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Perhaps you have heard of Dubai or maybe even Abu Dhabi, but you may not be familiar with the United Arab Emirates (UAE). It has been my home since 2005, and will be for one more school year. I will get started by telling you a little bit about its history and culture.

The United Arab Emirates is a small and very young nation on the edge of the Arabian Peninsula bordering Saudi Arabia and Oman. It is a grand experiment whose research question is this: can a nation build itself from the ground up with oil wealth and the vision of a great leader, so that it stands shoulder to shoulder with the world’s wealthiest most developed countries in less than 50 years?

The UAE was formed in 1971. Its first president was the visionary Sheik Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan. http://www.sheikhzayed.com/index_noflash.htm He originally brought the seven Emirates together, of which Abu Dhabi and Dubai are two, to form the UAE. As an aside, I must point out that the country is thirty-something. In fact, it is younger than me. Anyway, Sheik Zayed embarked on his quest to build a nation by focusing on the development of higher education, health care, and a highway system, and brought foreigners from all over the world to do the work that the locals (Emiratis) can’t or don’t want to do while attracting multinational corporations as well. Of course, the idea is that through education, the Emiratis will eventually become the doctors, engineers, teachers and businesspeople, and in that way continue what the foreigners are currently doing to perpetuate and develop the society and economy of the UAE.

Sadly, Sheik Zayed died in 2004, and his son, Sheik Khalifa bin Zayed, is the new president. No, the UAE is not a democracy. I wonder if this interesting country will continue to progress without the guidance of Sheik Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan. It is encouraging that most Emiratis that I have spoken with fervently believe in his vision and look to him lovingly as a father figure who instilled a deep sense of obligation to their society within them.

The current progress of the UAE is quite remarkable considering that in 1971 very few of the locals had been able to finish more than grade school. The economy had been based on fishing, pearl diving, some agriculture and trading before oil was found. Further, most people lived in tents in the desert on their tribal lands with their camels when the nation was created. Because the vast majority of Emiratis are Bedouin and the society is still very tribal, it is amazing that they coexist in such a peaceful and prosperous country considering the tribal rivalries and feuds that must have existed less than forty years ago.

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It is interesting to note that when my students describe their hometowns, many of them explain that they live in villages in which they know everyone. The tribe is still the most important connection after immediate family. To illustrate this point better, when my students share the same family name they are probably related because that name represents their tribe or clan.

 

The UAE is an Islamic nation and the women cover their heads with black scarves called sheylas and wear black cloaks like choir robes called abayas. After a women marries, she generally covers all but her eyes in public according to the wishes of her husband. Older ladies wear gold masks to cover their faces which is a more Bedouin tradition, I believe. I really wish I could take a picture of these masks, but it is considered very rude to take a picture especially of a woman. The men wear white caftans with white head coverings. If the men are married with children, they have a black braided cord tied around the head covering.

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Though Emiratis are mostly Sunni with religious ties to Saudi Arabia, they are less strict than Saudi Arabians about many things, for example: the UAE criminal justice system doesn’t cut off hands for stealing or stone women who are accused of adultery. Also, I can drive a car and I don’t have to cover my head or face in public which would not be the case in Saudi Arabia. Emirati women can also drive if it is allowed by their fathers or husbands.

 

I don’t know exactly why the UAE takes a more moderate stand on questions of Islamic propriety. Perhaps it is because so many of us in the country are foreigners and not all Muslim. I for one am grateful to have been involved in this nation-building experiment and enjoy contributing my energy to educating the young female high school graduates that I teach despite some of the challenges and frustrations I face from living here, but more about that in a later post.

Janet, United Arab Emirates

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