The seven emirates of the United Arab Emirates compose a federation bordering Oman to the east, Saudi Arabia to the south, and, depending on whether the UAE and Qatari or Saudi interpretations are followed, also Qatar in the west, and with most of its settled cities and towns bordering the Arabian/ Persian Gulf on the western side and a short stretch of the Gulf of Oman in the east. It is located to the south of the strait of Hormuz. Its location as a neighbouring state to both Saudi Arabia and Iran largely shapes its political and economic choices.
Main languages: Arabic, Indian and Pakistani languages, Persian
Main religions: Sunni and Ithna’ashari Shii Islam, Christianity
Main minority groups: Ithna’ashari (Twelver) Shiis. The national population is almost exclusively Muslim – some 85% Sunni and 15% Shii (US State Department, www.state.gov). Among expatriates, no reliable data are available on religious affiliation although some indications can be gleaned from the nationality data (see below).
As elsewhere in the Gulf, rapid economic expansion was accompanied by a vast influx of migrant workers. They now outnumber Emiratis four to one and consist of 19% non-Emirati Arabs and 50% South Asian (Indians, Pakistanis, Bandladeshis, Sri Lankans), 23% other Asian (including Iranians) (1982, CIA Worldfactbook). Some groups of migrant workers from particular countries have cultural activities, private schools and associations but the activities of each is largely socially isolated from others and migrant workers as a whole do not form cohesive groups.
The United Arab Emirates is a federation of seven states that declared their independence in 1971, having previously been British Protectorates (at that time six emirates, Ras al-Khaimah joined in 1972). These states had previously been known as the Trucial Oman or Trucial States. They had shared similar histories as tribal populations ruled by leading families involved in trade. The discovery of oil transformed fortunes. The population rocketed from 180,000 in 1968 to a million by 1982 and 2 million by 1993 and stands at over 4.1 million in 2006. Around 800,000 of that population are nationals.
The UAE is governed as a federal presidential republic, composed of seven absolute monarchies in each emirate. The federation is loose, and each ruler maintains significant powers in accordance to the provisional constitution of 1971. Abu Dhabi’s ruler serves as President and Dubai’s ruler as Prime Minister of the UAE. There is also a Council of Ministers led by the Prime Minister, a supreme council of rulers and a Federal National Council (FNC) composed of 40 members who, until 2006, were appointed to serve by the rulers which reviews proposed laws, and a Federal Supreme Council of the individual rulers of the seven emirates which elects the Council of Ministers.
Political parties are prohibited and steps towards democracy are very slow. In December 2006 the system of choosing the FNC members was changed, for the first time involving a measure of election: in each emirate a group of electors was appointed by the Emir (totalling just under 7,000 for the whole country), who then could vote for those amongst them who stood for election. Those elected henceforth make up half the members of the FNC, which can still only advise and monitor, not legislate. Some further expansion of the FNC and its powers has been mooted, so far without further elaboration.
Immigrant groups tend to socialize amongst their own professional and national groups and they are unable to organize within registered ethnic or religious associations. Migrant workers lack full civic rights, are generally reliant on sponsorships for their permission to work and are expected to leave once their employment is terminated. Regulations in the new Free Trade Zones operate somewhat differently. Although over 80% of the population of the UAE is that of migrant workers they are denied freedom of association and the UAE has not ratified the International Labour Organisation’s 1949 Convention 98 concerning the Application of the Principles of the Right to Organise and Bargain Collectively.
Shiis constitute the largest minority group amongst the citizenry of the United Arab Emirates and suffer some disadvantage. Shiis maintain their own mosques and run their own court system for family cases. However, their sermons are closely monitored by the government and no Shiis serve in top government posts.