The United Arab Emirates - an overview

THE United Arab Emirates is a relatively recent addition to the global community; it was born on December 2, 1971, when Britain, tired of playing nursemaid in the Gulf and realising that idealism had to take second place to money, rounded up seven of the little sheikhdoms in the area and played midwife to a rather messy delivery. In the end one sheikhdom stayed out and joined up only a year or so later.

Initially, two other little sheikhdoms which are now countries in their own right, Bahrain and Qatar, both minute specks on the map, The trade centre in Dubai: a reflection of Bedouin pridewere supposed to be pushed in as well but Bedouin pride asserted itself and these two stayed put. The head of each area was known as an Emir and so each was known as an emirate; the initial six which formed the United Arab Emirates were Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Sharjah. Ajman, Umm Al Quwain and Fujairah. The latecomer to the federation was Ras Al Khaimah.

There were many who expressed doubts as to whether the seven would stick together but they have done just that. Oil was discovered in Abu Dhabi in 1962 and there is enough there to last another 100 years. Dubai has some oil but has developed itself as a trading centre and, since it has a laissez-faire attitude towards commerce, has managed to do pretty well for itself.

Sharjah prides itself on being some kind of a centre of culture (more of that later!) and has tried to develop as a banking centre. Now, however, commonsense is returning and the ruler (who, incidentally, has a doctorate for a thesis stating that there never was any piracy in the Gulf!!!) is attempting more down-to-earth methods to attract people and money to his little state.

The other four emirates are dependent on handouts from Abu Dhabi which contributes 90 percent of the federal budget. Fujairah has a good port which brings in some income and Bedouin pride has ensured that there are five airports (at Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Sharjah, Fujairah and Ras Al Khaimah) in the country. A sixth, in the desert town of Al Ain, close to Abu Dhabi, is expected to be ready soon. The runway at Ras Al Khaimah is big enough to take two Jumbo jets and the airport has been on 24-hour standby right from the time it was built; at the start, there was just one daily flight -- from Kuwait!

The smaller emirates have thus become host to a number of dubious characters and equally suspicious trade. The UAE is a Muslim country where the state religion is Islam but liquor is openly sold on the beaches of both Umm Al Quwain and Ajman. The freer spirits who sit out in the sun and get sozzled do face one obstacle though; getting home is a perilous business if one intends to drive back. Getting caught at the wheel with even a whiff of liquor on one's breath can lead to the loss of your licence for six months and sometimes a lot more.

Dubai, with its laissez-faire attitude to business, has become a transhipment point for drugs and a large number of people wanted in India for various crimes have taken refuge in the emirate. The collapse of the Bank of Credit and Commerce International in 1991 is an indicator of the type of charlatans who woo over the sheikhs of this country. The UAE has thus become reputed for being a place where easy money can be made (though this is not possible unless one is into shady deals), one where crime is virtually absent (fear of deportation is the reason why it remains thus) and a place where the mediocre can parade as the competent. All this, and more, is true.

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