged by parents. First cousins are the preferred match. Polygamy (more than one spouse) is legal but rarely practiced. In theory (and according to Islamic law), a man may have up to four wives. Divorce is fairly simple but also rare. In a divorce, the father is given custody of all children over the age of five. The mother takes the younger ones with her to her parents' house, where she will live until she remarries.

Women are much less restricted in the UAE than in other Arab countries. At least 98 percent of the female population of school age is attending primary or intermediate school. Women account for 70 percent of the students at the Higher Colleges of Technology and over 60 percent at the UAE University. Emirian women have also joined the armed forces and the police force.


Emirians wear traditional Arab clothing. For men, this consists of an ankle-length robe called a dishdasha or kandura . A large piece of cloth, called a ghutra, is worn on the head. It is held in place with an àqal, a thick, black band made of twisted wool. With the new flow of wealth, some women import the latest fashions from the West. A traditional UAE woman's attire, however, is the àbaya. This black garment covers her from head to toe when she is in a public place.

12 • FOOD

Rice, meat, and fish are the Emirians' staple foods. Among the most commonly used spices are coriander, cardamom, saffron, and turmeric. Islam prohibits the consumption of pork or alcohol.

A favorite dish in the UAE is machbous, rice and meat seasoned with spices, onions, tomatoes, and dried lemon. During Ramadan, the month of daytime fasting, harees is usually served at night. For this dish, small pieces of shredded meat are mixed with wheat and water that have been beaten to the consistency of porridge. Favorite desserts include al-halwa, made from sugar, eggs, starch, water, and oil; and Kul Wiskut, a mixture of peanuts and sugar.

Coffee and tea are the most popular beverages and are often mixed with spices (cardamom for coffee, and saffron or mint for tea).


Public schooling was almost nonexistent before the late 1950s. Today enrollment at public primary schools is almost 100 percent. Education is required from age six to age twelve, and it is free through the university level. The government also provides full scholarships for study abroad. The United Arab Emirates University opened in Al Ain in 1977.


The only native Emirian artistic traditions are those passed down from the Bedu (or Bedouin) nomads. These include traditional Arab music and dances, and a strong passion for poetry. Traditional Emirian music has a strong drumbeat accompanied by various percussion and stringed instruments. The oud is an ancient stringed instrument that is the ancestor of the European lute. Wind instruments include the Arabian flute or nai.

The ayyala is a traditional men's dance frequently performed in the UAE.


About 90 percent of the work force in the UAE are foreign workers. In 1995, the UAE launched a nationwide campaign aimed at bringing more Emirians into the work force. Most of the UAE's income is from the oil industry. The oil wealth comes mainly from the emirate of Abu Dhabi. In the smaller emirates, sheep and goat herding, fishing, and farming are the main occupations. Business and industrial workers in the cities often take a two-to three-hour lunch break. They then stay at work until 7:00 PM or later.


The traditional sports of camel and horse racing attract great crowds. Owners and fans often speed alongside the race course in four-wheel-drive vehicles, shouting instructions and cheering. The annual Dubai Desert Classic Golf Tournament draws top international golfers. Water sports are also popular throughout the UAE.


Movies are very popular with Emirians. Theaters show movies in Hindi, Urdu, Persian, Arabic, and English. Videos can be rented, but they are censored.

There are radio and television broadcasts in Arabic and other languages. Broadcasts from other countries are also picked up via satellite dishes on apartment buildings and private homes.


Most of the folk art sold in UAE markets is imported. The UAE's Women's Association runs a Handicrafts Center in Abu Dhabi that produces some local basketry and weaving. Baskets are made of palm tree fronds, called al Khoos. Wool from sheep is woven into colorful fabrics that are then used for pillowcases, covers, blankets, carpets, and bags.


The emirates have a long history of inter-tribal wars and violence. Although they are now united, old conflicts continually erupt. Abu Dhabi has the greatest authority because of its size and its wealth (due to oil reserves). This creates resentment among the smaller emirates. Dubai is the only emirate large and wealthy enough to challenge Abu Dhabi's decisions. Dubai occasionally acts independently of decisions handed down by the Abu Dhabi leaders.


Crocetti, Gina L. Culture Shock! United Arab Emirates. Portland, Ore.: Graphic Arts Center Publishing Co., 1996.

Higgins, Kevin. The Emirates: Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Sharjah, Ras Al Khaimah, Fujairah, Umm Al Qaiwain, Ajman. Reading, Pa.: Garnet Publishing, 1995.

Peck, Malcolm C. The United Arab Emirates: A Venture in Unity. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1986.


ArabNet. [Online] Available http://www.arab.net/uae/uae_contents.html , 1998.

Emirates Center for Strategic and Research Homepage. [Online] Available http://www.ecssr.ac.ae , 1998.

World Travel Guide. United Arab Emirates. [Online] Available http://www.wtgonline.com/country/ae/gen.html , 1998.

User Contributions:

Comment about this article, ask questions, or add new information about this topic: