The UAE: From empty deserts to towering skyscrapers

It’s just a matter of semantics, really. The United Arab Emirates (UAE) can be classed as either a country in itself or as a federation of states. The latter is perhaps a more accurate definition, given the fact that each emirate – effectively a self-governing principality overlooked by an emir – has a large degree of independence, symbolically expressed through distinct flags (though the UAE as a collective has a national flag).
However, the UAE does operate on agreement and consensus, with an accord of political and religious governance disseminated in unity throughout the seven states, which ensures they’re all delivering similar policies and ideologies.
To achieve this, the UAE – which is made up of Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Umm al Qaiwai, Ajman, Ras al Khaimah, Sharjah and Fujairah – is governed as a whole by a Supreme Council of Rulers, overlooked by a president.
While the president is technically appointed by the seven emirs, this isn’t really a reality. Historically, there have only been two emirs since the UAE gained independence from Britain in 1971, and both have been from Abu Dhabi.
Consequently, the position of president, who is also supreme commander of the UAE’s armed forces and chairman of the supreme petroleum council – an important position, given how significant oil is – is hereditarily given. The current president is Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, son of the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, who held the position as head of state for 30 years.
The emirs have had quite an influence on developing the region. Since the early sixties, they have transformed the federation beyond recognition, boosting its respective economies exponentially through the sale of oil and thus, today, the UAE has one of the highest GDPs per head in the world.
It’s fair to say that the changes brought about by the export of oil are extraordinary. It was, prior to the masses of infrastructural developmental that have since taken place – Dubai being the most visually recognisable example of that – a quiet region, internationally speaking, with little by way of goods and services to pass on to an increasingly globalised world.
While early growth was courtesy of oil – the UAE’s reserves are currently the sixth largest in the world, behind Kuwait, Iraq, Iran, Canada, Venezuela and Saudi Arabia – it has in recent times diversified its dependency on oil, by broadening its economy. This includes a booming tourism industry, an ever-productive construction sector and a growing presence as a financial hub.
Foreign investment has, accordingly, shot through the roof, further enhancing economic growth. Though it was hit hard by the financial crisis, the UAE has bounced back. Business prospects in the Middle East are promising because there is still plenty of work to be done. After all, the UAE is still relatively young.
It’s no surprise then that many businesses looking to expand are directing their attention to this region, and already there is a sizeable presence of British expats. Of the 160,000 British professionals in the Gulf, approximately 100,000 are concentrated in the UAE.
In fact, indicative of the former relationship, British nationals are influential in shaping the modern image of the federation, having been involved in, for example, the development of the Burj Khalifa and Abu Dhabi Formula One circuit.
Needless to say, British professionals moving overseas to one of the states will be pleased to know that there is an established, sizeable and thriving expat community living a decidedly successful and happy existence. Add to that equation the sub-tropical weather, characteristically dry and hot, and you’re looking at a way of life that is hard to resist.
Yes, the cost of living in the UAE is higher than it is in the UK, especially in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, but not only do British professionals earn more than they would back home, their salary is tax-free, meaning that any additional costs paid towards foodstuffs, travel and housing are balanced out. Expats will gain more than they lose, that much is a certainty.
All in all, living and working in the UAE is an opportunity to experience a radically new way of life and to do so in an environment where any niggling doubts are alleviated by the strong sense of community among British expats. You can feel at home – an adage tourist bosses might want to use.
It will take a while to adjust to the strange duality of the region, the perplexing balance of conservative Islamic and western lives coexisting relatively well, but regardless, comfort can be taken from the UAE having the most liberal and safe states in the Gulf, with deep ties to the UK. It’s certainly going places, and you are certainly invited to join the ride.
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