Persian Gulf States Table of Contents

A harsh environment and marginal economic conditions kept the population of the region low and economically depressed until the exploitation of oil. According to estimates, between 1900 and 1960 there were 80,000 to 95,000 inhabitants in the amirates, mostly in small coastal settlements. Although the population of the amirates probably did not increase a great deal during this period, there were considerable shifts within the territories, caused by changes in economic and political conditions. Whereas Sharjah was dominant in the nineteenth century, by 1939 Dubayy was the most populous amirate, with an estimated population of 20,000, one-quarter of whom were foreigners. The largest minorities were Iranians and Indians in Dubayy and in other amirates. Abu Dhabi's onshore oil exports began in 1963, bringing wealth and a demand for foreign labor. The 1968 census, conducted under the British, was the area's first; it enumerated 180,226 inhabitants. Ever greater demands for labor and expertise fueled a population boom throughout the 1970s and early 1980s, but population growth has slowed since 1985.

The UAE had an officially estimated population of 1.9 million in mid-1991. Only about 12 percent of the total actually were UAE citizens. The number of foreign workers has increased dramatically since 1968, when they constituted 36 percent of the total population. By 1975 foreigners accounted for 70 percent of the population, increasing to 80 percent in 1980 and to 88 percent in 1985. Since 1985, the percentage of foreigners has leveled at 88 percent. About 87 percent of the total population consists of ethnic Arabs. The largest non-Arab group consists of Asians from India and Pakistan, about 9.5 percent of the population. Some 2 percent are Iranians. Other groups, including Africans and Europeans, make up less than 2 percent of the population.

Although the population density was about twenty-five persons per square kilometer in 1991, the population was unevenly distributed among the seven amirates. The three most populous amirates, Abu Dhabi, Dubayy, and Sharjah--together accounted for roughly 84 percent of the total population. The remaining 16 percent lived in Ras al Khaymah, Ajman, Al Fujayrah, and Umm al Qaywayn.

The population of the UAE is overwhelmingly urban, with more than 90 percent of the people living in cities. The largest city, Abu Dhabi, the federal capital, had an estimated population of 475,000 in 1992. Dubayy, the second largest city and the UAE's main port and commercial center, had an estimated population of 395,000. The residential neighborhoods along the Persian Gulf coast north of the center of Dubayy were contiguous with those of the city of Sharjah (estimated population of 130,000). Sharjah in turn flowed into the city of Ajman (estimated population of 30,000). About fifty kilometers north of Ajman is the city of Ras al Khaymah (estimated population of 45,000). The largest inland population concentration is in the contiguous villages and residential developments at Al Ayn (estimated population of 105,000) in Abu Dhabi's Al Buraymi Oasis.


Most of the citizens of the UAE are Sunni Muslims who adhere to the Maliki legal tradition. Some Sunnis of the Wahhabi sect (followers of a strict interpretation of the Hanbali legal school) live in the Al Buraymi Oasis, and some who follow the Shafii legal school live along the Al Batinah coast. The foreign population includes Sunni and Shia Muslims, Hindus, and Christians.

Although varying from amirate to amirate, the degree of religious freedom afforded non-Muslims is greater in the UAE than in Saudi Arabia and Qatar. For example, non-Muslims are permitted to worship but not to proselytize. There are several large Christian churches and schools in the UAE, primarily in Dubayy and Abu Dhabi.


In the early 1900s, three major schools were established by pearl merchants in Dubayy, Abu Dhabi, and Sharjah. The schools were staffed by foreign teachers who taught reading, writing, and Islamic studies. The economic crises of the 1920s and 1930s forced some of these and other schools to close, but some reopened when the economy improved.

The British built the first school offering a comprehensive curriculum in Sharjah in 1953. Staffed by teachers from other Arab countries, the school had 450 boys between the ages of six and seventeen that year. Shortly after, the first modern primary school for girls was established in Sharjah. The British government also built schools in Abu Dhabi, Ras al Khaymah, and Khawr Fakkan and established an agricultural school in Ras al Khaymah in 1955 and a technical school in Sharjah in 1958. In 1958 Kuwait started to build schools in the amirates, including facilities in Ajman and Umm al Qaywayn. Kuwait also funded teacher trainees from the amirates to go abroad for training. Until the amirates could afford to pay teachers, Bahrain, Qatar, and the Egyptian region of the United Arab Republic (UAR) paid teachers to work in the amirates.

After Abu Dhabi began earning oil revenues in the early 1960s, it developed and funded its own educational system, while the other amirates continued to rely on outside assistance. By the 1964-65 academic year, Abu Dhabi had six schools attended by 390 boys and 138 girls, taught by thirty-three teachers. In the same year, there were thirty-one schools outside Abu Dhabi, twelve of which were for girls. Dubayy had 3,572 students in ten schools and 137 teachers, most of whom came from Kuwait and the UAR.

After the founding of the UAE, there was tremendous expansion of public education facilities. Section 17 of the constitution states that education is fundamental to the progress of society and is to be compulsory at the primary level and free at all levels. Uniforms, books, equipment, and transportation are also free. In the first seven years of the UAE's existence, education was second only to defense in the federal budget. In 1988 the budget allocated Dh2.0 million for education.

The education system in the UAE includes six years of primary school and six years of secondary school. By 1972-73, the first full academic year following the formation of the UAE, the government operated an estimated 140 schools, twelve of which offered boarding facilities. Most schools are separated according to gender, but some through the primary level are coeducational. In 1990-91 there were about 760 schools with 49,904 pupils in preschool, 227,083 students in primary school, and 111,611 in secondary school. One-third of the pupils attended private or religious schools. Beginning in the 1991-92 academic year, military courses were compulsory in federal secondary schools.

United Arab Emirates University opened in 1977 at Al Ayn with four faculties: arts, science, education and political science, and business administration. First-year enrollment was 400. A sharia (Islamic jurisprudence) faculty was added in 1978; faculties in agriculture and engineering were added in 1982. In 1988 four higher colleges of technology (two for men and two for women) opened. By the 1990-91 academic year, enrollment stood at 8,941 students. In the previous academic year, 65 percent of university students were women. Many UAE nationals go abroad for university and graduate studies to other Arab countries and to Britain and the United States.

In the early 1990s, United Arab Emirates University was being expanded, at an estimated outlay of Dh3 to Dh5 billion, to accommodate up to 16,000 students by the year 2000. The existing campus will become a technical college after the expansion is completed.

The Women's Federation of the UAE provides adult literacy classes. There were twenty-six adult education centers in 1992. The United Nations (UN) estimated the UAE's literacy rate in 1988-89 as 53.5 percent overall, 58.4 percent for males and 38.1 percent for females. The government also operates several vocational training centers, which in the 1987-88 academic year had 2,614 students.

Status of Women

The role of women in UAE society has gradually expanded since the discovery of oil. Before 1960 there were few opportunities for them outside the realm of home and family. The president, Shaykh Zayid ibn Sultan Al Nuhayyan, has acknowledged the validity of women participating in the work force as well as in the home. The president's wife, Shaykha Fatima, heads the Women's Federation and promotes training, education, and the advancement of the status of women. In the early 1990s, there were five women's societies promoting various issues of importance to women, including literacy and health.

Women constituted 6.2 percent of the work force in 1988. A study by the Administrative Development Institute found that a majority of female workers who are UAE citizens work under the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Health. In 1988 they accounted for 82 percent of UAE national employees in these ministries. Since the late 1980s, women graduates have outnumbered men by a ratio of two to one at United Arab Emirates University.

For more recent population estimates, see Facts about the United Arab Emirates.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress