Emirians (United Arab Emirates)

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Emirians (United Arab Emirates)

LOCATION: United Arab Emirates (UAE)
POPULATION: 4,621,399 (2005 estimate/less than 20% are UAE citizens)
RELIGION: Islam (majority Sunni)


The United Arab Emirates is a confederation of seven sheikhdoms, or emirates, located on the shore of the Arabian (or Persian) Gulf. Each emirate is named after the main city within its boundaries. The largest is Abu Dhabi, the capital. Dubai is known as the confederation's business center. The other emirates are Sharjah, Ras al-Khaimah, Ajman, Umm al-Qaiwain, and Fujairah.

The nomadic and settled Bedu (or bedouin—see Bedu) tribes were converted to Islam during the 7th century AD. The following centuries were marked by continual wars and violence between rival dynasties. The emirates also became known as the Pirate Coast, because their peoples resented foreign ships in the Gulf and raided them constantly. After suffering these raids for many years, Britain launched an attack on the emirates, after which the emirates signed a peace treaty with Britain (1820). However, the raids continued to occur off and on until the emirates and Britain signed a "perpetual maritime truce" in 1853. The emirates then became known as the Trucial States. This arrangement lasted for over 100 years, until 1971.

When the truce ended, Bahrain and Qatar became independent states, and six of the other emirates decided to join forces. On 2 December 1971, Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Sharjah, Ajman, Umm al-Qaiwain, and Fujairah became the United Arab Emirates (UAE). In February 1972 the emirate of Ras al-Khaimah united with them as well. The provisional constitution drawn up at their union was made permanent in 1996. Because Abu Dhabi is the largest and most powerful of the seven emirates, its emir is designated the president of the UAE. The vice president and prime minister is the emir of Dubai, the second-largest emirate.

In 1962 oil was discovered in Abu Dhabi. Until then, the emirates had been poor, with pearling, fishing, and sheep and goat herding being the main forms of livelihood. The discovery and production of oil brought new wealth into the area, turning the Emirians from among the poorest people of the world into some of the wealthiest. Dubai began producing oil in 1969 and Sharjah in 1974. The other emirates have yet to discover oil on their land and depend on Abu Dhabi and Dubai for financial support. Proven oil reserves in Abu Dhabi are estimated to last for another 200 years, based on production rates in 2008. Dubai's oil reserves were projected in the late 1990s to run out in about 30 years, but the UAE has been decreasing its oil production and estimated in 2008 that overall reserves could last more than 90 years. Dubai has become a world trading center and will continue to have international significance and a source of income after its oil runs out.

Sheikh Zayid bin Sultan al- Nuhayyan, ruler of Abu Dhabi, served as president of the UAE from 1971 until his death in 2004. His successor was his son, Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayid al-Nuhayyan. Al-Nuhayyan took office on 3 November 2004 and organized the first elections in the UAE in December 2006. A group of 6,700 electors participated in the historic election.


The UAE is located on the southern coast of the Arabian (or Persian) Gulf and the northwestern coast of the Gulf of Oman. The total area of the UAE is 83,900 sq km (32,400 sq mi), which is about the size of the U.S. state of Maine. The UAE has 621 km (386 mi) of coastline on the Arabian Gulf and Gulf of Oman. Abu Dhabi is by far the largest emirate, with an area of 67,340 sq km (26,000 sq mi). Dubai is the second largest, at 3,885 sq km (1,500 sq mi). The areas of the rest of the emirates are as follows:

Ras al-Khaimah1683.5650
Umm al-Qaiwain777.0300

The land is mostly desert with a mountain range in the north and oases scattered across the sands. The only other variation in the terrain, except for Ras al-Khaimah, is a few salt marshes. The emirate of Ras al-Khaimah is called the "garden spot" of the UAE because, unlike the rest of the emirates, the land there is very fertile. Almost all of the people in Ras al-Khaimah are farmers. The humidity is high on the coast, where all but one of the major cities and towns are located. The summer months, May through October, are extremely hot, with temperatures reaching 50°C (122°F) in the shade. Winters are much cooler, with temperatures dropping to 10°C (50°F). Humidity can rise as high as 100% in the summer and winters are also damp, but there is little rainfall during the year. Hot desert winds kick up occasional sand and dust storms.

Flamingoes are year-round residents of the coast, and many other birds pass through on their migration routes. As many as 25,000 migratory birds can be counted in August. Desert wildlife includes foxes, rabbits, gazelles, lizards, snakes, and eagles.

The human population of the UAE is estimated at 4.6 million. Only about 20% of these residents are Emirate citizens, or muwatiniin (locals). The rest are foreign workers who come mostly from other Arab countries, Pakistan, India, the Philippines, Western European countries, the United States, and Canada. The foreign workers hold no political power or privileges of citizenship. About two-thirds of the population is male because many of the foreign workers are men who leave their families behind in their home countries, or they are young men who have not married yet. The most densely populated city is the capital, Abu Dhabi, with about 1.7 million residents. Dubai, with 1.3 million residents, is the second most densely populated city.


The official language and native language of UAE citizens is Arabic. English is widely used in the business and public sectors because of the large presence of foreign workers. Other languages spoken by UAE residents are Hindi, Urdu, Persian, Malayalam, and Tagalog.

Arabic, spoken by 100 million people worldwide, has many distinct dialects, so that people living as few as 500 km (310 mi) apart may not be able to understand one another. The written form of Arabic is called Classical Arabic or, for today's literature and press, Modern Standard Arabic. It is the same for all literate Arabs, regardless of how different their spoken dialects are. Arabic is written from right to left in a unique alphabet, which makes no distinction between capital and lower-case letters. It is not necessary for the letters to be written in a straight line, as English letters must be. Punctuation rules are also quite different from those of English.

"Hello" in Arabic is marhaba or ahlan, to which one replies, marhabtayn or ahlayn. Other common greetings are As-salam 'alaykum, "Peace be with you," with the reply of Wa 'alaykum as-salam, "and to you peace." Ma'assalama means "Goodbye." "Thank you" is Shukran, and "You're welcome" is 'Afwan; "yes" is na'am and "no" is la'a. The numbers one to ten in Arabic are wahad, ithnayn, thalatha, arba'a, khamsa, sitta, saba'a, thamanya, tisa'a, and 'ashara.

Arabs' names consist of their first name, their father's name, and their paternal grandfather's name. Women do not take their husband's name when they marry but rather keep their father's family name as a sign of respect for their family of origin. First names usually indicate an Arab's religious affiliation: Muslims use names with Islamic religious significance, such as Muhammad and Fatima, while Christians often use Western names, as well as Arabic Christian names, such as Elias and Butrus.


Before the discovery of oil, pearling was a major source of income for the people of the Emirates. Pearl divers made up 85% of Abu Dhabi's male population. The pearl diving season lasted for four months, from May to September, after which husbands, fathers, and sons returned to their homes. The patience and hope of Emirian women for the safe return of their loved ones were beautifully depicted in the following folk song:

    Neighbor of mine, my adventurous sailor shall return.
    Neighbor of mine, he shall return from the world of dangers.
    With perfumes, precious stones, rosewater and incense he shall return.
    He shall return, and to see him again will be like seeing the moon.


Native-born Emirians are all Muslims. Most of the foreign workers are also Muslims, although there are also Hindus and Christians. The majority of Emirians are Sunni Muslims, with a small Shi'ite minority.

Islam is the youngest of the world's Abrahamic religions, having begun in the early 7th century AD when the Prophet Muhammad received his revelations from Allah (God). Within just a few years of Muhammad's death in AD 632, Islam had spread through the entire Middle East, gaining converts at a dynamic rate.

Born into the Koreish tribe of Mecca (C. AD 570), in what is now Saudi Arabia, Muhammad was later driven from the city because of his vigorous denunciation of the pagan idols worshiped there (idols that attracted a profitable pilgrim trade). The year of Muhammad's flight from Mecca, AD 622 (16 July), called the Hijra, is counted as the year one in the Muslim calendar. Muhammad fled to the city now known as Medina, another of the holy sites of modern-day Saudi Arabia. Eventually, Muhammad returned to Mecca as a triumphant religious and political leader, destroyed the idols (saving the Black Stone, an ancient meteorite housed in the Ka'aba, or Cube, building, which has become a focal point of Muslim worship) and established Mecca as the spiritual center of Islam.

The Islamic religion has five so-called "pillars": 1) Muslims must pray five times a day; 2) Muslims must give alms, or zakat, to the poor; 3) Muslims must fast during the month of Ramadan; 4) Muslims must make the pilgrimage, or hajj, to Mecca; and 5) each Muslim must recite the shahada: "ashhadu an la illah ila Allah wa ashhadu an Muhammadu rasul Allah," which means, "I witness that there is no god but Allah and that Muhammad is the prophet of Allah." Arabs say all their prayers facing in the direction of Mecca. Both men and women are expected, and greatly desire, to make the pilgrimage at least once in their lifetime. Ramadan, the ninth month of the Muslim year, during which Muhammad received his first revelations, is observed by complete fasting from dawn until dusk each day of the entire month.

Islam is a simple, straightforward faith with clear rules for correct living; it is a total way of life, inseparable from the rest of one's daily concerns. Therefore, religion and politics, faith and culture, are one and the same for Muslims. There is no such thing as the "separation of church and state." In theory, there should be no distinction between private religious values and public cultural norms in an Islamic country; in actuality, history, geography, and daily life have influenced the cultures of Islamic countries, resulting in standards of social behavior and interaction that are not always in agreement with religious codes of conduct.

The difference between the Sunni and Shi'ite Muslims, which has played such an important part in Arab history, has to do with the early history of the religion. After Muhammad's death, the entire Muslim community recognized the legitimacy of the next three successors, or caliphs. The fourth caliph was Ali, Muhammad's cousin and son-in-law. His legitimacy was challenged by Mu'awiyah, the governor of Syria, and after the Battle of Siffin, in 657, Ali was forced to withdraw. He moved his capital to Iraq and was murdered shortly thereafter. His followers refused to recognize the legitimacy of Mu'awiyah's caliphate and established the Shi'ite sect. Although there are doctrinal differences, the fundamental difference between the sects, therefore, is an argument about authority, not doctrine: the Shi'ites believe that caliphs must be direct descendants of Muhammad and that Ali was the legitimate fourth successor, while the Sunnis believe that caliphs should be elected by the people and therefore that Mu'awiyah and his successors were legitimate. Because there are more Sunnis than Shi'ites worldwide, the Sunnis refer to themselves as the "orthodox" sect.

The official religion of the UAE is Islam and the laws of the emirates are made in accordance with Islamic principles. For instance, Emirians and Muslim foreign workers are prohibited from consuming alcohol. However, the UAE exempts non-Muslims from some rules of Islamic law and allows non-Muslims to practice their religion. Several Christian churches have been formed in UAE cities, and good relationships generally exist between the various religious groups. Despite the influence of Islam, many Emirians continue to identify themselves on the basis of their tribal affiliations. These affiliations influence their political, social, and financial decisions.


Secular national holidays include National Day, which is celebrated on December 2, and New Year's Day on January 1. Each emirate may also celebrate its own holiday. For example, August 6 is a holiday in Abu Dhabi marking the accession of Sheikh Zayid. Other official holidays are Muslim ones. Muslim holidays follow the lunar calendar, moving back by 11 days each Western year, so their dates are not fixed on the standard Gregorian calendar. The main Muslim holidays are Eid Al-Fitr, a three-day festival at the end of Ramadan; Eid Al-Adha, a three-day feast of sacrifice at the end of the month of pilgrimage to Mecca, when families who can afford it slaughter a lamb and share the meat with poorer Muslims; the First of Muharram, or the Muslim New Year; al-Mawlid An-Nabi, the prophet Muhammad's birthday; and Eid Al-Isra' wa Al-Mi'raj, a feast celebrating Muhammad's nocturnal visit to heaven. Friday is the Islamic day of rest, so most businesses and services are closed on Fridays. All government offices, private businesses, and schools are closed also during Eid Al-Fitr and Eid Al-Adha.


Births, especially the births of boys, are celebrated by Emirians, as they are among Arab Muslims generally. The first word spoken to a baby is "Allah." After birth, the next important event in a boy's life is circumcision, which, performed at the age of seven, formally makes him a member of the religious community. Children and adolescents are prepared for adulthood by being given adult responsibilities, sharply differentiated by gender. In adolescence, the sexes are strictly segregated while outside of their immediate family, and girls are monitored to assure their chastity.

Dating remains unacceptable among Emirians. Marriages are still arranged and often occur within extended families. Young men and women, however, do have the right to reject a proposed mate. Most men marry around age 26 while women marry between the ages of 22 and 24. In the traditional arranged marriage, the groom pays the bride a dowry, or mahr, which becomes her property no matter what happens. The mahr consists of two stages. The first stage is the muqaddam, which is a dowry given preceding the wedding to allow the bride to buy things for herself and her new home. The second stage, the muta'akhir, is a form of insurance for the woman in the event of divorce; the groom pledges in a contract that he will pay the bride an agreed-upon amount if he should divorce her.

Marriages traditionally involved spending a great deal of money on festivities and dowries, which led some Emirian men to seek non-Emirians as wives. The government has tried to encourage Emirians to marry each other and has set a limit on the dowry a groom must pay to his future wife. The government also pays for some wedding expenses and provides free housing to Emirian newlyweds.


Arab hospitality reigns in UAE. When talking, Arabs touch each other much more often and stand much closer together than Westerners do. People of the same sex will often hold hands while talking or walking. (In earlier days, members of the opposite sex, even married couples, never touched in public.) Arabs talk a great deal, talk loudly, repeat themselves often, and interrupt each other constantly. Conversations are highly emotional and full of gestures.


Before the discovery and production of oil, conditions were very primitive in what is now the UAE. Emirians had no electricity, running water, or sewage disposal system; there were no paved roads or telephones; public education and health care did not exist; and housing consisted of the bare minimum needs for shelter.

Since oil production began in 1962, conditions have rapidly improved, so that almost all Emirians now live in thoroughly modern homes in ultramodern cities. The government allots land to Emirian families so they can build their own homes and provides no-interest loans for housing.

Roads are paved and well maintained; multilane divided highways connect the major cities and link the UAE with neighboring countries. Automobiles and trucks crowd the streets, and four-wheel-drive vehicles race across the desert sands. A railway system is being planned to relieve some of the traffic congestion, particularly that caused by cargo trucks. Five of the emirates have international airports, and there are radio and television broadcasts in Arabic and other languages, and broadcasts from other countries can be picked up on the many satellite dishes on apartment buildings and private homes. Telephone service is state-of-the-art; fax machines are very common.

Traditional souks, or street markets, exist right alongside huge new shopping malls. There is almost no crime in the UAE. Medical care is still not up to Western standards, but it is improving. Health care is provided free of charge at hospitals and clinics staffed mostly by foreigners. The average life expectancy of Emirians is 76 years.


Emirians are a tribal people, and family is the center of their life. Marriages are traditionally arranged by parents, with first cousins being the preferred match. Polygamy is legal—a man may have up to four wives, if he guarantees that all will be equally loved and cared for—but it is very rarely practiced. Divorce is a fairly simple procedure, but it does not occur very often. In a divorce, the father is given custody of all children over the age of five, and the mother takes the younger ones with her back to her parents' house, where she will live until she remarries.

Although the UAE is a conservative country by Western standards, it is still one of the most liberal in the Gulf. Women are much less restricted in the UAE than in other Arab countries. Over the past few years, women have made remarkable progress in obtaining education and joining the work force. As of 2008, about 98% of the female population of school age was attending primary or intermediate school. Women form 70% of the student body at the Higher Colleges of Technology and over 60% at the UAE University. The number of employed women almost quadrupled from 1980 to 1990, increasing from 5.3% to 16.3% of the total work force. Emirian women have also joined the armed forces and the police.


Emirians wear traditional Arab clothing. For men, this consists of an ankle-length robe called a dishdasha, or k andura. The dishdasha is often made of white or off-white cotton cloth and sometimes in a dark color. A large piece of cloth, called a ghutra, is worn on the head, held in place with a piece of woven rope called an 'aqal, which is a thick black circular band made of twisted wool. On formal occasions, a bisht, a full-length cloak embroidered with a golden thread edge, is worn on top of the dishdasha. Women's fashions vary and, with the new flow of wealth, some women import the latest fashions from the West. A traditional UAE woman's costume, however, is the 'abaya, a full-length, black cloak-like garment that covers her from head to toe when she is in a public place.


The Emirian cuisine includes a variety of dishes that are prepared and served on various occasions. Rice, meat, and fish are staple foods. They are cooked in various ways in varying combinations. Spices are an essential part of the Emirian cuisine. Among the most commonly used spices are coriander, cardamom, saffron, and turmeric.

A favorite dish in the UAE as well as in other Gulf countries is machbous, or rice and meat seasoned with spices, onions, tomatoes, and dried lemon. During Ramadan, the month of fasting, harees is usually served. Harees is a dish consisting of small pieces of shredded meat with wheat and water, mixed together and thoroughly beaten over and over again to the consistency of porridge. Favorite desserts include al-halwa, a sweet made from sugar, eggs, starch, water, and oil; al-Jibeet, a sweet made from date syrup and sesame seeds; and Kul Wiskut, a dessert made from a mixture of peanuts and sugar.

Coffee and tea are the most popular beverages and are often mixed with spices, coffee with cardamom and tea with saffron or mint.


As a newly developing state, the UAE focuses much of its resources on education to give its young citizens the tools they need to compete in the modern world. Education is compulsory from age 6 to age 12, and it is free through the university level.

The government also provides full scholarships for study abroad if the course of study is not offered at United Arab Emirates University, which opened in Al Ain in 1977. In 2006, UAE University had about 14,500 students, with women making up 79% of the student body. The UAE established a second university, Zayed University, for women in 1998, with campuses in Dubai and Abu Dhabi. As of 2008, 3,400 students were enrolled.

Although public schooling was virtually nonexistent before the late 1950s, enrollment at public primary schools is now almost 100% and the literacy rate has risen to 89% for men and 88% for women, compared with an overall figure of 24.9% in 1980. Most teachers in the public school system are Arabs from other countries. Outside the public school system, there are also schools for foreigners run by their home countries.


The only native Emirian artistic traditions are those passed down from the Bedu (or bedouin) nomads [see Bedu]. These include traditional Arab music, storytelling, dances, and the strong passion for poetry. Traditional Emirian music is characterized by a marked drumbeat accompanied by the sounds of various percussion and stringed instruments. The tubool, or drums, which come in various sizes, are beaten with a stick or with the fingers. The oud, a popular instrument, is an ancient stringed instrument that is the ancestor of the European lute. The percussion instruments include the soft sad tone of the Arabian flute or nai, and the mizmar, a long open-ended instrument which produces a loud, nasal sound. Another traditional instrument is the rebaba, a one-stringed instrument.

A famous dance which marks the UAE traditions and customs and is performed on almost every occasion is the ayyala. Men form two rows, shoulder to shoulder, facing each other at a distance. This is meant to resemble the scene of a battle, where one row represents the line of attack and the other row represents the cannons, reflecting the Arabs' love of expressions of courage and chivalry.


About 90% of the work force in the UAE is foreign. During the early part of 1995, the UAE launched a nationwide campaign aimed at bringing more Emirians into the work force. The largest industry in the UAE is the Dubai Aluminum Company, which opened in 1979, but most of the UAE's income (about 40%) comes from the oil industry. Most of the oil wealth comes from the emirate of Abu Dhabi. In the smaller emirates, sheep and goat herding, fishing, and farming are the main occupations along with boat-building, handicrafts, and jewelry. Business and industrial workers in the cities often take a two- to three-hour lunch break and then return to work and stay until 7:00 pm or later.


The traditional sports of camel and horse racing still attract great crowds. Nowadays, however, owners and fans often speed alongside the race course in four-wheel-drive vehicles, shouting instructions and cheering. No betting is allowed at camel races. The UAE boasts three ice-skating rinks and some Emirians and visitors enjoy sand skiing in the desert. Water sports are also popular throughout the UAE. The Dubai Desert Classic Golf Tournament is an annual event, drawing top international golfers. It is held at the Emirates Golf Club in Dubai, the first 18-hole grass course in the Gulf region; it opened in 1988.

Dubai also hosts world-class tournaments in tennis, rugby, snooker (or pool), soccer, cricket, volleyball, and chess. The Dubai World Cup is one of the richest horse racing competitions in the world.


Movie theaters showing movies in Hindi, Urdu, Persian, Arabic, and English are very popular with Emirians. Videos can be rented, but they are censored. Several satellite channels, over eight TV stations, and numerous radio frequencies from all over the Gulf can be received in the UAE. Camping in the desert, family outings at parks, and listening to music are among Emirians' favorite pastimes.


Most of the folk art sold in UAE markets is imported. The UAE's Women's Association runs a Handicrafts Center in Abu Dhabi that produces some local basketry and weaving. Baskets are made of palm tree fronds, called al Khoos. Wool from sheep is woven into colorful fabrics, to be used for pillowcases, covers, blankets, carpets, and bags.


The emirates have a long history of intertribal wars and violence, and although they are now united in an attempt at cooperation, old conflicts continually erupt. The financial and political structure also causes problems. Because Abu Dhabi is the largest emirate and has the largest oil reserves (and therefore makes the most money), it makes all the decisions in the UAE. Abu Dhabi's emir is the president of the union. Dubai is the only emirate large and wealthy enough to challenge Abu Dhabi's decisions. The other emirates are all too small and too dependent on financial support from Abu Dhabi to risk speaking out against the Abu Dhabi-dominated government. This creates resentment among the smaller emirates. Dubai occasionally acts on its own, going against decisions handed down by the Abu Dhabi leaders. The union of the emirates is too young, and the new oil wealth and resulting development too recent, to determine if the UAE will be able to maintain its unity and function as a stable federation of states.

The fact that the UAE is a young federation also creates some tensions between the traditional nomadic life of the Bedu and a more modern, sedentary world. Roles of men and women remain primarily traditional, with males expected to provide for their families and women expected to maintain control over the running of domestic affairs.

The UAE also faces some international disputes. Its reliance on foreign workers remains a pressing problem, partly because the government is unwilling to grant citizenship privileges to non-Emirians. Policies approved in 2007 allowed for companies to regulate the activities of foreign workers but gave the workers no additional rights. A longtime boundary dispute with Oman was ratified in 2003, but the agreement had not been published as of 2008. In addition, drug traffickers use the UAE ports as a transfer point in the exchange of illegal drugs. The country's great wealth also poses a possible problem. As a major financial center, the UAE is vulnerable to money laundering. Although the government has imposed some controls, its informal banking sector is largely unregulated.


Emirian women have enjoyed more educational opportunities with the opening of Zayed University, an all-women's university that emphasizes the enrollment of Emirians first. As such opportunities have opened up, women have consistently outperformed men in schooling. However, university opportunities have not been viewed by Emirian women or their families as career choices. Instead, a college degree is seen as improving the value of a young Emirian woman whose family wants her to marry well. Few Zayed attendees intend to pursue careers; most are interested in retaining the traditional social structure.

Women in many Arab nations have begun to press for more equality between the genders in the public sphere. Such a movement has not yet occurred among Emirian women because of the UAE's wealth and because of Emirian beliefs in the value that Islam places on women in traditional, more domestic roles. Many women, even those who attend universities, see a future as a wife and mother as one that their society values. The equality sought in the workplace and political sphere by women in other Arab nations means little to Emirians.


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—revised by H. G. Carlson