The United Arab Emirates is a federation of seven emirates along the eastern coast of the Arabian Peninsula.
The largest of these emirates is Abu Dhabi, which comprises more than three-fourths of the federation’s total land area, is the centre of its oil industry and borders Saudi Arabia on the federation’s southern and eastern borders. The port city of Dubai, located at the base of the mountainous Musandam Peninsula, is the capital of the emirate of Dubai and is one of the region’s most vital commercial and financial centres, housing hundreds of multinational corporations in a forest of skyscrapers.
Dubai, as seen from the top of Burj Khalifa.
The smaller emirates of Sharjah, ʿAjmān, Umm al-Qaywayn, and Raʾs al-Khaymah also occupy the peninsula, whose protrusion north toward Iran forms the Strait of Hormuz linking the Persian Gulf to the Gulf of Oman. The federation’s seventh member, Al-Fujayrah, faces the Gulf of Oman and is the only member of the union with no frontage along the Persian Gulf.
Historically the domain of individual Arab clans and families, the region now comprising the emirates also has been influenced by Persian culture owing to its close proximity to Iran, and its porous maritime borders have for centuries invited migrants and traders from elsewhere. In the 18th century, Portugal and the Netherlands extended their holdings in the region but retreated with the growth of British naval power there; following a series of truces with Britain in the 19th century, the emirates united to form the Trucial States.
The states gained autonomy following World War II (1939–45), when the trucial states of Bahrain and Qatar declared independent statehood. The rest were formally united in 1971, with the city of Abu Dhabi serving as the capital. The stability of the federation has since been tested by rivalries between the families governing the larger states of Abu Dhabi and Dubai, though external events such as the Persian Gulf War (1990–91) and an ongoing territorial dispute with Iran have served to strengthen the emirates’ political cohesion.
A Skydiver over the Palms, Dubai
The emirates comprise a mixed environment of rocky desert, coastal plains and wetlands, and waterless mountains. The seashore is a haven for migratory waterfowl and draws birdwatchers from all over the world; the country’s unspoiled beaches and opulent resorts also have drawn international travellers. Standing at a historic and geographic crossroads and made up of diverse nationalities and ethnic groups, the United Arab Emirates present a striking blend of ancient customs and modern technology, of cosmopolitanism and insularity, and of wealth and want. The rapid pace of modernisation of the emirates prompted travel writer Jonathan Raban to note of the capital: “The condition of Abu Dhabi was so evidently mint that it would not have been surprising to see adhering to the buildings bits of straw and polystyrene from the crates in which they had been packed.”
The United Arab Emirates is slightly smaller in area than Portugal. It is bordered by Saudi Arabia to the west and south and by Oman to the east and northeast. The precise borders of the country have remained a matter of dispute. Despite a 1974 secret agreement between the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia said to have resolved their three border disputes, the agreement’s legal standing is unclear. The United Arab Emirates claims a strip of coastline that borders Qatar to the northwest, which Saudi Arabia claims was ceded to it in the 1974 agreement. It likewise disputes Saudi claims over the Shaybah oil field to the south, while Saudi Arabia (as well as Oman) has at times challenged the emirates’ claim on oases around the city of Al-ʿAyn. Since the early 1990s, moreover, the emirates have been in a dispute with Iran over the ownership of three islands—Abū Mūsā and Greater and Lesser Tunb.