Country of the Week: United Arab Emirates

In Countries by Continental StaffLeave a Comment

For our first trip to the Middle East, we’ve arrived in the United Arab Emirates. The country, and particularly the city of Dubai, is well known for extravagant and eye-catching developments – but there’s a lot more than just skyscrapers to delve into.

  • Capital: Abu Dhabi
  • Largest City: Dubai
  • Population (2015): 9,577,000 (92nd)
  • Total Area: 83,600 km² (116th)
  • Official Language: Arabic
  • Currency: United Arab Emirates dirham (د.إ) (AED)

The Dubai skyline, with the world’s tallest building – the Burj Khalifa – prominently visible


The story of the early history of the land is mostly told through desert tribes, trading posts, and, eventually, Islamization. Christian sites can also be found from around the time of Muhammad, though they were generally abandoned after the year 750 AD. For centuries, the harsh area remained home to nomadic tribesman who survived with animal husbandry, hunting, and agriculture while also coming into conflict or trading with other groups.

Eventually, these groups began to form larger confederations, many of the names of which still persist to this day. Bani Yas dominated the area around what’s now Abu Dhabi while pirates on the coast, as well as European powers such as Portugal and Britain, sought to gain a foothold. In response to the growing threat of piracy, the British entered into an alliance with local leaders to combat the seafaring raiders – which led to the creation of the so-called Trucial States (or Sheikdoms).

As other European countries threatened to encroach on British interests in the region, the Empire leveraged its relationship with the Trucial Sheikhdoms to remain close to Britain at the expense of other powers. In return, the British agreed to protect the region by both land and sea. Though the security meant that local shipping (largely pearls from oysters) could continue unabated, the outlawing of the slave trade impacted the region’s industry heavily.

The area remained a British protectorate as the 19th century came to an end, though economic hardship soon followed – largely thanks to economic depression coupled with the World Wars and trade restrictions. The silver lining during this time was that hope the region held oil reserves. Many British backed companies began to drill for oil both on land and offshore.

Revenues from oil exports began to increase in the 1960’s, however the British couldn’t afford to administer and defend the region as they once had. After many negotiations and announcements, the Trucial Sheikhdoms were declared independent in 1971. Two of the most powerful members, Abu Dhabi and Dubai, decided to form a union and tried to convince others to join. While Qatar and Bahrain declined the offer, many others took them up on it – and the United Arab Emirates was formed.

Since independence, the UAE has been involved in many regional, international, and bilateral agreements – including supporting the United States in its Middle East operations. Each emirate (centered around major cities) has its own power base or sheikh while the country’s president resides in Abu Dhabi. There are persistent concerns about the country’s human rights record and Sharia Law, however the UAE has become increasingly open to Western business and visitors throughout recent years.


A spice souk (market) in Dubai


The culture of the UAE is predominantly Arab also features other influences (such as African, Indian, and Persian), while retaining some variation from emirate to emirate. Architecture takes inspiration from both Persian and Arabian structures, with the barjeel (a unique style also known as a windcatcher) one of the premier examples of Emirati design. Like many other neighbouring countries, open-air marketplaces are commonplace, and are referred to as a souk. Food varies, but is usually based around rice, fish, and meat (especially lamb and mutton). Coffee and tea are commonly drunk and alcohol is available in certain areas, though there are tight restrictions imposed.

Sport, especially soccer, is popular in the UAE. The national team has made one appearance in the World Cup (in 1990) and numerous club teams are regional powers. This is in addition to major investments made on foreign teams – not least among them the purchase of English team Manchester City by a member of the Abu Dhabi royal family. Other popular sports include cricket, Formula One (the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix will be the final race of the season this year), camel racing, falconry, endurance riding, and tennis.


The UAE is found between Saudi Arabia and Oman and borders the Persian Gulf and Gulf of Oman – a strategically vital position, especially for oil transportation. Natural harbours, sandbars, and reefs can be found off the country’s long coastline. The interior of the country consists of both mountains and desert, with massive stretches of sand dunes populated only intermittently by oases.

The UAE is home to many cities (many of them the capital of their respective emirate). The most well known by far is Dubai (the largest), which is famous for extravagant development. The tallest man-made structure in the world, the Burj Khalifa, dominates the skyline, while state of the art hotels, resorts, and more are found throughout the area. The capital and second largest city, Abu Dhabi, is also a hugely important political, cultural, and commercial centre – and is the economically stronger of the two.


Falconry is a popular pastime in the UAE

Did you know?

  • The Dubai Mall is the world’s largest shopping mall
  • No rivers can be found within the UAE
  • There is no address system in Dubai, so you better write proper directions
  • Locals make up about 15% of Dubai’s population, the rest are foreigners
  • Crime is essentially 0% in Dubai
  • Don’t get into a car chase with the cops in Dubai. You’ll be chased by Lamborghinis, Ferraris, and Bentleys
  • The largest fleet of the largest airplane is in Dubai. They even have onboard showers
  • Ferrari World (in Abu Dhabi) is the largest indoor amusement park in the world

The Sheikh Zayed Mosque in Abu Dhabi

Last Word

As a relatively new independent country, the UAE (particularly Dubai and Abu Dhabi) has exploded over the last several years thanks in part to oil wealth and increased investment. Today, the country is home to some of the most awe-inspiring man-made wonders in the world, and is an increasingly popular destination.

Stay tuned to the Current for our Country of the Week. We’ll explore the familiar and the foreign, plus uncover some hidden gems.

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