Overview of the United Arab Emirates (UAE)
By the early twentieth century, a leading source of economic activity was the pearl trade. However, World War I, the Great Depression, and the Japanese invention of the cultured pearl resulted in a significant weakening of the pearling industry. The heavy taxation on pearls imported from the Gulf following World War II by India caused its irreversible decline. As a result, some turned to fishing. But, with little education and no roads or hospitals, the future looked bleak. By the 1930s, the first oil company entered the region and began conducting surveys around Abu Dhabi. In 1962, Abu Dhabi exported its first cargo of crude oil that would play an essential role in the UAE’s development.
Since the 1820s, the English had maintained a presence in this region. In 1853, Britain intervened in the area due to pirate threats and made a permanent truce to provide protection and oversight of the foreign policy. It was explicitly understood that Britain would not colonize the area. This agreement was made with a group known as the Trucial States, which were a collection of sheikdoms in the Persian Gulf. The Trucial States, also referred to as the Trucial Colony, was composed of present-day Bahrain, Qatar, UAE and Oman. Following a period of Arab nationalism and anti-British activity beginning in the 1940s and 1950s, the British eventually relinquished administration of the region in 1971.
On December 2, 1971, the UAE was created by uniting seven of the Trucial States under a unified Constitution: Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Sharjah, Ajman, Umm al Qaiwain, Ras al-Khaimah and Fujairah. Abu Dhabi is the largest of the former territories and is the federal capital. Dubai is second largest of the emirates and is the main port, commercial center, and airport hub. The five other emirates are smaller areas that realize political and economic benefits through alliances with the larger neighbors, Abu Dhabi and Dubai. All seven states are ruled by Sunnis.
The UAE is considered by some to be an autocracy, which is a form of government in which one person possesses unlimited power. There has been even less political reform in this country than in other Gulf States, even Saudi Arabia. International non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have ranked the UAE as having among the least free political systems in the world. In particular, such studies have highlighted the existence of the ‘sheikh’s dilemma’ in the UAE, in which economic but not political reform is pursued. To maintain peace, a ‘ruling bargain’ is implemented where the UAE government distributes oil wealth equitably, while also carefully exploiting a range of ideological, religious, and cultural resources. Others simply state that the UAE exhibits a monarchical presidency led by ruling families on neo-patrimonial lines.
Following the British withdrawal, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan became the first president. Sheikh Zayed, once Emir (or ruler) of Abu Dhabi, ruled as UAE’s president for over thirty years until his death on November 2, 2004. Due to oil wealth, Sheikh Zayed became one of the richest individuals in the world with an estimated net worth in excess of $24 billion (USD). Following his death, the eldest son of Sheikh Zayed, Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan became President of the UAE. Sheikh Khalifa is the world’s third richest member of a royal family, with an estimated net worth of $19 billion (USD). The presidency of UAE is decided by a vote by the Federal Supreme Court (FSC), a governmental entity in the UAE rather than through an electoral or popular vote. Political parties are strictly prohibited.
The UAE’s highest authority is the Supreme Council of Rulers (SCR). The SCR is given power to initiate policy and reject laws that have been previously passed. Seven hereditary rulers and sometimes their crown princes and closest advisors have control of this governing body. Subordinate to the SCR is the Federal Council of Ministers (COM). The bulk of UAE’s policies and daily affairs are formulated by the COM, which meets more frequently and formally than the SCR. The judicial branch of government is run by the Union Supreme Court. Judges are appointed directly by the UAE president.
The FSC is the highest constitutional authority in the UAE and has both legislative and executive powers. Overseeing the FSC are the rulers from each of the seven emirates. In addition to the FSC, there are both secular and Islam courts in all seven emirates. The secular courts in the UAE rule on criminal, civil, and commercial matters. Family and religious disputes are heard in the Islamic courts. Each emirate has their own government with municipalities and departments.
There is a high degree of political stability in the UAE, and it is the only Arab state to have a working federal system that withstood the test of time. Furthermore, there are many women in all levels of government. This is a positive reflection on the UAE given its Middle East location.
Sheikh Zayed had a foreign policy to not use force over compromise and to become a major donor of overseas aid, such as infrastructure development and humanitarian relief.
Sheikh Kahlifa developed a foreign policy of non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries. He also supported the pursuit of peaceful resolutions of disputes. The UAE has provided support to the Iraqi Government in the form of debt forgiveness and is a strong advocate of instilling peace in the Middle East with help primarily from the USA. In addition, the UAE promotes intercultural and interfaith dialogues with the primary goal of mitigating misunderstanding between faiths and cultures with the belief that such misunderstandings are used as leverage by terrorists and those who harbor them.
There is strong support in the UAE for international institutions such as the United Nations. The UAE signed or ratified laws to protect the rights of people with disabilities and hosted conventions to eradicate torture and cruelty in punishment, suppression of nuclear terrorism and combating human trafficking. Illicit drugs are another problem, as its proximity to South Asia makes it a drug transshipment point for traffickers. Furthermore, being a major financial center, the UAE is at risk of harboring money laundering schemes. The international community is seeking the UAE government to implement controls to mitigate these problems. The UAE is also a supporter of peaceful resolutions in Palestinians with the support of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).
Disputes have existed between the UAE and Iran over the ownership rights to three UAE-based islands. These disputes date back to 2003 when Oman and the UAE signed and ratified boundary agreements for the entire border. Failing to publish the agreement and detailed maps of alignment gave Iran the opportunity to dispute the Tunb and Abu Musa Islands. In October 2009, Iran signed a Memorandum of Understanding to establish a joint commission between itself and the UAE. Furthermore, the UAE has concern over Iran’s nuclear program. Once long-time tensions between Saudi Arabia and the UAE have also abated. The biggest threat to the UAE is an internal regime failure, which would collapse the GCC military.
The UAE’s foreign aid policy is based on the Islamic philosophy of extending a helping hand for the needy to fulfill a duty of all Muslims. Wealth from oil and gas provides the UAE with the means of helping less fortunate countries. Organizations such as the UAE Red Crescent, which provides emergency relief, play an important role in such efforts.
Relations with the USA have been well-maintained and unified with the goal of maintaining a strong alliance with security and economic interests, including stability in the Middle East and the reliable supply of energy to global markets. The UAE is the largest importer in the Arab World of US goods at $144 billion (USD) in 2008. Over 750 US firms have a presence in the UAE, including Bechtel, ExxonMobil, Starbucks and Cold Stone Creamery. (The World Factbook 2009, 15) Following the global recession, the UAE has tried to insulate the local economy while working with multilateral institutions, such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and on a bilateral basis to help countries most seriously impacted.
One setback for the UAE is the severe repression of freedom of speech. There are controls restricting the media from criticizing or questioning the actions of policy. The UAE government pushed new media laws past a first legislative hurdle on January 20, 2009, which would restrict the freedom of press. Any journalist who criticizes the royal family or publishes information that is damaging to the economy, Islam, or UAE citizens is fined up to 1,000,000 Emirati Dirhams (AED). The maximum fine is equivalent to about $270,000 USD. Imprisonment is also possible, but rarely enforced, as the industry practices self-censorship. Censorship has also been exercised by the UAE government. Censoring media on UAE’s prison affairs, democratization efforts, and criticism of the ruling family is seen as repressive to the rights of UAE citizens.
For instance, the UAE does not participate in a bankruptcy process as in many Western nations. Debtors unable to meet such obligations are sent to a debtor’s prison and this has been an increasingly occurring affair since the start of the global financial crisis. Many questions have been raised about the ethical nature of this practice, as well as the level of humane treatment at such facilities.
Property rights in the UAE are about forty percent below the global average, according to the Heritage Foundation, due to the considerable influence the ruling families exercise on the judiciary. Corruption and incompetence in the system is rarely challenged. All land in Abu Dhabi is government-owned. Foreigners may obtain mortgages in Dubai. The UAE leads the region in the protection of intellectual property rights.
The population of the UAE is expected to grow from 4.76 million in 2008 to 5.06 million in 2009, a 6.31 percent annual growth rate. The UAE is extremely reliant on expatriates in its workforce. As of 2007, there were an estimated 3.62 million non-UAE nationals versus 864,000 UAE-born nationals. Most labor issues concern expatriates, especially among the unskilled segment. Addressing these issues is an ongoing development.
In the same year there were an estimated 3.08 million males and 1.4 million females. While Arabic is the official language, English is preferred in the international business community of the UAE. Islam is the official religion of the UAE, but all religions are tolerated.
UAE nationals are described as being tolerant, forward-looking individuals who maintain a strong sense of tradition. There is a high standard of living that is shared by many, including a well-developed education system and health services. There are over sixty public and private universities in the UAE. The illiteracy rate is approximately seven percent.
The UAE government supports efforts to develop human services, especially to assist in the empowerment of women and for social welfare programs. Approximately thirty percent of the UAE workforce is comprised of women. While migrants primarily wear Western-style clothing outside of work, the UAE nationals primarily wear traditional clothing in most settings for cultural reasons and to distinguish themselves from foreigners. Rapid advancements in healthcare facilities have drastically reduced infant mortality (to approximately eight out of every 1,000 births in 2008) and raised the average life expectancy age in the UAE (to seventy-seven for men and eighty for women). Social security services amounted to over $600 million (USD) in 2008, providing financial assistance to nearly 38,000 people.
The UAE sought to modernize under President Sheikh Zayed. Today, the country benefits from a vibrant free economy with a significant annual trade surplus. Reform of property laws has led to a boom in real estate and tourism, especially within Dubai. Tourism is expected to increase to 11.2 million tourists to the UAE in 2010.
Using such efforts as free trade zones, the UAE has been able to successfully diversify away from dependence on oil and gas exports. Free trade zones attract significant foreign investment given the incentive of one-hundred percent foreign ownership and tax-free profits, creating thousands of jobs and facilitating a technology transfer. In 2007, the direct foreign investment (DFI) into the UAE was the highest in the region, at around $19 billion (USD). Two of the largest free trade zones in the UAE are the Dubai Media City and Jebel Ali Free Zone. For instance, Jebel Ali Free Zone, a container port terminal, transports over eight million containers of cargo each year and was expected to reach $180 million in profits in 2007. This is more than all of India’s ports combined.
The GDP in the UAE was approximately $199 billion (USD) in 2007 using current prices, which represented a 5.2 percent annual growth rate and is approximately 115 times larger than its GDP in 1971. Major industries are oil and gas, petrochemicals, aluminum, cement, ceramics, ship repair, pharmaceuticals, tourism, transport, real estate and financial services. While many private companies operate six days each week, the government institutions reserve Friday and Saturday as days off.
In 2007, the UAE economy was ranked the twenty-ninth most competitive economy out of forty advanced economies in a study. This puts the country well ahead of any other Middle Eastern nation. According to the study, some of the strengths of the UAE included a government surplus, low national debt and a high national savings rate. Some of the weaknesses include uneven performance, a lack of innovation and entrepreneurship and high inflation, which unofficially has been as high as fifteen percent. In fact, the UAE is now the second largest Arab economy, behind only Saudi Arabia.
Economic growth is anticipated to slow as the country continues to mature and stabilize. Several serious issues hinder the continued UAE economic expansion. The property market throughout the country has issues such as project delays and bank funding shortages. Partially finished commercial buildings can be found primarily in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, and to a lesser extent in the other five emirates The recent decline in fuel prices has had implications on the UAE budget despite efforts to diversify. Furthermore, the UAE government is implementing more stringent lending guidelines for individuals and companies, while UAE banks are reducing exposure to foreign debt. The UAE had a budget surplus in 2006 of 211.3 billion AED. In 2007, the budget surplus increased to 236.15 billion AED.
Despite the efforts by the UAE to become less dependent on natural resources as a source of revenue, petroleum and natural gas exports continue to play an important role in the economy. UAE main export partners are Japan, China, and Iran. Imports into the UAE are mostly machinery and transport equipment, chemicals and food. Its main import partners are the European Union (Germany, UK and Italy), China, India, the US, and Japan. In 2006, the UAE had a trade surplus of 132.38 billion AED and a trade surplus of 135.94 billion AED in 2007.
To support the banks, the government is working on establishing guarantees of banking deposits and supporting low interest rates. Also, major infrastructure projects are being initiated at this time to lock in savings due to the economic downturn. Corporate governance and transparency standards are rising in the UAE as of late to instill international investor confidence in its equity markets.
The AED is currently pegged to the USD at 3.673 AED to every USD. The peg was established in the late 1980s; the current peg was established in 2002. This strategy could work well for the UAE because one of the country’s major sources of revenue is oil, which is denominated in USD. However, this also makes the UAE subject to any and all currency movements in the USD relative to other currencies. One of the major drawbacks of this exchange rate policy is the effect of high inflation in the UAE.
There have been several lessons learned in the UAE following the most recent global recession. First, leaders in both the public and private sectors took note of the correlation and interconnectedness of global market players. Secondly, careful study was undertaken to evaluate the re-recessionary impact on the UAE economy of oil price declines. Despite slowing growth, the UAE still has one of the fastest growing economies in the world. One of the main drivers of economic growth and employment creation in this country has been the consistency of fixed capital investment from the government, public institutions, and private entities. Four primary sectors are attracting investment and providing economic expansion in the UAE: hydrocarbons, manufacturing, transportation and communications and real estate.
Dubai plays a strategic role in the future of the UAE. Since the beginning of the twentieth century, Dubai had become the premier trading post of the Persian Gulf. Today, it is a massive metropolis with a population in excess of two million people. The initial catalyst for the emirate was oil wealth, which was used to invest in infrastructure and facilitated rapid socioeconomic developments starting in the 1970s and 1980s. A pioneering model was then introduced to create a post-oil economy based on diverse industrialization and a variety of specialist free zones. The diverse industrialization included such sectors as commercial infrastructure, light import-substitution, promotion of luxury tourism and a freehold real estate market.
Abu Dhabi, UAE’s political capital, has at least ten percent of the world’s proven hydrocarbon deposits and over ninety percent of UAE oil exports. Through oil-based revenues flowing into the country, the Abu Dhabi Investment Authority (ADIA) has formed to become the largest sovereign wealth fund (SWF) in the world. ADIA has teams of foreign experts that scour the globe for a variety of investment opportunities in the developed world, such as a five-percent stake in Fiat-controlled Ferrari, Southeast Asian emerging markets, and other developing countries (such as investments in Libya’s tourist infrastructure) that are expected to have substantial future growth.
Over the next ten or more years, the UAE and GCC members as a whole are anticipated to receive a windfall from a strong demand-side energy stimulus due primarily to the rapid economic developments in Brazil, Russia, India and China (BRICs). The BRICs were first recognized by a team of economists and other researchers at Goldman Sachs and, according to their predictions, the BRICs will exert considerable pricing pressure on global energy markets over at least the next decade due to their rapid economic development. If this takes place, the UAE will be able to sustain high investment levels and strong welfare-enhancing economic growth. Due to current regional instability and periods of regional violence, which is among the worst in the world, the UAE’s full economic potential from this scenario will unlikely be reached. Nonetheless, the UAE and the rest of the GCC have an opportunity in the coming decades to become one of the most prosperous regions in the world.
Despite impressive economic growth and development, areas of vulnerability within the economic system of the UAE exist. Social welfare systems have tied the government to burdensome distributive practices, which can bread an unproductive mentality among the native population. Secondly, many new sectors are especially reliant on foreign investment and an expanding expatriate workforce. For instance, Dubai has succumbed to not only globalizing but also appears to be Westernizing. Taboo industries for the UAE have been established in Dubai to cater to foreign residents. They include night clubs, movie theaters and bars.
The other five emirates outside of Abu Dhabi and Dubai lack in economic development and growth potential. Ajman and Sharjah are both resided in by Dubai workers looking for cheaper accommodations. Ajman has great stability, with only four rulers since 1900. Sharjah is a city of learning and the arts, representing the cultural capital of the Arab World and has over twenty museums. Umm al-Qaiwain is the second smallest emirate and is relatively unproblematic and politically stable. However, the emirate’s stance on alcohol has created rifts with the UAE rulers. Umm al-Qaiwain licenses the right to sell and consume alcoholic products, like Dubai, but also operates hug shops at beach resorts. Residents in this emirate rely on fishing and cultivating palm trees as primary sources of income. Umm al-Qaiwain is undergoing an architectural renaissance and is rapidly developing. Fujairah is the only emirate on the eastern side of the UAE along the Gulf of Oman and has lowly status in the country’s development process. If it is able to overcome this situation, Fujairah has the potential to become an important alternative port of Dubai and the rest of the UAE.
The emirate benefits from great stability and good neighbor relations. Ras al-Khaimah has experienced instability over the last few decades and is expected to have more internal problems over the near future. It is not oil rich nor near Dubai, but is an important supply of labor into Dubai.
Financial regulation is somewhat complex in the UAE. The DIFC has its own regulator, the DFSA, and its own civil and commercial laws. The rest of the UAE financial system is regulated by the Central Bank of the UAE, The Emirates Securities and Commodities Authority (ESCA) and the Ministry of Economic Planning (MEP).
The Central Bank of the UAE is granted a general power to create rules governing all matters that fall within its authority. Most of the Central Bank’s power focuses on setting monetary policy and bank regulation, rather than regulating the securities market unless it regards anti-money laundering practices.
There is no formal bond market in the UAE. In order for companies to issue debt, they must list the bond offering on a different exchange (such as the London Stock Exchange), through bond dealers in commercial banks or through private placements directly to investors.
Of the seven emirates in the UAE, Dubai has been hit the hardest by the global financial crisis. The volatile situation in Dubai has affected the whole country and, coupled with a fall in oil prices, the IMF estimate a 3.3 percent contraction in the UAE in 2010. Alternatively, UAE officials have expressed optimism about the country’s future in an attempt to instill confidence in the UAE economy.
The GCC states, seek to become a regional financial hubs. Barriers to achieving this goal have risen as a result of the Dubai World crisis and the UAE’s response. International confidence in the ability of GCC to restructure their debts have been questioned as global investors express concern over issues of transparency, accountability and good corporate governance. At the heart of the issue is the region’s reputation for good governance. An even more serious development is whether such problems are symptomatic of a deeper trend. It is expected that international investors will subject the Gulf states to a far greater level of scrutiny in the future.
UAE government-produced research on the economic outlook in 2009 acknowledged that challenges lay ahead due to the financial crisis and global economic downturn, but emphasizes the country’s strong foundation in which to withstand such challenges. The large current account surplus, estimated at $285 billion (USD) in 2008, and the government’s large controlled overseas assets is expected to shield the UAE from a sharp downturn. However, trade and associated industries are anticipating a slowdown in exports in the future. One positive key prospect from this downturn is the expected decline in inflationary pressures in the UAE due to a fall in soft and hard commodity prices.
Liquidity in the banking sector is an issue that is receiving close attention by government officials in the UAE, as non-Abu Dhabi based banks appear to be undercapitalized following a series of profit falls. The property market, especially in Dubai, is very weak and precipitated by negative sentiment and a short supply of funding. Future construction projects are in doubt as leveraged property firms struggle to obtain new capital. Public-funded infrastructure projects, on the other hand, are expected to continue to experience robust growth. For instance, construction on Dubai’s Al Maktoum International Airport will be the world’s largest aviation hub when finished in 2015.
The UAE government literature emphasized that the government will not let any major firm fail. Furthermore, it was highlighted that most leading firms in major sectors such as property, banking and transport are either wholly or partially government-owned and, as such, their debts have an implicit government guarantee.