Most people living in the UAE (known as Emiris) are Arabs, a large majority of whom are city and town dwellers. A small number are nomadic (having no permanent home). The population has grown dramatically since the mid-1960s, largely due to the influx of oil workers to the country. Four-fifths of the UAE’s inhabitants are foreign workers and their families. The UAE also has a very youthful population, due to the large numbers of young foreign workers, a cultural preference for large families, and improved medical care.
The UAE had an estimated population of 2,602,713 in 2006, with a density of 31 persons per sq km (81 per sq mi). Some 85 percent of the country’s population is urban.
Abu Dhabi is the country’s capital and second largest city. The metropolis serves as the financial, transportation, and communications center of this major oil-producing area. The city is also a significant port and is home to a majority of the federal government ministries. The emirate of Abu Dhabi as a whole contains nearly 40 percent of the UAE’s total population.
Dubai, located in the emirate of the same name, is the largest city in the UAE and the main trading center of the entire Persian Gulf. It is home to the principal port facilities in the UAE as well as the country’s busiest airport, along with the headquarters of several federal ministries. Other major cities in the UAE include Ash Shariqah, an important port and industrial hub in that emirate, and Al `Ayn, an educational and cultural center in the emirate of Abu Dhabi.
The native Emiris are Arabs, and generally, a different tribe dominates each emirate. About half of the UAE’s non-native population are Asians (largely Indians, Pakistanis, Ceylonese, Bangladeshis, and Filipinos), and most of the rest are Iranians or Arabs (primarily Jordanians, Palestinians, and Egyptians). A much smaller percentage comes from Europe and the United States. Although the disproportionate ratio of expatriates to Emiris has caused concern over the possible impact on the country’s security and social and cultural values, the level of tensions between the various ethnic communities is slight.
Language & Religion
Arabic is the official language of the UAE. English is also widely spoken, as are Hindi—the language of commerce—Urdu, and Persian. Islam is the country’s official religion, and all UAE natives and a majority of the expatriates are Muslim. More than 80 percent follow the Sunni branch of Islam, with the rest belonging to the Shia branch. The constitution guarantees religious freedom and other religions are represented, including Hinduism and Christianity.
Primary and secondary education is free to UAE nationals and primary education is compulsory between the ages of 6 and 14. Most teachers, at all levels, are from other Arab countries. In 2005 adult literacy rates were estimated to be 79 percent. This represents a dramatic increase since the introduction of universal public education under the UAE’s 1971 constitution. The United Arab Emirates University in Al ‘Ayn has grown rapidly since it opened in 1977. A network of technical colleges opened in the late 1980s.
Way of Life
The culture and society of the UAE are a blend of traditional and modern elements. The religion of Islam and the heritage of a traditional, tribal society form the basis of a stable and essentially conservative social structure. There is, however, a decidedly tolerant and cosmopolitan atmosphere—most notable in the emirate of Dubai—that gives resident non-Emiris opportunities to enjoy their own cultural and religious organizations. For most older women the home remains the sphere of activity; younger women, benefiting from their access to modern education, are playing an ever-wider role in the society. An estimated 13 percent of the UAE’s labor force is female, and women are increasingly represented in government posts.
Reflecting the mix of modern and traditional influences, clothing styles in the UAE are both Western and indigenous. Most Emiri men wear the dishdasha, a white, loose-fitting garment that is comfortable in hot weather. Most women wear the enveloping black abaya and a face mask called the burka, although this tradition is beginning to be abandoned by younger, educated women.
Most of the population enjoys modern air-conditioned housing, either in apartments or villa-style houses. The small rural population lives in a more traditional style, and some Bedouins still live in nomadic ways, in tents.
Even though traditional sports such as falconry and camel racing remain popular in the UAE, newer sports, particularly soccer, have an enthusiastic following. The country also has a strong horse racing tradition; the annual Dubai World Cup is one of the richest events in the sport.
Traditional social rituals remain important, especially the Eid al-Fitr and the Eid al-Adha, the festivals that mark the end of Ramadan (the month of fasting) and the conclusion of the hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca) on the Islamic calendar. On special occasions, Emiris perform traditional dances to musical accompaniment.
The commitment to preserving traditional arts and culture is evident at both the popular and governmental levels. Each emirate devotes considerable resources to maintaining museums and libraries. The Abu Dhabi Cultural Foundation sponsors major events on artistic, social, and other themes featuring Arab and other cultural traditions throughout the year. The foundation’s Center for Documentation and Research is a national archive where scholars from around the world can research the history of the UAE back to the earliest times. Ash Shariqah has a fine arts museum and is home to a lively theater and literary scene.
Although disparities in the standard of living do exist between the emirates, there is almost no poverty in the UAE because its leadership has devoted a large part of Abu Dhabi’s wealth to the welfare of the poorer emirates. Drug trafficking and other crimes are not uncommon but confined mainly to the expatriate community.