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About the UAE

Map of the united Arab Emirates, with land colored brown and water blue. The northern border of the country is along the coast.
May by Dan Cole, Smithsonian

History and People

The United Arab Emirates (الإمارات العربية المتحدة al-ʾImarat al-ʿArabiyyah al-Muttaḥidah) is a vibrant young nation with a deep, significant history. Its seven member emirates—Abu Dhabi, Ajman, Dubai, Fujairah, Ras Al Khaimah, Sharjah, and Umm Al Quwain—joined together as a federation in 1971-1972. Before unification, these territories were known as the Trucial States.

This region has been a globally connected crossroads for thousands of years, from the earliest human migrations. It first flourished during the Iron Age, as recent archaeological discoveries illuminate. For centuries, the region served as an important node in Indian Ocean trade especially with the export of natural pearls. The commencement of oil exports in 1962 initiated an era of urbanization and transformation, as once-small, impoverished sheikhdoms opened to waves of migration and quickly raised cities to hold their multicultural populations.

Today the UAE population is estimated at 9.7 million, of which about eleven percent are UAE citizens, or Emiratis, and eighty-nine percent are non-UAE nationals. The UAE is home to people of many nationalities, including large communities with origins in South Asia, the Philippines, and Egypt and other countries in the Middle East. In addition to Arabic, other commonly spoken languages include English, Urdu, Malayalam, Hindi, Tagalog, and Farsi. About three quarters of the UAE population are Muslims, and there are also active Christian, Hindu, Sikh, Jewish, and other religious communities peacefully coexisting.


Arrayed along the northeastern edge of the Arabian Peninsula, the United Arab Emirates encompasses vast deserts, arid mountains, expansive coastlines, and dazzling cityscapes. While about four fifths of its land is desert, the country contains unique ecosystems and contrasting landscapes.

Along the coasts are salt plains (sabkha), while mangrove forests and wetlands, as well as coral reefs and oyster beds, harbor significant marine biodiversity. The steep Hajar Mountains rise in the northeast, where rain-fed pools and wadis, or dry riverbeds, support pockets of rich plant and animal life. Oases dot the deserts, allowing for cultivation of dates and other crops. Traditional ways of life, whether nomadic or settled, moved in rhythm with these environments and the varying resources available across the seasons to sustain families and herds of camels, goats, and sheep. Migratory species, including birds like flamingos, falcons, and houbara bustards, also find important resting places in the UAE.

Fun Facts

Notable Emiratis

  • Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan (1918–2004) was the first president of the UAE.
  • Fatat Al Arab (“Girl of the Arabs”) is the nickname of Ousha bint Khalifa al Suwaidi (1920–2018), the UAE’s most celebrated Nabati (vernacular poetry) poet.
  • Ahmed ibn Majid (c. 1432–1500) was a master navigator and ocean cartographer from Julfar in today’s Ras Al Khaimah. He wrote several books compiling the Arab oral and written tradition of seafaring.

Natural Features

  • Tel Moreeb is the tallest dune, reaching around 980 feet (300 meters) of red sand.
  • The highest point in the UAE is Jebel Jais mountain at 6,207 feet (1,892 meters).
  • The national animal is the Arabian oryx. The Environment Agency – Abu Dhabi and the Smithsonian’s National Zoo worked together to reintroduce a related species, the scimitar-horned oryx, to its habitat in West Africa.
  • The national plant is the ghaf tree, a tough desert tree whose taproot can grow as deep as 100 feet (30 meters).
  • There are no permanent rivers in the UAE.

Climate and Weather

  • The UAE has a hot desert climate with long, scorching hot summers and mild, warm winters. Temperatures reach 113 °F (45 °C) in summer.
  • Rainfall is infrequent. In 2004, snow was recorded for the first time in the UAE, in the Jebel Jais mountains.

Built Environment

  • The Al Bidya Mosque in Fujairah is the oldest surviving mosque in the UAE, built around 500 years ago.
  • The tallest building in the world is the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, at 2,717 feet (828 meters).
  • Public housing neighborhoods built since the 1960s are called sha’biya, the people’s (sha’b) or folk neighborhoods.

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