United Arab Emirates

June 13, 2012, 8:56 am
Source: CIA World Factbook
Content Cover Image

Skyline of Abu Dhabi at the Abu Dhabi, UAE. Source: Nepenthes/Wikimedia Commons

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) is a nation in the Middle East, bordering the Gulf of Oman and the Persian Gulf, between Oman and Saudi Arabia. It is a federation of seven emirates (Abu Dhabi, Ajman, Dubai, Fujairah, Ras al-Khaimah, Sharjah, and Umm al-Quwain) each with its own heritary emir, with specified powers delegated to the UAE federal government and other powers reserved to member emirates.

The UAE is an important producer of natural gas and oil, ranking seventh globally in total proven reserves of both.

It has a strategic location along southern approaches to Strait of Hormuz, a vital transit point for world crude oil.

Most (over 80%) of the five million people living in the UAE are not citizens (Emirati).

Its major environmental issues include:

  • lack of natural freshwater resources compensated by desalination plants;
  • desertification; and,
  • beach pollution from oil spills

The UAE is susceptible to frequent sand and dust storms.

The Trucial States of the Persian Gulf coast granted the UK control of their defense and foreign affairs in 19th century treaties.

In 1971, six of these states - Abu Zaby, 'Ajman, Al Fujayrah, Ash Shariqah, Dubayy, and Umm al Qaywayn - merged to form the United Arab Emirates (UAE). They were joined in 1972 by Ra's al Khaymah.

The UAE's per capita GDP is on par with those of leading West European nations. Its generosity with oil revenues and its moderate foreign policy stance have allowed the UAE to play a vital role in the affairs of the region.

For more than three decades, oil and global finance drove the UAE's economy. However, in 2008-09, the confluence of falling oil prices, collapsing real estate prices, and the international banking crisis hit the UAE especially hard.

In March 2011, about 100 Emirati activists and intellectuals posted on the Internet and sent to the government a petition calling for greater political reform, including the establishment of a parliament with full legislative powers and the further expansion of the electorate and the rights of the Federal National Council (FNC), the UAE's quasi-legislature. In an effort to stem further unrest, the government announced a multi-year, $1.6-billion infrastructure investment plan for the poorer northern Emirates.

In late September 2011, an FNC election - in which voting was expanded from 6,600 voters to about 12 percent of the Emirati population - was held for half of the FNC seats. The other half are appointed by the rulers of the Emirates.


Location: Middle East, bordering the Gulf of Oman and the Persian Gulf, between Oman and Saudi Arabia

Geographic Coordinates: 24 00 N, 54 00 E

Area: 83,600 sq km

Land Boundaries: 867 km  (Oman 410 km, Saudi Arabia 457 km)

A boundary agreement was signed and ratified with Oman in 2003 for entire border, including Oman's Musandam Peninsula and Al Madhah enclaves, but contents of the agreement and detailed maps showing the alignment have not been published.

Iran and UAE dispute Tunb Islands and Abu Musa Island, which Iran occupies

Coastline: 1,318 km

Maritime Claims:

territorial sea: 12 nm
contiguous zone: 24 nm
exclusive economic zone: 200 nm
continental shelf: 200 nm or to the edge of the continental margin

Natural Hazards: frequent sand and dust storms

Terrain:  flat, barren coastal plain merging into rolling sand dunes of vast desert wasteland; mountains in east. The highest point is Jabal Yibir (1,527 m).

Climate: desert; cooler in eastern mountains

Topography of United Arab Emirates. Source: Wikimedia Commons.


Ecology and Biodiversity

Ecoregions of UAE. Source: World Wildlife Fund

1. The Gulf of Oman desert and semi-desert ecoregion is situated at the north east tip of the Arabian Peninsula, this ecoregion lies predominantly in Oman with a portion extending into the west of the United Arab Emirates.

2. Most of the UAE (all of its interior and almost all of Abu Dhabi) is included within the Arabian Desert and East Sahero-Arabian xeric shrublands desert ecoregion, Over the last few decades the desert of the UAE has, unfortunately, witnessed local extinctions of Canis lupus arabs, Oryx leucoryx, Hyaena hyaena, jackal (Canis aureus), and honey badger (Mellivora capensis). Gazelle subgutturosa and G. gazella still survive, though with very small populations and restricted ranges. The sand cat (Felis margarita), Ruppell's fox (Vulpes rueppellii) and Lepus capensis are thought to be far less numerous than they were.

3. A eastern coast strip of UEA is within the Persian Gulf desert and semi-desert which comprises part of the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia, including its entire coastline along the Arabian Gulf, as well as Bahrain island, the coastline of Qatar and a small stretch of coastline belonging to the Abu Dhabi emirate.


People and Society

Population: 5,314,317 (July 2012 est.)  Note: estimate is based on the results of the 2005 census that included a significantly higher estimate of net immigration of non-citizens than previous estimates

The United Arab Emirates lies along the inside of the Arabian Peninsula’s southern curve, between Oman, Saudi Arabia, and the Persian Gulf. Though comprised mostly of desert, the UAE also has the spectacular Trucial Coast. In order to increase its appeal to tourists and diversify its economic base, a number of projects are occurring, including a massive land-formation project visible in this image.

Palm Island, which is located on the upper eastern coast, is entirely constructed, using sand dredged from the approach channel to the Jebel Ali Airport. This island is one of two to be completed by 2006, and will form a resort that will provide approximately 1200 single-family residences with private beach-fronts, 600 multi-family residences, an aquatic theme park, shopping centers, cinemas, and more. Below is a closer image of the resort from early March 2003, taken by an astronaut.

Source: NASA. Credit: Jacques Descloitres, MODIS Rapid Response Team, NASA/GSFC

Sometimes, what looks like a palm tree from orbit is, well, a palm tree. Palm Island Resort, just 1 mile off the coast from Dubai, is scheduled to be complete by 2006. Advertised as “being visible from the Moon” this man-made structure will have 17 huge fronds surrounded by a crescent-shaped breakwater. This island is being built from 80 million cubic meters (2.8 billion cubic feet) of land dredged from the approach channel to the Emirate’s Jebel Ali port, which is being deepened to 17 meters (56 feet). Sediments in the water from dredging activity can be seen near the port.

Palm Island is one of several massive projects in Dubai aimed at diversifying the economic base by expanding the tourist industry. The government of Dubai predicts that tourism, mostly from Europe, will quadruple to 15 million visitors annually by 2010. When completed the resort will have approximately 1200 single-family residences each with private beachfront, 600 multi-family residences, an aquatic theme park, shopping centers, cinemas, and more. A twin island is planned to be built nearby.

Source: NASA.

The Burj-al-Arab Hotel in Dubai is one of the world's tallest hotels. Its distinctive shape is meant to mimic an Arab dhow (sailing vessel).

The city of Dubai is the largest metropolitan area in the emirate of Dubai, one of the member states of the United Arab Emirates. Dubai is located along the southern Persian Gulf on the Arabian Peninsula, and its signature city is known for high profile architectural and development projects. Among the most notable is the Palm Jumeirah, a man-made peninsula and surrounding islands built from over 50 million cubic meters of sand. Three other island projects, two similar to Palm Jumeirah and another crafted to look like a map of the world, are also underway along the Dubai coastline.

This nighttime astronaut photograph of the city of Dubai was taken at approximately 2 a.m. local time on September 11, 2009. Orange sodium vapor lights trace the major highways and street grid in and around the metropolitan area, while grey-white mercury vapor lamps fill in the commercial and residential areas. The lighted islands and peninsula of Palm Jumeirah are clearly visible along the coastline. A spiral pattern of lights on the southeastern fringe of the urban area is a camel racetrack. Nighttime images like these are useful to climate modelers, urban planners, and geographers as they allow for simple definition of urban (densely lit) and rural (sparely lit) areas.

Source: NASA: Caption by William L. Stefanov, NASA-JSC.

Ethnic Groups:  (U.A.E. Government): Indian (1.75 million); Pakistani (1.25 million); Bangladeshi (500,000); other Asian (1 million); European and African (500,000); and Emirati (890,000). Note: less than 20% are UAE citizens.

The majority of Emirati citizens are Sunni Muslim with a Shi'a minority. Many foreigners are Muslim; Hindus and Christians make up a portion of the U.A.E.'s foreign population.

Age Structure:

0-14 years: 20.4% (male 537,925/female 513,572)
15-64 years: 78.7% (male 2,968,958/female 1,080,717)
65 years and over: 0.9% (male 30,446/female 17,046)

note: 73.9% of the population in the 15-64 age group is non-national (2011 est.)

Population Growth Rate: 3.055% (2012 est.)

Birthrate: 15.76 births/1,000 population (2012 est.)

Death Rate: 2.04 deaths/1,000 population (July 2012 est.)

Net Migration Rate: 16.82 migrant(s)/1,000 population (2012 est.)

Life Expectancy at Birth: 76.71 years 

male: 74.12 years
female: 79.42 years (2012 est.)

Total Fertility Rate: 2.38 children born/woman (2012 est.)

Languages: Arabic (official), Persian, English, Hindi, Urdu

Literacy (age 15 and over can read and write)877.9% (2003 est.)

Educational standards are rising rapidly. Citizens and temporary residents have taken advantage of higher education facilities throughout the country. In the 2010 spring semester, U.A.E. University in Al Ain had roughly 12,000 students and American University Sharjah had over 5,000 students enrolled. The Higher Colleges of Technology, a network of technical-vocational colleges, opened in 1989 with men's and women's campuses in each emirate. Zayed University for women opened in 1998 with campuses in Abu Dhabi and Dubai. Many foreign universities, including ones from the U.S., U.K., and Australia, also have campuses in the U.A.E.

Urbanization: 84% of total population (2010) growing at an annual rate of change of 2.3% (2010-15 est.)


The U.A.E. was formed from the group of tribally organized Arabian Peninsula sheikhdoms along the southern coast of the Persian Gulf and the northwestern coast of the Gulf of Oman. For centuries, the sheikhdoms were embroiled in dynastic disputes. It became known as the Pirate Coast as raiders based there harassed foreign shipping, despite both European and Arab navies patrolling the area from the 17th to the 19th century. Early British expeditions to protect India trade from raiders at Ras al-Khaimah led to campaigns against other harbors along the coast in 1819. The next year, a general peace treaty was signed to which all the principal sheikhs of the coast adhered. Raids continued intermittently until 1835, when the sheikhs agreed not to engage in hostilities at sea. In 1853, they signed a treaty with the United Kingdom, under which the sheikhs (the "Trucial Sheikhdoms") agreed to a "perpetual maritime truce." It was enforced by the United Kingdom, and disputes among sheikhs were referred to the Political Resident, a British civil servant, for settlement.

Primarily in reaction to the ambitions of other European countries, the United Kingdom and the Trucial Sheikhdoms established closer bonds in an 1892 treaty, similar to treaties entered into by the U.K. with other Gulf principalities. The sheikhs agreed not to dispose of any territory except to the United Kingdom and not to enter into relationships with any foreign government other than the United Kingdom without its consent. In return, the British promised to protect the Trucial Coast from all aggression by sea and assist the Sheikhs in the case of land attack.

In 1955, the United Kingdom sided with Abu Dhabi in the latter's dispute with Saudi Arabia over the Buraimi Oasis and other territory to the south. A 1974 agreement between Abu Dhabi and Saudi Arabia almost settled their border dispute, but the agreement was never ratified by the U.A.E. Government. The border with Oman also remains officially unsettled, although the two governments agreed to delineate the border in May 1999.

In 1968, the U.K. announced its decision to end the treaty relationships with the seven Trucial Sheikhdoms which had been, together with Bahrain and Qatar, under British protection. The nine attempted to form a union of Arab emirates, but by mid-1971 they were unable to agree on terms of union. Bahrain became independent in August and Qatar in September, 1971. When the British-Trucial Sheikhdoms treaty expired on December 1, 1971, they became fully independent. On December 2, 1971, six of them entered into a union called the United Arab Emirates. The seventh, Ras al-Khaimah, joined in early 1972. Abu Dhabi’s ruler, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al Nahyan was elected by the Supreme Council as President and Dubai’s ruler, Sheikh Rashid bin Said al Maktoum, became Prime Minister.

The U.A.E. sent forces to help liberate Kuwait during the 1990-91 Gulf War. U.A.E. troops have also participated in peacekeeping missions to Lebanon, Somalia, Bosnia, Albania, Kosovo, and Afghanistan.

In 2004, the U.A.E.'s first and only president until that time, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, died. His eldest son and Crown Prince, Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, succeeded him as Ruler of Abu Dhabi. In accordance with the Constitution, the U.A.E.'s Supreme Council of Rulers elected Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan as U.A.E. Federal President. Mohammed bin Zayed al Nahyan succeeded Khalifa as Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi. In January 2006, Sheikh Maktoum bin Rashid Al Maktoum, U.A.E. Vice President and Prime Minister and Ruler of Dubai, passed away and was replaced by his brother, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum.


Government Type: federation with specified powers delegated to the UAE federal government and other powers reserved to member emirates

Administratively, the U.A.E. is a loose federation of seven emirates, each with its own ruler. Under the provisional constitution of 1971, each emirate reserves considerable powers, including control over mineral rights (notably oil and gas) and revenues. In this milieu, federal powers have developed slowly. The constitution established the positions of President (Chief of State) and Vice President, each serving 5-year terms; a Council of Ministers, led by a Prime Minister (head of government); a supreme council of rulers; and a 40-member Federal National Council (FNC). The FNC is a consultative body with half its members appointed by the emirate rulers and half elected through an electorate chosen by the rulers of each emirate.

While the U.A.E. has worked to strengthen its federal institutions since achieving independence, each emirate still retains substantial autonomy. A basic concept in the U.A.E. Government's development as a federal system is that a significant percentage of each emirate's revenues should be devoted to the U.A.E. central budget.

The U.A.E. has no political parties. The rulers hold power on the basis of their dynastic position and their legitimacy in a system of tribal consensus. Rapid modernization, enormous strides in education, and the influx of a large foreign population have changed the face of the society. In December 2006, the U.A.E. held its first-ever limited elections to select half the members of the FNC. Ballots were cast by electors selected by the ruler of each emirate. One woman was elected to the FNC and additional women were appointed to be council members. In September 2011, the U.A.E. held its second FNC elections, this time expanding the electoral pool from under 7,000 in 2006 to nearly 130,000 voters. Again, one woman was elected; an additional six were later appointed.

Capital: Abu Dhabi - 666,000 (2009)

Administrative divisions: 7 emirates (imarat, singular - imarah); Abu Zaby (Abu Dhabi), 'Ajman, Al Fujayrah, Ash Shariqah (Sharjah), Dubayy (Dubai), Ra's al Khaymah, Umm al Qaywayn (Quwain)


Independence Date: 2 December 1971 (from the UK)

Legal System:   mixed legal system of Islamic law and civil law. The United Arab Emirates has not submitted an International Court of Justice (ICJ) jurisdiction declaration; and is a non-party state to the International criminal court (ICCt).

Foreign Relations: The U.A.E. is a member of the United Nations and the Arab League and has established diplomatic relations with more than 60 countries, including the U.S., Japan, Russia, the People's Republic of China, and most western European countries. It has played a moderate role in the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, the Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries, the United Nations, and the GCC.

Substantial development assistance has increased the U.A.E.'s stature among recipient states. Most of this foreign aid (in excess of $15 billion over time) has been to Arab and Muslim countries. In 2007, the U.A.E. pledged and delivered $300 million to Lebanon, and was the first country to fulfill its pledge. The U.A.E. has provided significant monetary and material support to the Iraqi Government, including a pledge of $215 million in economic and reconstruction assistance, and has also provided substantial aid to Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the Palestinian Authority.

The U.A.E. is a member of the following international organizations: UN and several of its specialized agencies (ICAO, ILO, UPU, WHO, WIPO); World Bank, International Monetary Fund (IMF), Arab League, Organization of the Islamic Conference, Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries, and the Non-Aligned Movement. The U.A.E. is also a member of the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) and hosts the headquarters at Abu Dhabi.

The United States has enjoyed friendly relations with the U.A.E. since 1971. Private commercial ties, especially in petroleum (the U.A.E. is the only GCC state to allow private-sector participation in its oil and gas sector), have developed into friendly government-to-government ties, which include security cooperation. The U.A.E. is the United States’ single largest export market in the Middle East and North Africa region, with $14.4 billion in exports in 2008 and more than 750 U.S. firms operating locally. There are nearly 50 weekly non-stop flights to the U.A.E. from six U.S. cities. U.A.E. ports host more U.S. Navy ships than any port outside the U.S. The United States was the third country to establish formal diplomatic relations with the U.A.E. and has had an ambassador resident in the U.A.E. since 1974.

International Environmental Agreements

The United Arab Emirates is party to international agreements on: Biodiversity, Climate Change, Climate Change-Kyoto Protocol, Desertification, Endangered Species, Hazardous Wastes, Marine Dumping, and Ozone Layer Protection.


Total Renewable Water Resources: 0.2 cu km (1997)

Freshwater Withdrawal:    2.3 cu km/yr (23% domestic, 9% industrial, 68% agricultural)

Per Capita Freshwater Withdrawal:


Agricultural products: dates, vegetables, watermelons; poultry, eggs, dairy products; fish

Irrigated Land: 2,300 sq km (2008)


Natural Resources: petroleum, natural gas

Land Use:

arable land: 0.77%
permanent crops: 2.27%
other: 96.96% (2005)


The UAE is an important producer of natural gas and oil, ranking seventh globally in total proven reserves of both.

The UAE has been able to maintain its proven reserves over the last decade primarily due to enhanced oil recovery (EOR) technologies increasing extraction rates of mature oil projects.

Most electricity generated in the UAE uses natural gas as a feedstock, causing the government to look for ever increasing volumes to compensate for increased demand from economic expansion and high population growth.

This need for an expanded grid and greater stability in generation has prompted the increased development of natural gas, as well as nuclear and renewable energy to diversify sources for electricity production.

See: Energy profile of United Arab Emirates


Prior to the first exports of oil in 1962, the U.A.E. economy was dominated by pearl production, fishing, agriculture, and herding. Since the rise of oil prices in 1973, however, petroleum has dominated the economy, accounting for most of its export earnings and providing significant opportunities for investment. The U.A.E. has huge proven oil reserves, estimated at 97.8 billion barrels in 2011, with gas reserves estimated at 214.2 trillion cubic feet; at present production rates, these supplies would last well over 150 years. In 2009, the U.A.E. produced about 2.41 million barrels of oil per day.

The UAE has an open economy with a high per capita income and a sizable annual trade surplus.

Successful efforts at economic diversification have reduced the portion of GDP based on oil and gas output to 25%.

Since the discovery of oil in the UAE more than 30 years ago, the UAE has undergone a profound transformation from an impoverished region of small desert principalities to a modern state with a high standard of living.

The government has increased spending on job creation and infrastructure expansion and is opening up utilities to greater private sector involvement.

Major increases in imports have occurred in manufactured goods, machinery, and transportation equipment, which together have accounted for 70% of total imports. Another important foreign exchange earner, the Abu Dhabi Investment Authority--which controls the investments of Abu Dhabi, the wealthiest emirate--manages an estimated $600 billion in overseas investments.

In April 2004, the UAE signed a Trade and Investment Framework Agreement with Washington and in November 2004 agreed to undertake negotiations toward a Free Trade Agreement with the US, however, those talks have not moved forward.

The country's Free Trade Zones - offering 100% foreign ownership and zero taxes - are helping to attract foreign investors. More than 6,000 companies from more than 120 countries operate at the Jebel Ali complex in Dubai, which includes a deep-water port and a free trade zone for manufacturing and distribution in which all goods for re-export or transshipment enjoy a 100% duty exemption. A major power plant with associated water desalination units, an aluminum smelter, and a steel fabrication unit are prominent facilities near the complex.

Except in the free trade zone, the U.A.E. requires at least 51% local citizen ownership in all businesses operating in the country as part of its attempt to place Emiratis in leadership positions.

As a member of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), the U.A.E. participates in a wide range of GCC activities that focus on economic issues. These include regular consultations and development of common policies covering trade, investment, banking and finance, transportation, telecommunications, and other technical areas, including protection of intellectual property rights.

The global financial crisis, tight international credit, and deflated asset prices constricted the economy in 2009 and 2010. UAE authorities tried to blunt the crisis by increasing spending and boosting liquidity in the banking sector. The crisis hit Dubai hardest, as it was heavily exposed to depressed real estate prices. Dubai lacked sufficient cash to meet its debt obligations, prompting global concern about its solvency. The UAE Central Bank and Abu Dhabi-based banks bought the largest shares. In December 2009 Dubai received an additional $10 billion loan from the emirate of Abu Dhabi.

The economy is expected to continue a slow rebound.

Dependence on oil, a large expatriate workforce, and growing inflation pressures are significant long-term challenges. The UAE's strategic plan for the next few years focuses on diversification and creating more opportunities for nationals through improved education and increased private sector employment.

GDP: (Purchasing Power Parity): $260.8 billion (2011 est.)

GDP: (Official Exchange Rate): $358.1 billion (2011 est.)

GDP- per capita (PPP): $48,500 (2011 est.)

GDP- composition by sector:

agriculture: 0.7%
industry: 59.4%
services: 39.8% (2011 est.)

Industries: petroleum and petrochemicals; fishing, aluminum, cement, fertilizers, commercial ship repair, construction materials, some boat building, handicrafts, textiles

Currency: Emirati dirhams (AED)



Administration, N., Agency, C., Fund, W., & Department, U. (2012). United Arab Emirates. Retrieved from http://www.eoearth.org/view/article/172927


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