(TVLW) – On Dec. 2, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) celebrated its 36th National Day after the completion of another year of successful progress in the development of its rapidly-growing economy.
Formed in 1971 from seven emirates, Abu Dhabi, which is the seat of the capital, Dubai, the country’s commercial center, Sharjah, Ra’s al-Khaimah, Fujairah, Umm al-Qaiwain and Ajman, the UAE is located in the south-eastern corner of the Arabian Peninsula, with coastlines on the Arabian Gulf and on the Indian Ocean.
Following 150 years during which the emirates had separate treaty relations with Britain, they came together as a federal state under the leadership of the ruler of Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, who became the country’s first President, a post to which he was reelected at successive fine-yearly intervals until his death in November 2004.
Since that time, the UAE has been led by his eldest son, President Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, ably assisted, since early 2006, by the Vice President and Prime Minister, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, who is also the ruler of Dubai, and the five other rulers who, together with them, make up the country’s top political body, the Supreme Council of Rulers.
The country’s prosperity derives in large part from its reserves of oil and gas, of which it has, respectively, the fourth and fifth largest reserves in the world.
Its oil production commenced in 1962, and it now produces around 2.6 million barrels a day, with plans to raise capacity to around 4 million barrels a day over the course of the next decade.
When the UAE was first established, President Sheikh Zayed and his colleagues had the foresight to decide that the revenues from oil and, later, gas exports should be used to fund a major programme of development of the country’s infrastructure, and, over the next three decades, this permitted government to lay down the essential elements of a thriving society, including housing, medical services, airports, ports and a modern transport infrastructure, as well as a system of state education for the country’s citizens that provides free schooling from the primary stage to university level.
As a result, the country’s citizens now enjoy a standard of living and a life expectancy, for both men and women, that is comparable to many of the world’s leading industrial nations.
Another objective of government has been that of ensuring that women, as well as men, should fully participate in the benefit of the opportunities that have come from development, this process culminating in late 2006 with the formation of a new Federal National Council, or Parliament.
Women hold over 22 percent of the seats, one of the highest figures in the world. There are also two female Cabinet Ministers.
The process of growth in the economic and social sectors has, of course, not taken place without many other changes as well. Over the course of the last 40 years, the total population of the country has risen from around 250,000 to around 4.25 million.
Of these, only around 20 percent are UAE citizens, the rest being comprised of an expatriate workforce that includes people from virtually every country in the world, although a large number are from other parts of the Arab world and from the countries of South Asia, along with many from Europe.
Both UAE citizens and expatriates play a major role in the country’s development, in both the government and private sectors, although considerable attention is being paid by government to a policy of “Emiratisation,” which seeks to ensure that the country’s citizens are afforded all possible opportunities for employment throughout the economy.
Although exploitation of the oil and gas reserves provide much of the funds for government investment, it has always been recognized that these are depleting resources, and there has been a consistent policy since the UAE’s establishment of seeking to diversify the sources of national income.
Commencing with heavy industry, particularly in the downstream petrochemicals sector, this diversification has spread to encompass a wide variety of sectors, including services, banking and finance, property development, light industry and tourism.
Today, oil and gas revenues account for only around a third of the UAE’s gross national product, estimated at $163 billion in 2006.
Although the percentage varies from year to year as a result of fluctuating world energy prices ― 2006 and 2007 having seen dramatic increases in the price of oil ― the non-oil sectors of the economy now not only provide the bulk of GDP but also most of the employment.
Against the backdrop of reforms in government over the past year, the country’s economy has continued to develop rapidly.
One area that has attracted considerable international attention has been the way in which UAE firms, both government-owned and privately-owned, have expanded their interests overseas through acquisitions and investment.
Thus the Mubadala Development Company and the International Petroleum Investment Company (IPIC), both owned by the government of Abu Dhabi, and the Abu National Energy Company, TAQA, in which government has a majority shareholding, have made numerous major investments overseas.
Through acquisitions, for example, TAQA has become one of the largest oil producers in Canada, with other interests in Europe and Asia, while IPIC has announced investments in upstream and downstream oil and petrochemical projects in Pakistan and Central Asia to complement its existing, widely-spread portfolio.
Mubadala has also announced a number of major strategic partnerships, in sectors as widely diverse as the entertainment industry, oil and gas and the aircraft industry.
Dubai-based companies, too, have been active internationally, with a lead being taken by Dubai Ports World, now one of the world’s largest port operators, thanks to a series of acquisitions, and Dubai Holding, both government-owned, and by Emaar, now the largest property developer in North Africa and the Middle East, and rapidly extending its ambitions further a field.
While full details of the UAE’s overseas investment for 2007 are not yet available, figures for 2006 suggest that it now ranks 25th in the world for its foreign investment ― a remarkable achievement for such a small country.
The focus of growth has, however, been at home, with nominal gross domestic product growing by a remarkable 23.4 percent to nearly 600 billion dirhams, ($163 billion), in 2006, and set to rise at an even more impressive rate during 2007, partly because of high oil prices.
Growth in non-oil sector
The non-oil sector has, however, also recorded substantial growth, rising by 20.3 percent to 376 billion dirhams ($102 billion) in 2006, with the real estate and business services and the building and construction sectors each increasing their contribution to overall GDP.
Both of these sectors have benefited directly from the construction boom, which has spread throughout the country. Much of the emphasis has been on the building of residential properties, with numerous specially-planned communities under development, such as the man-made Palm Islands off the coast of Dubai, but there has, too, been much development of prestigious office accommodation.
One iconic example of this is the impressive Burj Dubai (Dubai Tower), in the heart of the city’s new business district, which became the world’s tallest building during the course of the year, and was still rising as the end of the year drew near.
There has, too, been a continued rapid pace of development in the hotel and entertainment industry, driven by the fast-growing numbers of tourists coming from all over the world to visit the Emirates.
Tourism is already a crucial part of Dubai’s economy, and is becoming of increasing importance of all of the other emirates, and is projected to rise over the next decade at well above the global growth rate.
The industry already provides nearly 12 percent of total employment in the country, or nearly 300,000 people, and jobs in this sector are expected to increase to over 375,000 by 2016.
This, in turn, has fuelled growth in the country’s aviation industry, with particular success stories being the two main national airlines, Dubai-based Emirates and Abu Dhabi’s Etihad, as well as the low-cost carrier Air Arabia, each of whom have added numerous new destinations to their networks during the course of 2007.
One indication of the plans for future growth came at November’s biennial Dubai Airshow, where Emirates alone placed confirmed orders for 93 new aircraft and options on a further 50 planes, with the total value being worth nearly $35 billion, the largest-ever single order in aviation history.
A newcomer, Dubai Aerospace, which plans to enter the international aviation leasing market, signed initial agreements to order as many as 200 planes, which, when delivered, will make the government-owned enterprise one of the largest plane-leasing firms in the world. Air Arabia, placed orders and options for a total of 49 planes, in another multi-billion dollar deal.
To cope with the additional traffic, whether of planes or visitors, the UAE has continued during the year to invest heavily in the expansion of its airports.
Over $ 20 billion being spent on the upgrading of existing airports, such as those of Dubai, already a major hub for global air transport, and Abu Dhabi, and on the creation of the massive new Al Maktoum International Airport, south-west of Dubai, which, when completed in a couple of years time, will be the largest airport in the world.
Substantial investment is also continuing to go into the expansion of the country’s ports, with a major new project, the Khalifa Port and Industrial Zone, now beginning to get under way north-east of Abu Dhabi.
Overseas trade whether by sea or by air, remains an essential part of the economy, and in keeping with the UAE’s belief in facilitating the development of the global market, considerable progress has been made in terms of signing free trade agreements and bilateral preferential agreements with other countries.
While an agreement with the United States has temporarily been put on hold, substantial progress has been made on an agreement between the six-member Gulf Co-operation Council, which includes the UAE, and the European Union which is expected, when finalized, to double trade between the two groups.
Amidst the focus on the economy, however, attention has continued to be paid to two other topics that are viewed as high priority issues by both federal and local governments, conservation of the environment and the promotion of culture and heritage.
In the sphere of the environment, the country marked the first in 2007 with the inclusion of the important Marawah Marine Protected Area on the international list of biosphere reserves maintained by the United Nations Educational Cultural and Scientific Organisation, UNESCO, the first UAE reserve to be accorded international status.
Culture and Heritage
Developments in the sphere of culture and heritage have adopted the twin approach of both seeking to maintain and preserve the UAE’s own heritage, always an important goal, and also of preparing to establish the country as a centre of global cultural importance.
A key part of this is the Saadiyat island cultural center project being developed by the Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority, which is designed to bring global culture to the Emirates.
As part of this, agreements have been signed for the establishment on Saadiyat of branches of France’s internationally-renowned Louvre Museum and of the Guggenheim Museum of the United States.
Other deals have included one with the New York Film Academy for the setting up of a local branch, as well as agreements with a number of top international academic institutions, such as the University of the Sorbonne in Paris and New York University.
The goal, now clearly in sight, is to ensure that not only will the UAE, and, in particular, its capital, Abu Dhabi, have world-class attractions to show its visitors, but also that its residents will be able to enjoy access to world-class facilities of a type that will equip them in cultural as well as educational terms to help in the building of a modern society that is closely rooted in its own heritage, but also well-aware of the very best that the rest of the world can offer.
This recognition of the need to look to the future is also recognisable in the initiatives taken during the year by the UAE to promote research into and the use of the very latest in terms of sustainable energy techniques.
Abu Dhabi’s Masdar Imitative, for example, conceived in partnership with several major international companies and academic institutions, has instituted pilot projects in photo-voltaic and solar energy and, in collaboration with the world-famous architectural practice of Foster and Partners, is planning to build a ‘zero footprint’, environmentally-sustainable township in the capital.
It is also examining other unconventional energy sources, looking forward to the day when the depletion of global oil and gas reserves will require a much greater focus on alternative energy.
Another important initiative, announced late in the year by the government of Dubai, was a requirement that from 2008, all new buildings will have to be designed with energy conservation in mind.
Amidst all of the development activity at home, the United Arab Emirates has also continued during the course of the last year to pursue an active foreign policy, based upon the guiding principles laid down by the founder of the state, the late Sheikh Zayed.
These incorporate a belief in the need for justice in international dealings between states, including the necessity of adhering to the principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of others and the pursuit, wherever possible, of peaceful resolution of disputes, together with a support for international institutions, such as the United Nations.
Within the Arabian Gulf region, the UAE has continued to work to develop closer ties with its neighbours in the Arabian peninsula, through the Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC).
At a regional level, the UAE government has maintained its support for the Palestinians and has urged the international community, and the United Nations Security Council, in particular, to make the necessary efforts in association with the Arab Quartet of Foreign Ministers, including the UAE, to re-activate the stalled Middle East peace process.
The UAE continues to believe that the restoration of security, peace and stability in the region, as well as normalization of relations between all countries, including Israel, cannot be achieved while Israeli occupation of the Palestinian and Arab territories continues.
And it, therefore, supports an ending of the occupation, the establishment of an independent Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital, and the right of refugees to return to their homeland within the context of a just and lasting peace agreement based upon the Arab peace initiative.
The UAE continued to provide support to the government of Iraq in its efforts to restore stability and security to the country.
The UAE’s foreign minister spelt out the UAE’s views on the topic as follows: “We reiterate our support for the efforts aimed at enabling Iraq to regain its security and to strengthen its national unity. We call on all Iraqis, regardless of political affiliation or social class, to actively participate in building a new Iraq.”
The UAE also continued to offer support to the government of Lebanon following the devastating conflict in the summer of 2006, also working with the UN on a program for the removal of cluster bombs and other munitions left behind by Israel as a result of that conflict.
No visible progress was made during the year on resolving the long-running dispute with neighboring Iran on the question of its occupation of the three UAE islands of Abu Musa and Greater and Lesser Tunb.
The UAE continues to look forward to an eventual resolution of the dispute and to hope that the government of Iran will to refer the issue for adjudication to the International Court of Justice or to other forms of international arbitration.
The UAE has also continued to express concern about Iran’s nuclear power program, and has sought reassurances that it is for peaceful purposes only.
Beyond the Arab world, the UAE has pursued a policy of seeking, wherever possible, to build friendly relations with other nations, both in the developing and in the industrialised world, and leading figures, including the President, the vice president and prime minister, the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and the foreign minister, have made numerous overseas visits to promote economic and political ties.
Numerous world leaders have also visited the Emirates.
International Support for the UAE Foreign Policy
Another important feature of UAE foreign policy has been its support for international bodies, like the U.N. and its various agencies through which it seeks to reinforce the rule of international law, and to support the implementation of internationally agreed conventions, so as to protect the interests of the small, the weak and the powerless.
Throughout the year, the UAE continued to extend all possible support to the international fight against terrorism, while emphasising the necessity both of a clear definition of terrorism and of ensuring that terrorism perpetrated by states should not be overlooked.
Support has been offered to countries suffering from terrorism, including collaboration in terms of exchanges of information designed to help law enforcement authorities track down and arrest suspects.
Another important step taken during the year was the enforcement of legislation passed in 2006 to stamp out all trafficking in people, as defined under international conventions, with the first, stringent, sentences being handed down to those convicted.
The government and people of the United Arab Emirates can look ahead to 2008 with confidence, in the knowledge that the fundamental strengths of the national economy, coupled with a wise leadership, will continue to permit them to record another year of progress and development.