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The UAE, In brief - MrPutter: doing things the hard way, because it is there.
February 23rd, 2002
02:30 pm
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The UAE, In brief
Response to Starslab's question. Response comments have a stupid length limit, so I'll just make a new post.

You can use this map for reference in the following post:


The UAE is divided up into 7 internal divisions, called emirates. The three largest emirates are Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Sharjah. The remaining four (Ajman, Umm al-Quwain, Ras al-Khaimah and Fujairah) are significantly smaller and are often collectively referred to as the "Northern Emirates." Each emirate has a capital city of the same name. On the map above I have indicated the cities of Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Sharjah (Al Ain is included for reference; it is where I used to live in the early 90's) as well as their respective emirates. Emirate boundaries are marked by the darker green lines.

Abu Dhabi (the city) is the capital, and (the emirate) is also by far the largest -- as you can see on the map, it comprises about 80% of the land area of the UAE. Accordingly it has about 90% of the oil (most of the remainder belongs to Dubai) and thus drives a significant part of the UAE's economy. It is also the only emirate with a second city (ie: Al Ain) of any significant size. Politically it has the most weight in the Federation.

The four largest cities in the UAE are Abu Dhabi (800,000), Dubai (800,000), Sharjah (500,000) and Al Ain (300,000). These numbers are estimates at best, as no comprehensive, accurate and consistent census has ever been taken (due to political reasons more than anything else -- that's a whole different discussion). For comparison, all of Greater Vancouver is about 2.7 million, which is co-incidentally almost the same as the UAE's combined population.

The cities of Dubai and Sharjah, as can be seen on the map, are very close to each other, and have a similar relationship to Seattle-Tacoma. Or, um, Vancouver and New Westminster (sort-of... that analogy is a lot weaker). This makes the Dubai/Sharjah/Ajman (Ajman being that little enclave immediately north of Sharjah, and has about 50,000 people) conurbation the largest city in the UAE, although due to the emirate divisions within the urban area, it's not anywhere as cohesive a city in terms of infrastructure, public transit, property laws, etc as would otherwise be the case, and are often treated as separate cities (think Detroit/Windsor). This is also partly due to the huge wealth gap between Dubai and Sharjah/Ajman.

My parents, as have been noted, live in an apartment in Abu Dhabi, right in the center of town. It is about a 5 minute walk to the ocean and 10 minutes to downtown.

I live on campus at AUS. If you look at Sharjah on the map, you will notice a road heading directly east, over to the mountains and the east coast. AUS is about 20km east of the town center along that road.


The 7 emirates exist as largely autonomous political entities. The UAE was formed in 1971 as a result of Britain (who had previously occupied most of the region) suddenly pulling out (with, like, 6 months' notice) and leaving the area to fend for itself. Prior to the federation, each of the emirates was a largely independant kingdom (or sheikhdom, as they also used to be called), along with Bahrain, Qatar (who are now independant countries) and the now defunct Kalba. The various sheikhdoms have a long, long history of petty squabbles and minor wars. This exists today in the form of an eternal pissing contest between Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Sharjah, but there is more unity than not. Which has been a great surprise to most observers. When Britain pulled out, the emirates that are now the UAE decided they were stronger together than apart and came together in a loose federation.

(As an aside, a lot of this is due to the ruler of Abu Dhabi, and the UAE's president, Sheikh Zayed. He has been far stronger than the remaining rulers, and thus the uncontested ruler since 1971. There is some concern over what will happen when he dies -- as he is already in his late 80's. There is a significant chance that the ruler of Dubai will contest Zayed's son's unilateral right to become president.)

As alluded to, the various emirates are monarchies in the strictest sense of the word. Each has its own ruling family, where the right to rule is passed down from father to son. The UAE in general is a federation, basically made up of representatives from each of the 7 royal families, who elect a leader from amongst themselves (which as I indicated has to date always been Sheikh Zayed of Abu Dhabi), and appoint a board of advisors. In theory these advisors can be anyone (as long as they are a UAE national), but in reality they almost always come from one of the ruling families. The same is true of the various ministers (ie: minister of education, minister of public works, minister of defense, etc). Again, Abu Dhabi has the most clout in the government, followed by Dubai.

As I started out by saying, the various emirates have a great deal of autonomy, mainly for historical reasons, although as time goes on and the ruling families trust each other more and more, there is ever more cohesion. Once (that is, if) the issue of Zayed's succesor is settled in a way acceptable to everyone, the feeling is that we can probably expect this process to accelerate.

So, what is done in co-ordination? Basically, defense, foreign policy, education and health care (and to a certain extent, transportation) are centralized. And there's transfer payments to the poorer emirates from the federal government (as only the three major emirates have oil, the remainder exist solely on federal handouts, and there's a HUGE wealth gap...) and that's about it. Pretty much everything else is done independantly.

In terms of internal policies, Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Sharjah have a tendancy to keep doing things differently from each other, just for the sake of being different, while the Northern Emirates tend to follow Abu Dhabi's lead, because... well, they like the money.

What does this mean? Well, that laws and policies can vary drastically from one city to the next. For example, while Dubai is probably one of the most liberal cities in the Middle East, Sharjah is one of the most conservative. This pamphlet on decency regulations, for example (which most of you have already read, I think), is from Sharjah, and applies very explicitly to Sharjah. In Dubai, for the most part, things wouldn't be all that different than in Canada (although wearing a bikini downtown might be frowned upon :-)

If anyone's interested, I also wrote an essay on Tabnet talking about the comparitive economies of the various emirates and their dependancy on oil revenues (or not, as the case may be). Anyway, I have copied it to my webserver and you can see it here.

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(5 comments , Leave a comment)

Date:February 23rd, 2002 05:06 am (UTC)
Thanks for the essay. Fills in a lot of the picture for me. Note that the map was just about useless ;). Green lines? What green lines? I don't see no green lines. I also have a hard time believing that Abu Dhabi is a tiny island.... :)

Any chance you could borrow Dubai's equivalent to that decency regulations pamphlet? And what is Abu Dhabi like in the liberality department?
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Date:February 23rd, 2002 05:34 am (UTC)
Ok, the map isn't a big deal. Mainly to show that Dubai and Sharjah are right next to each other, and AD is about 150-200km away, down the coast.

Green lines... grey lines... teal lines... whatever. Windows 95/98's default desktop background colour.

Still can't see them? Look at the coast about halfway between Abu Dhabi and Dubai. There's a line extending south-east from the coast. Those lines. Abu Dhabi emirate is the whole country southwest of that line. Abu Dhabi city is a little island roughly the size of (Vancouver + Burnaby).

But like I said, it's no big deal.

Dubai and Abu Dhabi have no equivalent to the Sharjah decency pamphlet that I know of. As I said, Dubai is very liberal, almost (but not quite) North-American-like. AD is somewhere in between. The government is pretty liberal and hands-off, but the population is a good deal more conservative than in Dubai.

Note that even in the more Liberal places, some things are still pretty restricted. For example, alcohol requires a permit to buy for home consumption (although is freely available in hotels and some types of restaurants) even in AD/Dubai. Getting caught in posession of pot is a mandatory jail sentence and possibly the death sentence (if you're Muslim and get caught with a lot of it).

Umm... it's illegal for two people of the opposite sex to live in the same house/flat/whatever if they're not related. And so on. Although in the case of laws like that latter, if you just don't tell anyone, there won't be any problem.

But of course that also depends on where you are. If you live in a more conservative area such as Sharjah or Al Ain (small inland city == VERY conservative population), your neigbours are likely to rat you out.

Which is something you have to remember. This isn't all government-imposed. I mean, it is, but only because that's already the culture. The local population is just as conservative as the government; in many cases moreso. So just because the law says such-and-such, doesn't mean you will be able to follow the letter of the law and get away (or not) with everything.

For example, in Sharjah, if you were to go out in the street wearing "provocative" dress. Even if you weren't hauled in by the cops, you would likely be hassled big-time by the people on the street. Shopkeepers would refuse to serve you, you'd be kicked out of restaurants and so on.

Which is why I'd say that Abu Dhabi is not as liberal as Dubai. Legally, they're very similar. But the people in AD are more conservative.
Date:February 24th, 2002 01:31 am (UTC)
Whats the religious makeup and religious tolerance like there?
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Date:February 24th, 2002 06:53 am (UTC)
Where? In the UAE in general?
Date:February 24th, 2002 10:02 am (UTC)
Yes. And maybe comparitively between the major cities.
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