Fast Facts on the United Arab Emirates

Posted: July 7, 2005 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

By Christopher Anzalone

Although the Middle East as a region offers numerous attractive locations for joint U.S.-regional academic programs, George Mason chose Ras Al Khaimah (RAK), a state within the United Arab Emirates (UAE), to be home for its first international campus. Full operations will start in September 2006 in an area with a rich history and a vibrant culture.

Located along the western coast of the Persian Gulf, the UAE consist of seven sovereign states, or shaykhdoms, as they are often called. Archaeological evidence suggests that the earliest settlements in the region date back to the third century BCE. In the mid-seventh century CE, much of the Arabian Peninsula was under the rule of the new Islamic state, and most of its population had converted to the religion founded by Muhammad ibn ’Abd Allah.

In 750, the Persian Gulf region as a whole prospered, serving as a mercantile hub between the western and eastern halves of the Muslim empire. In 1498, the Portuguese established several coastal fortresses along the UAE’s coast that they used as bases in their occasional raids against the Ottoman Empire and its allies in Arabia and on the Indian subcontinent. By the mid-18th century, the British had replaced the Portuguese as the region’s European power.

By the 1930s, the British were keenly interested in the prospects of oil reserves in the UAE and other Persian Gulf states and in 1939, they pushed through the first oil concessions with these largely tribal states. The British formally demarcated the present-day borders of the UAE’s seven states around this time after local rulers failed to reach an agreement. After the British pulled out in 1971, Abu Dhabi and Dubai, with their immense oil wealth, became the most prosperous of the UAE’s member states. Since the 1970s, the UAE has become a major center for international business, maintaining close relations with Western Europe and the United States.

The UAE’s native population has its roots in the nomadic, tribal Bedouin culture of Arabia; family, tribal, and clan relations remain important in the country’s politics. The system of government is that of a federation with certain powers granted to a central entity, although the individual member states also retain a fair amount of local authority. Currently, the head of state is President Khalifa bin Zayid al-Nuhayyan, a powerful tribal leader, or shaykh, who assumed power in 2004. Executive duties are carried out by the prime minister, Maktum bin Rashid al-Maktum. The unicameral legislature, Majlis al-Ittihad al-Watan, comprises 40 representatives appointed by the leaders of the seven member states for two-year terms.

According to the 2004 World Factbook published by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, approximately 19 percent of the UAE’s estimated 2.5 million residents are native to the area, while an additional 23 percent are Arabs and Iranians from surrounding countries. At least 1.6 million are foreign guest workers; South Asian nationals make up at least 50 percent of this number. Because of the diversity of its population, several languages are widely spoken: the official language, Arabic, as well as Farsi, English, and Urdu.

Sunni Islam is the dominant religion, with Shi’a Islam a distant second. All the official holidays in the UAE are tied to the Islamic lunar calendar and include the end of Ramadan, or Eid al-Fitr; the end of the Hajj season and the start of the new year, Eid al-Adha; and the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad.

Salt flats line the coast of the UAE. Although most of the country is covered with vast deserts, large-scale irrigation projects have made greenery in the interior possible. May to September is the hottest period of the year, when daytime temperatures can soar to 105 degrees Fahrenheit in Abu Dhabi and Dubai. From October to April, the country’s temperatures average around 70 to 85 degrees, and nights in the desert and around mountains can be cold and windy. Rainfall is scarce throughout the year, but December and January sometimes bring severe storms.

RAK is the northernmost of the UAE’s member states and is home to the Queen of Sheba’s Palace, which is several miles to the north of the city.

For more information on Mason’s RAK campus, visit the web site. For more information about the UAE, visit the CIA World Factbook’s web site.

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