Oil, gas… the fabulous growth of the United Arab Emirates over the 50 years of its existence

Ehab Fouad, 64, was just a teenager fifty years ago when he took part in the parade marking the birth of the United Arab Emirates, which has become one of the wealthiest and most influential countries in the Gulf. The now-retired Egyptian engineer fondly remembers December 2, 1971, when he first saw the new country’s flag and proudly held aloft the portrait of Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al-Nahyan, the founding father of the Emirates. “Every time I meet people here, I tell them this story,” says Ehab Fouad. He lives in Dubai, one of the seven emirates that make up the federation, along with Abu Dhabi, Sharjah, Fujairah, Ajman, Oum Al-Qaiwain and Ras Al-Khaimah, known as the Trucial States, which were under British protectorate between 1892 and 1971.

Sheikh Zayed, at the head of the oil emirate Abu Dhabi, the richest of its six neighbors, wanted to unite them to build a powerful state. The country had around 300,000 inhabitants at independence, compared with around 10 million today, 90% of whom are foreigners, most of whom are not eligible for citizenship due to strict rules, like Mr Fouad. With substantial oil and gas reserves, the Emirates, which were very poor in 1971, have become a major economic and political power in the Middle East. “Some used to build their houses here with date palm branches and mud bricks, today there are only villas and towers,” says Ehab Fouad.

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Allegations, but investors

However, NGOs accuse the Emirates of human rights abuses and war crimes during the conflict in Yemen, where the Emirates intervened within a Saudi-led coalition. Despite these allegations, the country is attracting many investors and businessmen and is trying to diversify its sources of income, particularly through tourism or finance, in order to be less dependent on oil spills. The Emirates are a tax haven with a relatively low tax environment, including full control of companies by foreigners or offering long-term visas to highly qualified workers such as doctors, engineers, scientists or artists.

A former pearl city, Dubai thus became a major financial and commercial center with its skyscraper forests, including the world’s tallest tower, Burj Khalifa, at 828 meters. But the Emirates’ economy, the second largest in the Arab world behind Saudi Arabia, is based on cheap labor, mainly from Asia and Africa, and generally housed in camps or closed residences. The country now wants to assert itself as a regional power by getting involved in conflicts like Yemen or acting as a mediator in others, in the Middle East and Africa.

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More “enforceable” policies

“The Emirates have long been concerned about their relative vulnerability in a region where they are surrounded by larger and more powerful states,” said Elham Fakhro, Gulf Director of the International Crisis Group (ICG) Analysis Centre. “After independence, the country’s foreign policy was relatively neutral, but became more self-confident after the Arab Spring,” he has been explaining since 2011, taking advantage of the relative loss of influence of traditional regional powers such as Egypt, Iraq and Syria.

The Emirates, supporters of a hard line on political Islam, made the surprising decision in 2020 to publicly normalize its ties with Israel, becoming the first Arab country with Bahrain to forge diplomatic ties with the Jewish state in decades. “As a committed regional and international player, we know we need to take more responsibility for the future direction of our region,” Presidential Advisor Anwar Gargash told a forum in November.

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