United Arab Emirates (UAE) is a union of seven small emirates along the eastern Persian Gulf coast of the Arabian Peninsula. The city of Abu Dhabi was selected as the nation's capital when the union was created in 1971 and takes up nearly ninety percent of the nation's entire area. The six other emirates include Dubayy (Dubai), 'Ajman, Ash-Shariqah (Sharjah), Umm al-Qaywayn, and Ra's al-Khaymah, and Al- Fujayrah. Political power is divided between the central federal and emirate governments; the head of state is UAE president who is chosen by the Supreme Council of the Union made up of the rulers of the seven emirates. There are no political parties and most political power rests in the hands of the emirs and their families. Oil was discovered in UAE in 1958 and oil production began in 1969. The economy is now dominated by the petroleum industry, reserves concentrated in the Abu Dhabi and Dubayy emirates, and the government owns a controlling interest in all oil-producing companies in the country. British, French and Japanese interests also own parts of those companies. UAE also holds a significant portion of the world's natural gas reserves.
Like most countries within the Persian Gulf region, UAE is a tribal society with family and clan connections underlying both politics and economics. UAE does not grant citizenship freely, partly out of reluctance to share wealth with new citizens, but also out of desire to maintain the tribal rule and societal structure. The reluctance to grant citizenship often becomes problematic as the Arab-Israeli conflict continues in the Middle East and the call for a single Arab nation becomes stronger. While Arab nationalism calls for unity based not on religion (Islam), but on common ethnicity, history, language and interests, the movement still has its roots in the deeply religious Arab-Israeli conflict. Specifically, both Jews and Arabs lay claim to the small strip of land in the Middle East called Palestine, a region that includes the Holy Land sacred to Jews, Christians and Muslims. In 1947, the United Kingdom appealed to the United Nations to resolve the conflict, resulting in the division of Palestine, giving approximately half to the Jews and half to the Arabs. The city of Jerusalem, the holy city of all three religions, was designated to become an international city administered by a UN council. However, because many Arabs lived in the section given to the Jews, among other reasons, many Arabs opposed the UN's decision, tensions often escalating to violence. The declaration of Israel as an independent nation in 1948 sparked a series of wars and continuing conflict between Zionists and Arabs. Major wars were fought in 1948 to 1949, 1956, 1967, 1973 and 1982, during which the map of the Middle East was redrawn numerous times. The conflict continues into the twenty-first century with numerous uprisings and violent clashes between the Israelis and the Palestinians.
While UAE has been spared much involvement in the Arab-Israeli conflict since it does not lie within Palestine (most of its problems with foreign relations have been related to difficulties with neighboring Iran and Iraq), it is still affected by the conflict as an Arab and Islamic state and as a Middle Eastern country in general. Because of the conflict, many Arabs leave Palestine and search for homes in surrounding countries like UAE. Today, the tendency in modern Arab politics is the need for a single Arab nation of which all Arabs could be citizens. Proponents argue that these Arabs should be granted citizenship freely in these surrounding countries because of their ethnicity, coinciding with the idea of the single Arab nation. UAE is an Islamic Arab state -- the nation's constitution designates sharia (Islamic law) as the basis for all legislation and the majority of its citizens is ethnically Arab and Sunni Muslim. However, an influx of Arabs from Palestine as well as other surrounding areas could challenge the way of life and national identity of UAE. A large number of non-tribal Arabs as new citizens could try to change the current state of tribal rule within UAE.
Additionally, the discovery of oil has also introduced new challenges to the way of life and national identity of UAE. The growing economy, resulting movement of foreign workers into the country and increased contact with the West has increasingly influenced culture and society within UAE. First, the prevalence of foreigners in UAE has increased dramatically since 1968. A large number of migrant workers began to move into the country as a result of the growing oil industry. In fact, less than one-fifth of the country's population today are citizens. Most people living in UAE are foreign workers and their dependents, South Asians mostly from India and Pakistan constituting almost half of that population. Other groups in UAE include Arabs from other countries, especially Egypt and neighboring Iran. While most citizens are Sunni Muslim, the religious affiliations of these foreign workers vary, further detracting from the national identity of UAE predicated on Islam. Additionally, with the introduction of new forms of entertainment, cultural phenomena and technology, Western culture influences taste and behavior more and more.
Second, partly because of this significant introduction of foreigners, increasing contact with the West and cultural diffusion, the national practice of Islam in UAE has grown less austere compared to surrounding countries like Saudi Arabia. Moreover, while non-Muslims are forbidden from proselytizing, the degree of religion freedom is also greater. Several large Christian churches and schools now exist in UAE. One of the greatest cultural, social and political transformations has been the dramatic change in the status of women. Before the discovery of oil in UAE, women were treated as second-class citizens, indicative of traditional Islamic states. In actuality, the teachings of Islam declare men and women equal, affording women the same rights and responsibilities as men. However, the manifestation of Islamic principles as laws in Arab states often results in the oppression of women. While rules concerning modesty and social behavior apply to both men and women, women specifically are expected to cover their full body with the exception of their face and hands from all men other than their husbands. This grows out of the Islamic principles of not only guarding the virtue of women, but also the spiritual good of men as well. Also, because the duties of mother and wife are considered a woman's most important roles, women have few educational opportunities and they are often discouraged, if not completely barred from activities outside of the home, including holding jobs or becoming involved in politics (including the right to vote).
However, with the vast changes within UAE after the discovery of oil, the opportunities made available to women have expanded considerably. The president officially acknowledged the value of women in the workforce and his wife began openly working to promote training, education and the overall advancement of the status of women, heading the Women's Federation. Additional women's societies within the country also work to highlight issues of importance to women, including literacy and health. Equal access to education is now eagerly protected and promoted. Female students are now the majority at institutions of higher education with women outnumbering men four to one at the United Arab Emirates University and female literacy now far exceeds that of men. By the end of 2001, women made up approximately fourteen percent of UAE workforce. Overall, women have finally been granted the same legal status, claim to titles, access to education and the right to practice professions as men.
Changes like these in the status of women as well as other areas represent a modernizing and Westernizing force that poses troublesome challenges for the UAE if it hopes to maintain its national identity based on Islam. To illustrate this point, the larger Arab nationalist movement faces the same difficult situation. Arab nationalism has yet to fundamentally resolve its own issues concerning Westernization vs. national solidarity based on Islam. On one hand, Arab nationalists try to emphasize the "Arab" in Arab nationalism and separate the movement from Islam. They claim common ethnicity, language, history and interests as uniting factors, not religion. They embrace secularism, hoping to unite Arab nations under one political entity that, in the eyes of the world, is culturally and socially modern and progressive. However, this is a fundamentally flawed approach -- Arab culture and society has been completely transformed by Islam over the centuries and now, it is impossible to separate the two. The cultural and social basis for the secularist version of Arab nationalism -- common history, language and interests -- grew from Islam. Unfortunately, the very religion nationalists try to break away from defines Arab identity. Arab nationalism and Islam are made to confront each other, standing in direct opposition and weakening the overall movement.
This conflict within Arab nationalism is echoed within UAE. While both Arab nationalists and UAE try to embrace modernity, progress and Westernization, it threatens their national and cultural identity rooted in Islam. Arab nationalism proposes to not…