Politics & Economy

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) is a federation of seven autonomous states – Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Sharjah, Ras Al Khaimah, Fujairah, Umm Al Quwain and Ajman – each governed by a hereditary absolute monarch called a sheikh. Among the emirates, Dubai has the highest profile abroad, but Abu Dhabi is the indisputable capital, with the greatest wealth and the largest territory. A certain tribal rivalry between them has helped spur the union on.

Federal Politics

Despite Dubai becoming so strong over the last few years, it has had to fight to preserve as much of its independence as possible and to minimise the power of the country’s federal institutions.

Politically, the relative interests of the seven emirates are fairly clear. Oil-rich Abu Dhabi is the largest and wealthiest emirate and has the biggest population. As such it is the naturally dominant member of the federation. Dubai is the second-largest emirate by population, with both an interest in upholding its free-trade policies and a pronounced independent streak. The relationship between the two emirates was redefined during the financial turmoil of 2008–09 when the capital came to Dubai's rescue on several occasions. The other emirates are dependent on subsidies from Abu Dhabi, though the extent of this dependence varies widely.

The Decision-Makers

The seven rulers of the UAE form the Supreme Council, the highest body in the land. The council ratifies federal laws and sets general policy. New laws can be passed with the consent of five of the seven rulers. The Supreme Council also elects one of the emirs to a five-year term as the country’s president. After the death in late 2004 of Sheikh Zayed, the founder and first president of the country, power passed peacefully to his son, Sheikh Khalifa Bin Zayed Al Nahyan.

There is also a Council of Ministers, or cabinet, headed by the prime minister (the ruler of Dubai) who appoints ministers from across the emirates. The more populous and wealthier emirates such as Abu Dhabi and Dubai have greater representation.

The cabinet and Supreme Council are advised, but can’t be overruled, by a parliamentary body called the Federal National Council (FNC). It has 40 members, apportioned among the seven emirates. Since 2006, 20 members are elected, while the other 20 are directly appointed by the ruler of each emirate. The FNC debates proposed legislation and the federal budget. During the most recent elections in 2015, voter turnout came to 35%, a rise of 7% over the 2011 elections. Of the nine female FNC members, only one was elected, the other eight were appointed. The next elections will be held in 2019.

Benign Dictatorship

During the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings across the region, there was much talk about democracy but not much appetite to see it implemented. It may go against the grain of Western assumptions, but democracy is not as universally desired in the region as the media would have us believe. Perceived as promoting the interests of the individual over those of the community, democracy is considered by many in this part of the world to run contrary to tribal traditions, where respect for elders is paramount. In common with other parts of the Middle East, the people of the UAE tend to favour strong, centralised government under an autocratic leader – what has been dubbed 'benign dictatorship'. Of course, benign dictatorship is only as good as the person in charge, and Dubai has been lucky in this respect, enjoying a half-century of visionary and dynamic leadership.

When Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum of Dubai was named one of the world’s 100 most influential people by Time magazine in 2008, it came as no surprise. Having spent several years as a de facto ruler while he was crown prince, Sheikh Mohammed was the obvious candidate for the top job when his brother, Sheikh Maktoum, died in early 2006. Although he is surrounded by some of the greatest minds in the Gulf, as well as political and economic experts imported from all over the world, there’s no uncertainty about where executive power lies. ‘Sheikh Mo’, as he is affectionately called, has a flair for generating publicity for the city and was deeply involved in the planning and construction of landmark projects such as the Burj Al Arab, Palm Jumeirah and Burj Khalifa. He is also the architect of Vision 2020, a road map created in 2013 to double the number of visitors to the emirates to 20 million per year by 2020, as well as being the driving force behind Dubai's bid to host World Expo 2020.

Visitors from Western countries may feel uncomfortable with the large-scale portraits of rulers in hotel lobbies and on billboards around town. Yet these are not simply the propaganda tools of an autocratic regime; many people in Dubai revere their rulers. Few world leaders are able to drive themselves around town, as Sheikh Mohammed does, without a bodyguard and without any fear of being attacked. Although dissenting voices aren’t tolerated and the local media is uncritical, many admire the emirs for creating a haven of peace and prosperity in a troubled part of the world.

A Diversified Economy

The UAE has the world’s sixth-largest oil reserves and the fifth-largest natural gas reserves, although these are unevenly distributed among the emirates. While 95% of the country's oil fields lie beneath the sands of the emirate of Abu Dhabi, Dubai has had to make do with a mere five patches in the Gulf. It is thought that at current levels of extraction, reserves will last for another 93 years but, as the dramatic drop in oil prices since 2015 has shown, the country cannot afford to be complacent about its continuing wealth.

In common with Gulf neighbours, therefore, the UAE is looking at alternative sources of energy and ways of diversifying the economy. Dubai's strategy for diversification has shown particular foresight, largely thanks to the vision and ambition of Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum. Dubai's reserves of oil and gas were never that large, but the resources were used wisely to finance a modern and efficient infrastructure for trade, manufacturing and tourism. Today, revenues for oil and gas account for less than 2% of Dubai's GDP.

Economic Challenges

Until September 2008, it looked as though Dubai had the Midas touch. But then the global financial crisis struck and the emirate’s economy collapsed like a proverbial house of cards. After real estate prices plummeted by as much as 50%, the emirate was unable to meet its debt commitments. However, markets stabilised quickly after the Abu Dhabi government rode to the rescue with a US$10 billion loan. As a symbol of gratitude, in January 2010 Sheikh Mohammed renamed Burj Dubai, the world’s tallest building, 'Burj Khalifa', in honour of the UAE president and ruler of Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Khalifa Bin Zayed Al Nahyan.

Dubai climbed quickly out of recession, proving its perennial critics wrong. By 2014 its GDP was growing at a robust 4.3% per annum. Its numerous free-trade zones played a significant factor in the rebound. Companies based in these zones are lured by the promise of full foreign ownership, full repatriation of capital and profits, no corporate tax for 15 years, no currency restrictions and no personal income tax. One of the largest free-trade zones is Jebel Ali in southern Dubai, which is home to 5500 companies from 120 countries.

Dubai did feel the impact of the significant drop in oil prices from 2015, but also has economic building blocks that are not dependent on the vagaries of the oil market. The introduction of a 5% value-added tax in 2018 will further add to the revenue stream. So far, Dubai has mostly managed to control its debt load and to play the long game, with the many World Expo 2020 projects going full steam ahead, as well as development of The World, with the first 'island', Sweden, set to have its first tenants by the end of 2018.

Once a Trader, Always a Trader

Throughout history, trade has been a fundamental part of Dubai’s economy. The emirate imports an enormous amount of goods, primarily minerals and chemicals, base metals (including gold), vehicles and machinery, electronics, textiles and foodstuffs. The main importers into Dubai are the US, China, Japan, the UK, South Korea and India.

Exports are mainly oil, natural gas, dates, dried fish, cement and electric cables. Top export destinations are the other Gulf states, Iran, India, Japan, Taiwan, Pakistan and the US.

Dubai’s re-export trade (where items such as white goods come into Dubai from manufacturers and are then sent onward) makes up about 80% of the UAE’s total re-export business. Dubai’s re-exports go mainly to Iran, India, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, China and Afghanistan.

World’s Largest Airport

Dubai never shies away from superlatives, which is why it should be no surprise that it is building the world’s biggest airport. Upon final completion (estimated to be 2027), Al Maktoum International Airport in Jebel Ali will boost the emirate’s annual passenger potential to an estimated 160 million by 2035, and be capable of handling more than 12 million tonnes of cargo annually. It is costing around US$34 billion to build and will eventually be 10 times the size of Dubai International Airport and Dubai Cargo Village combined.

Feature: Censorship

While the UAE constitution allows for freedom of speech, in practice the government uses its powers to limit this right. According to the independent watchdog organisation Freedom House, the UAE government may censor both domestic and foreign publications before distribution and prohibit criticism of the government, UAE rulers and ruling families, and friendly foreign governments. Access to websites considered indecent, such as those featuring pornography, gambling, online dating or LGBT content, is also blocked, as is any domain associated with Israel. In consequence, local journalists working in Dubai are used to practising self-censorship.

Voice calls made via WhatsApp, Skype and other VoIPs are usually blocked since they are not recognised 'licensed providers'. However, there have been periods in the past when the ban was periodically lifted. Some users employ a virtual private network (VPN) to access VoIP voice mail. Text messaging via these apps usually works.

Sidebar: Ruling Families

The president of the UAE is traditionally drawn from the Al Nahyan tribe, the ruling family of Abu Dhabi, while the prime minister is of the Al Maktoum ruling family, from Dubai.

Sidebar: Economics on the Web

  • www.ameinfo.com
  • www.uaeinteract.com
  • www.emirateseconomist.blogspot.com

Sidebar: Tourism Success

Dubai’s tourism, some suggest, was built on a clever exploitation of the stopover market, on the back of an excellent airline. Offering passengers a chance to break their journey and enjoy some tax-free shopping, Dubai has now become a destination in its own right.

Sidebar: Sheikh Mo

Dubai's current ruler, Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum ('Sheikh Mo'), is a keen fan of falconry and equestrianism and runs the Godolphin Stables; he is estimated to be worth US$4 billion.

Identity & Culture

A criticism levelled at Dubai is that it is so lacking in national identity 'you could be anywhere'. This must be said by those who've never visited, or by those who mistakenly think high-rise sophistication is the sole preserve of Western cultures. Arrive at the airport with its bold design, extravagant spaces and grand public art, and frankly 'you couldn't be anywhere else'!

Bedouin Heritage

Emiratis celebrate their cultural identity through falconry, animal husbandry, horse- and camel-racing and escapes to the desert. The Bedouin bond with animals may be an obvious indication of a link with the past, but there are more subtle ways in which this heritage is kept alive. Go to a conference, and you are likely to be offered coffee and dates, or at the very least offered the welcome that is implicit in those traditional symbols of 'bread and salt'. Visit a neighbour, and they will see you to the lift in a gesture of safe passage.

Sensing that shedding the visible symbols of their old way of life gave the wrong message about their emirate, the government of Dubai has since worked hard to reinstate them. Forts have been renovated, old buildings preserved, heritage villages and cultural centres promoted, and songs and dances reinstated during national day events. Even though the application to have the historic sections along Dubai Creek in Bur Dubai and Deira declared a Unesco World Heritage site has been rejected twice, it has only spurred the government to try harder. In fact, the entire Shindagha Historic District, as well as Al Seef, plus heritage buildings in Deira have either been rebuilt or upgraded to showcase the emirate's past in more modern, accessible and meaningful ways.

These are not just gestures to attract and entertain tourists: they fulfil a role in educating young Emiratis about the value of their culture and heritage.

Islamic Values

A Life Informed by Religion

Islam is not just the official religion in the UAE: it is the cultural lifeblood. Religion is more than something performed on a Friday and put aside during the week: it is part of everyday life. It guides the choices an individual makes and frames the general context in which family life, work, leisure, care of the elderly and responsibility towards others take place. As such, Islam has played a socially cohesive role in the rapidly evolving UAE, providing support where old structures (both physical and social) have been dismantled to make way for a new urban experience.

For the visitor, understanding this link between religion and daily life can help make better sense of often misunderstood practices. Take dress, for example. Islam prescribes modest dress in public places for both men and women. The origin of the custom of covering the body is unclear – it certainly pre-dates Islam and to a large degree is an excellent way to deal with the ravaging desert sun. Similarly, Muslims are forbidden to consume anything containing pork or alcohol. These strictures traditionally made good sense in a region where tapeworm was a common problem with pork meat and where the effects of alcohol are exaggerated by the extreme climate.

Practical Faith

You don't have to be in Dubai long to notice the presence of the 'third party' of Islam in all human interaction. Every official occasion begins with a reading from the Holy Quran. A task at work begins with an entreaty for God's help. The words alhamdulillah ('thanks be to God') frequently lace sentences in which good things are related. Equally the words inshallah (God willing) mark all sentences that anticipate the future. These expressions are not merely linguistic decoration; they evidence a deep connection between society and faith.

Social Interaction

Respect for Elders

Emiratis value the advice of their elders. Traditional tribal leaders, or sheikhs, continue to play an important social function in terms of providing for the less well off, settling local disputes and giving patronage where required. When visiting Dubai, you might hear the term wasta, which translates loosely as ‘influence high up’. Having wasta can grease the wheels in just about every transaction. The funny thing is that those who claim to have wasta usually don’t and those who do generally don’t mention it!

Seeking favours from the well-connected has helped consolidate the power of key families, not least the Maktoums, the ruling dynasty of Dubai.


A Muslim man is permitted by Islam to have up to four wives (but a woman may have only one husband). As with many practices within Islam, this one originally came about for practical considerations: the ability of a man to take more than one wife enabled men to marry women who had been widowed (and thus left without a provider) because of war, illness or natural disaster. Most Emiratis have only one wife, however, not least because Islam dictates that each spouse must be loved and treated equally. Besides, housing and child-rearing are expensive – perhaps that's one of the reasons why the average number of children in a modern Emirati family has declined from five to two.

Urban life puts a particular strain on city marriages, with the high divorce rate revealing a fault line between traditional and modern values. Growing infidelity between partners, unrealistic expectations about living the urban dream, the difficulties of cross-cultural unions and long commutes are some of the many reasons cited for marriage break-ups.

Role of Women

Modern life has provided new opportunities for women beyond care of the family, largely thanks to the equitable nature of education in the UAE. More women than men graduate from the region's universities, and many go on to work in a variety of roles, including as doctors, engineers, government ministers, innovators and corporate executives. Several initiatives have further elevated women's participation in the nation's development. In 2012 the UAE cabinet made it compulsory for corporations and government entities to appoint women to their boards of directors. The region's first military college for women opened in 2014. Nearly one quarter of cabinet posts are currently filled by women, and in 2016 the Federal National Council became the region's first to be led by a woman.

Despite such advances, women still have to contend with social and legal constraints, a situation the Gender Balance Council, founded by Sheikh Mohammed in 2015, is tasked with remedying. It strives to bring the UAE into the world's top 25 countries on the UN's gender equality index by 2021 (it currently ranks 46 out of 159 countries).

The Missing Princess

In February 2018, Sheikha Latifa Bint Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the third daughter of Dubai’s ruler, Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, tried to escape the UAE by boat. She was allegedly intercepted off the coast of India and forcibly returned home. Before this incident, Sheikha Latifa released a video which has been widely circulated on social media regarding the reasons behind her attempt to flee Dubai; the story has also been covered extensively in the international press. At the time of writing, Sheikha Latifa’s whereabouts remain unknown.

The Workplace

Most Emiratis work in the public sector, as the short hours, good pay, benefits and early pensions make for an attractive lifestyle. The UAE government is actively pursuing a policy of ‘Emiratisation’, however, which involves encouraging Emiratis to work as entrepreneurs and employees in the private sector.

Until more locals take up the baton of small and medium enterprise, it will be hard for the government to decrease the dependency on an imported labour force, but equally it is hard for this to happen while Emiratis are employed only in a token capacity in the private sector. At some point, a leap in the dark will be inevitable to allow for local people to assume the roles for which they are being trained.

Multicultural Population

You can't talk about the identity of the Emirates without factoring in the multinational composition of the population. Across the UAE expats comprise around 80% of the population. In Dubai, therefore, the visitor experience is largely defined by interaction with the myriad nationalities that have been attracted to the Gulf in search of a better (or at least more lucrative) life.

Different nationalities have tended to dominate specific sectors of the workforce: people from the Philippines are employed in health care, construction workers are predominantly from Pakistan, financial advisers are from India, while Western countries have traditionally supplied technical know-how. Discussion prevails as to who benefits most from the contract between employer and employee, with serious concerns about the welfare particularly of construction and domestic workers. Some steps have been taken to right the wrongs of those in low-paid work, but it's fair to say that conditions for many remain far from ideal.

On the positive side, the international composition of the resident population has resulted in a vibrant multiculturalism. This is expressed in different religious festivals (including Diwali and Christmas), and gives the opportunity to experience the food and customs of each community in restaurants and shops. A visit here is likely to involve memorable conversations that allow the visitor to travel the world in an afternoon.

Feature: The Five Pillars of Islam

The general tenets of a Muslim's faith are expressed in the five pillars of Islam.

Shahada The profession of faith: ‘There is no god but God, and Muhammad is the messenger of God.’

Salat Muslims are required to pray five times every day: at dawn (fajr), noon (zuhr), mid-afternoon (asr), sunset (maghrib) and twilight (isha). During these prayers a Muslim must perform a series of prostrations while facing Mecca. Praying is preceded by ritual ablutions.

Zakat Muslims must give a portion of their income to help the poor. This is considered an individual duty in Dubai, as opposed to a state-collected income tax redistributed through mosques or religious charities favoured in some communities.

Sawm It was during the month of Ramadan in AD 610 that Muhammad is said to have received his first revelation. Muslims mark this event by fasting from sunrise until sunset throughout Ramadan. During the fast a Muslim may not take anything into his or her body. Food, drink, smoking and sex are forbidden.

Hajj All able Muslims are required to make the pilgrimage to Mecca at least once, if possible during a specific few days in the first and second weeks of the Muslim month of Dhul Hijjah, although visiting Mecca and performing the prescribed rituals at any other time of the year is also considered spiritually desirable.

Feature: Khanjars

The khanjar is a curved sheathed dagger that originated in Oman but is also worn by men in the UAE and other Gulf countries. Once used for personal protection and as a hunting tool, it is now a symbol of manhood and worn, attached to a belt, on ceremonial occasions. Khanjars were originally made from rhino horn, but today wood is most commonly used. Regular khanjars have two rings where the belt is attached and scabbards decorated with thin silver wire. The intricacy of the wire-thread pattern and its workmanship determine value. Sayidi khanjars have five rings and are often covered entirely in silver sheet, with little or no wire, and their quality is assessed by weight and craftsmanship. A khanjar ought to feel heavy when you pick it up. Don’t believe anyone who tells you a specific khanjar is ‘very old’ – few will be more than 30 to 40 years old.

Sidebar: Gender Roles

Presenting the public face of their families remains the traditional prerogative of men. The home is set up with this in mind with a majlis (reception room), used by men to entertain guests. The fact that the genders continue to be segregated should not be misconstrued as subjugation of one gender by another.

Sidebar: Women in the Workforce

Emirati women in the UAE pilot fighter jet planes, work as police officers, undertake research, serve as ambassadors, run corporations and participate in Antarctic exploration. Nine of 29 members of the UAE cabinet are women.


It may seem odd to discuss the environment when talking about a major metropolis, but peer out from the observation decks of Burj Khalifa in Dubai and the hinterland immediately makes an impression. The cities are discrete specks in a desert that nips at the heels of civilisation, mocking human attempts to tame it. Exploring the desert is therefore more than just a fun day out – it provides important, defining context.

The Land

Geologists speak of the Arabian Peninsula in terms of two distinct regions: the Arabian shield and the Arabian shelf. The shield, which consists of volcanic sedimentary rock, makes up the western third of today’s Arabian Peninsula. The shelf is made up of the lower-lying areas that slope away from the shield, from central Arabia to the waters of the Gulf. Dubai sits on the very edge of this Arabian shelf.

Geologists believe that the Peninsula originally formed part of the larger land mass of Africa. A split in this continent created both Africa’s Great Rift Valley and the Red Sea. As Arabia slipped away from Africa, the Peninsula began to ‘tilt’, with the western side rising and the eastern edge dropping, a process that led to the formation of the Gulf.

There are no permanent rivers in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), but natural springs create oases in the desert. Al Ain (about 150km south of Dubai) and Liwa (340km southwest) grew up around date plantations. Shading citrus trees and grain crops, the plantations are watered via elaborate irrigation networks (falaj). A working falaj at Majlis Ghorfat Um Al Sheef in Jumeirah demonstrates how these channels work for the benefit of the whole community.



The harsh lands of Arabia have for centuries attracted travellers from the Western world, curious to see the great sea of sand known as the Empty Quarter or Rub Al Khali. Straddling the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Oman and Yemen, the dunes form a magnificent landscape that changes in colour and texture as the sun and wind project their own dramas on the ridges of sand.

A portion of the Empty Quarter, including one of the highest dunes in the northern sands, lies within the territory of Abu Dhabi, and a sealed road winding from the oasis towns of Liwa to the fringe of the sands makes this environment easily accessible by car from Dubai. For those able to spare the time to camp in this terrain, there is the chance to see some of the desert's shy residents. The dunes are home to various reptiles, including vipers, monitor lizards (up to 1m long) and spiny-tailed agamas.

At dawn, the tracks of hares, hedgehogs and foxes illustrate that many species of mammals have adapted to this unforgiving environment. Many have large ears, giving a broad surface area from which to release heat, and tufts of hair on paws that enable walking on the blistering sands.

To this day, people come to the desert expecting ‘sand, sand, sand, still sand, and only sand and sand again’. The Victorian traveller who wrote those words (Alexander Kinglake) curiously had only passed through gravel plains at that point, but so strong is the connection between the words ‘desert’ and ‘sand’, he felt obliged to comment on what he thought he should see rather than on what was there. For anyone who looks beyond roadside plantings, it will become quickly apparent that the term 'desert' encompasses far more than simply sand. In fact, most of the UAE is comprised of flat gravel plains, punctuated with thorny, flat-topped acacia trees and herbal plants, interrupted by notorious salt flats, known as sabkha.


The Gulf has a character all its own, thanks to its largely landlocked location. Flat, calm, and so smooth that at times it looks solid like a piece of shiny coal, it tends to be shallow for up to a kilometre from the shore. With lagoons and creeks edged with valuable mangroves, this is an important habitat for waders and gulls. It is also conducive to human development: much of the rim of the Gulf, particularly surrounding Dubai, has been paved over or reclaimed for land use.

While dredging for this purpose (some 33 million cubic metres of seabed was distributed for the World project alone) has had a detrimental effect on marine life, and particularly on fragile coral reefs, the waters off Dubai still teem with around 300 different species of fish. Kingfish, hamour, tuna, sardines and sharks are regulars of the fish market, but thankfully turtles are no longer hunted for food. Green and hawksbill turtles used to nest in some numbers on Dubai’s beaches but are now on the list of endangered species. The Dubai Turtle Rehabilitation Project (www.dubaiturtles.com), based at Jumeirah Al Naseem in Madinat Jumeirah, is actively engaged in protecting the species and in nursing sick and injured specimen back to independent life in the Gulf.

City Parks

Perhaps few would consider a city park as part of the natural environment, and in the Gulf states, it could be argued there is nothing natural about these landscaped areas. Indeed, most of the planting is imported from neighbouring subtropical countries, and each specimen is individually irrigated with piped water.

Despite their artificiality, however, the many city parks dotted around Dubai have proved havens for insects and birds. Although surrounded by high-rises and roaring highways, Dubai's Ras Al Khor Wildlife Sanctuary continues to be the home of a flamboyance of pink flamingos and a major stopover on the migration path between Europe, Asia and Africa. More than 320 migratory species pass through in spring and autumn, or spend the winter here. Species native to Arabia include the crab-plover, the Socotra cormorant, the black-crowned finch lark and the purple sunbird – the last of which is a common resident in any park where aloe is grown.

Environmental Issues

Protected Areas

The idea of setting aside areas for wildlife runs contrary to the nature of traditional life on the Peninsula, which was, and to some extent still is, all about maintaining a balance with nature, rather than walling it off. The Bedouin flew their hunting falcons only between certain times of the year and moved their camels on to allow pasture to regrow. Fishermen selected only what they wanted from a seasonal catch and threw the rest back. Farmers let lands lie fallow so as not to exhaust the soil.

Modern practices including sport hunting, trawler fishing and the use of pesticides in modern farming have had such an impact on the environment over the past 50 years, however, that all governments in the Gulf region have recognised the need to protect the fragile ecosystems of their countries. This has resulted in the creation of protected areas (10% of regional land mass), but, with tourism on the increase, there is a strong incentive to do more.

Among its Peninsula neighbours, the UAE leads the way with 5% of the Emirate of Dubai established as a protected area. In addition, the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve has helped reintroduce the Arabian oryx, hunted almost to extinction in the last century.

Reducing the Global Footprint

Dubai loves being Number One, but being slapped with the distinction of having the world's largest ecological footprint was not a record it craved, which is why now one of its government's many ambitions is to become the world's most sustainable city by 2050. Whether it will get there remains to be seen, but a number of initiatives indicate that it's certainly on the right track.

The launch of the emission-free Dubai Metro in 2010 was just the beginning. On the outskirts of the city, a new community called Sustainable City (www.thesustainablecity.ae) has sprung up that recycles its own water and waste and generates a surplus of energy. Unsurprisingly, the cost of producing solar power is the lowest in the world in Dubai thus, deep in the desert, the government is building the world's largest solar energy park to be completed by 2030. Its first solar plant opened in 2017 and supplies electricity for about 50,000 homes. By 2050 the goal is for 75% of Dubai's energy needs to be met by clean power. Many schemes are in the works, which Dubai hopes to showcase both at the new Museum of the Future (scheduled to open in 2019) and at its 2020 World Expo where, not coincidentally, sustainability is a major theme.


With palm-lined avenues, luscious lawns, parks and flowerbeds, it may be difficult to remember that Dubai is built in one of the most arid deserts on earth. The city receives no more than one or two days of rain per year, and the ground water is highly saline – almost eight times as saline, in fact, as sea water. Virtually all (98%) of the city’s drinking water is supplied, therefore, from desalination.

You’d think that the lack of natural reserves would have led to low water usage but, at 550L per day, the UAE has one of the highest per-capita rates of water consumption in the world. Recognising the challenges involved in indulging the city’s seemingly endless thirst for water, the UAE government launches periodic awareness campaigns to encourage citizens to consume less, but the answer may lie with further technology.

When it rained in Dubai for five days straight in February 2017, it wasn't the result of a natural process but of cloud seeding. Indeed, the country has dabbled in cloud seeding since the late 1990s but didn't get serious until launching the UAE Research Program for Rain Enhancement Science in 2015. It awards research grants to scientists all over the world to study how to, essentially, make rain.

Pollution & Rubbish

In a region where oil is the major industry, there is always a concern about spillage and leakage, and the illegal dumping of oil from offshore tankers is a constant concern. Thankfully, the expected ecological disaster after the oil spills of the Gulf War did not materialise. The same cannot be said for the dumping of industrial waste on land. The value of a circular economy is being actively discussed in the region, whereby waste is recycled and biomass harnessed for fuel. Perhaps if waste is shown to have value at a local level it will be easier to persuade industry to dispose of it responsibly.

Meanwhile, try and do your bit by drinking the local (perfectly safe) tap water, rather than contributing to the environmental nightmare of disposing of plastic water bottles.

Feature: Local Environmental Organisations

  • Emirates Diving Association (www.emiratesdiving.com) An active participant in local marine campaigns.
  • Emirates Environmental Group (www.eeg-uae.org) Organises educational programs in schools and businesses as well as community programs, such as clean-up drives.
  • Emirates Wildlife Society (http://uae.panda.org) Works in association with the World Wildlife Fund on implementing conservation initiatives to protect local biodiversity and promote sustainable lifestyles.

Feature: Desert Yes, Deserted No

Visiting any wilderness area comes with responsibility and no more so than in a desert, where the slightest interference with the environment can wreak havoc with fragile ecosystems. The rocky plains of the interior may seem like an expanse of nothing, but that is not the case. Red markers along a road, improbable as they may seem on a cloudless summer day, indicate the height of water possible during a flash flood. A month or so later, a flush of tapering grasses marks the spot, a temporary home to wasp oil beetles, elevated stalkers and myriad other life forms.

Car tracks scar a rock desert forever, crushing plants and insects not immediately apparent from the driver’s seat. Rubbish doesn’t biodegrade as it would in a tropical or temperate climate. The flower unwittingly picked in its moment of glory may miss its first and only opportunity for propagation in seven years of drought.

With a bit of common sense, however, and taking care to stick to existing tracks, it’s possible to enjoy the desert without damaging the unseen communities it harbours. It also pays to turn off the engine and just sit. At dusk, dramas unfold: a fennec fox chases a hedgehog, a feral dog trots out of the wadi without seeing the snake slithering in the other direction, tightly closed leaves relax in the brief respite of evening and a dung beetle rolls its reward homewards.

Feature: Mangroves

The Eastern Mangroves off the northeast coast of Abu Dhabi is the largest mangrove forest in the UAE, but Dubai also has an important area of this unique habitat with the Ras Al Khor Wildlife Sanctuary. Some key facts:

What are mangroves? A mangrove is a type of subtropical, low-growing tree with high salt toleration that lives with roots immersed in the high tide.

Are all mangroves the same? No, there are 110 species. The grey mangrove is the most common in Dubai.

Why are they protected? This fragile ecosystem is a haven for wildlife and helpfully protective of shorelines commonly eroded by tides.

What lives in these forests? Mangroves provide a safe breeding ground for shrimps, turtles and some fish species, and habitats for migrating birds.

Any other uses? Historically, they provided a rich source of fuel and building material. The hard wood is resistant to rot and termites, making it ideal for building boats and houses.

Are they endangered? Yes, but thanks to local conservation efforts and deliberate replanting schemes the mangroves have grown in size over recent years.

Sidebar: Sabkha

Sabkha is a salt-crusted quagmire of water-saturated land. It looks hard and even polished to the eye, but attempt to ride a camel across it or drive a vehicle on it and the surface quickly disintegrates.

Sidebar: Botanical Reads

  • Handbook of Arabian Medicinal Plants by S A Ghazanfar
  • Vegetation of the Arabian Peninsula by S A Ghazanfar & M Fisher (eds)

Sidebar: Water Saving

Visitors can play their part in water conservation by taking simple measures, such as having quick showers rather than bathing; cutting down on laundry of towels and bed linen; using the half-flush button, where possible, on toilets; and turning the tap off when brushing teeth.

Sidebar: Land Mass

Although second-largest of the seven emirates, Dubai is quite small in comparison, extending over only 4114 sq km. Compare that to Abu Dhabi, which is at 67,340 sq km the largest emirate in the UAE, occupying more than 80% of the country's total area.

Arts & Architecture

Rightly or wrongly, nations tend to be judged less by their contribution to their own artistic milieu than by their participation in contemporary dialogues that are largely Western in origin. The cities of the Gulf clearly feel this pressure to engage in the globalisation of the arts, as the creation of the Dubai Opera demonstrates. Go looking only for contemporary exhibitions, however, and you'll run the risk of missing the art that means the most to the locals.

Function & Form

If you chose one feature that distinguishes art in the Arab world from that of the Western tradition, it would have to be the close integration of function with form. In other words, most Arab art has evolved with a purpose. That purpose could be as practical as embellishing the prow of a boat with a cowrie shell to ward off the 'evil eye' or as nebulous as creating intricate and beautiful patterns to suggest the presence of God and invite spiritual contemplation. Purpose is an element that threads through all Gulf art, craft, music, architecture and poetry.

Craft Heritage

Crafts have traditionally been a notable art form in the Gulf, thanks in part to the influence of Bedouin heritage. The nomadic pre-oil lifestyle of a section of the population dictated a life refined of excess baggage, and so creativity found its most obvious expression in poetry, song, storytelling and portable, practical craft.

In crafts such as jewellery, silver-smithing, weaving, embroidery and basket-making, function and form combine in artefacts that document a way of life. Take jewellery, for example – the heavy silver so distinctively worn by Bedouin women was designed not just as a personal adornment but as a form of portable wealth. Silver amulets contained rolled pieces of parchment or paper bearing protective inscriptions from the Quran to guarantee the safety of the wearer. These were considered useful against the perils of the ‘evil eye’ – the envy or malice of others.

At the end of the life of a piece of jewellery, the silver was traditionally melted down and traded in as an ultimate gesture of practicality. In the same vein it is a sad fact about practical craft that once the need for it has passed, there is little incentive to maintain the skills. Why bother with clay ewers when everyone drinks water from plastic bottles? Aware of this fact, local craft associations have sprung up in the hope of keeping local crafts alive.

Competing Internationally

It's easy to criticise the Emirates for buying into the international arts scene when they invest little in encouraging contemporary arts at home, but they are hardly to blame. There isn't a city to be taken seriously around the globe that doesn't have an opera house or a pavilion at the Venice Biennale, regardless of whether these pieces of imported Western culture are relevant. When the opera house first opened in neighbouring Muscat, a third of the audience left after the interval unaware that the performance continued, underwhelmed by musicians they couldn't see (in the orchestra pit) and mildly offended by the unrobing of the soprano in a brothel scene – a topic so haram (forbidden) locally as to be verging on the subversive.

This example serves to show that there is an almost unbridgeable gap between function and form in contemporary arts in the region. This leads one to surmise that the world-class exhibitions and performances on offer are largely there to impress visitors and to prove to cynics abroad that there is a cultural depth to these cities that can only be measured in Western terms.

For the cultural elite of Dubai, these are therefore happy days. The opening of the Dubai Opera has brought world-class high-brow performers to town, while the annual Art Dubai festival attracts some of the most celebrated international galleries, artists and dealers. Regional art is also getting the spotlight in the galleries of Alserkal Avenue and the Gate Village.

For all the criticism, this investment in global arts is to be welcomed as with it comes a greater integration between East and West, and an opportunity to showcase more traditional local art forms to an international audience. This in turn helps preserve the traditions that matter most to local people.

Keeping Cool Indoors – Naturally

The Al Ras neighbourhood in Deira and the Shindagha and Al Fahidi historic districts in Bur Dubai are great places to see and enter traditional houses, such as the Sheikh Saeed Al Maktoum House or the Museum of the Poet Al Oqaili. Built from gypsum and coral, they typically wrap around a central courtyard flanked by verandas to keep direct sunlight out of the rooms. Another distinctive feature is the wind towers (barjeel in Arabic), a form of non-electrical air-conditioning unique to the region. Towers typically rise 5m or 6m above the building and are made of wood, stone or canvas. Open on all four sides, they can catch even the tiniest of breezes, which are then channelled down a central shaft and into the room below. In the process the air speeds up and is cooled. The cooler air already in the tower shaft pulls in and subsequently cools the hotter air outside through a simple process of convection.

Feature: The Oral Tradition

If you want to discover what gets the locals clapping, what makes them sway to the beat during national days and holidays, what makes them fall utterly silent after talking all the way through a formal address by a visiting dignitary, it's not classical music or Western visual arts. It's Arabic poetry. If you get the chance to attend a recitation when visiting Dubai, it shouldn't be missed.

Traditionally dominating Middle Eastern literature, all the best-known figures of classical regional literature are poets, including Omar Khayyam and Abu Nuwas. Poets were regarded as possessing knowledge forbidden to ordinary people and served the purpose of bridging the human and spirit worlds. To this day, even the the TV-watching young are captivated by a skilfully intoned piece of verse.

Poetry is part and parcel of the great oral tradition of storytelling that informs the literature of all Peninsula countries, the roots of which lie with the Bedouin. Stories told by nomadic elders served not just as after-dinner entertainment, but as a way of binding generations together in a collective oral history. As such, storytelling disseminated the principles of Islam and of tribal and national identity.

Sidebar: Gulf Galleries & Exhibition Spaces

  • The Third Line
  • Gallery Isabelle van den Eynde
  • Carbon 12

Sidebar: Traditional Dance

Ayyalah is a typical Bedouin dance. Performed to a simple drumbeat, men link arms, wave camel sticks or swords, sway back and forth and sing of the virtues of bravery in battle.