The United Arab Emirates: Prospectives for Political Reform

The United Arab Emirates (UAE)—a federation of sheikhdoms in the lower Persian Gulf comprising oil-rich Abu Dhabi, as well as the international entrepôt of Dubai, Sharjah, Ajman, Fujairah, Ras al-Khaimah, and Umm al-Qawain—has for years enjoyed the highest economic growth rates in the Middle East. It has built up enormous sovereign wealth funds and has attracted impressive levels of foreign direct investment. Moreover, even though Dubai’s attempts to experiment with real estate and tourism may now be coming unstuck in the wake of tightening global credit markets,4 Abu Dhabi’s investments in heavy industries, renewable energies, and a knowledge economy will nevertheless ensure the long-term sustainability of the UAE’s diversification strategy. Remarkably, this astoundingly successful development has been presided over by traditional political structures that have shown little sign of evolution. Certainly, politics in the UAE remain defined by an assortment of seemingly absolute hereditary monarchies that are loosely assembled under a central, federal government dominated by the two wealthiest emirates of Abu Dhabi and Dubai. There has been no real evidence of democratic opening, at least in the western sense. And far less tangible political reform has taken place in the UAE than in neighboring Gulf states, including even Saudi Arabia. Indeed, international non-governmental organizations regularly rank the UAE among the least free political systems in the world, and consistently place it behind Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, and Oman.

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