UAE’s ‘Rags to Riches’ Story of Mind-boggling Change

When I told my American friends and family I was moving to Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, most responded with blank stares. They had either never heard of it, or had only vague notions of where it is and what life would be like. Actually, I didn’t have much idea either, except I knew it would be HOT.

In reality, Abu Dhabi”s temperatures are quite pleasant about six months a year.  Abu Dhabi certainly goes against negative US stereotypes of Arab cities as impoverished, unsafe, full of violence and afraid of diversity. It is a strikingly modern, architecturally creative city of great diversity. Only about 15 percent of the UAE population are natives, mostly descendants of camel-herders, date-farmers, pearl divers, fishermen or traders, the main occupations available before the discovery of oil. The vast majority of residents are expats or laborers.

In the less than a half-century since the UAE’s founding, the country has undergone a “startling evolution…(it) is creatively outstripping reliance on oil and whose influence on the world stage increases almost daily.” So wrote The National, an award-winning English-language newspaper based in Abu Dhabi that tackles important issues in the Middle East.

The UAE has a remarkable “Rags to Riches” story. Populated by mostly barefoot, illiterate Bedouins living in animal hide tents well into the 1970s, it has evolved into a 21st century, high-tech economic powerhouse that generates nearly 100 billion dollars each year in oil revenues.

Essentially, Sheikh Zayed Al Nahyan, the driving force behind the formation of the country in 1971, offered every family land, housing, electricity, education, medical care, and a social safety net, with an invitation to help him build the country.


American comedians in the early 1980s satirized this phenomenon as strikingly similar to “The Beverly Hillbillies,” a popular U.S. television show in the 1960s. But the Emiratis clearly got a lot of things right.

Sheikh Zayed did not have to invest generously in his people and his country’s potential. He operated in sharp contrast to the neighboring ruling family of Saudi Arabia, the House of Saud, and decided to share the nation’s oil wealth with the citizens of the UAE,  transforming everyday lives in miraculous ways, often overnight.

Zayed’s older brother Sheikh Shakhbut ruled the country for 40 years as a miser who chose not to invest his country’s newly found oil wealth. Shakhbut distrusted banks and wealth. Truckloads of cash, amounting to millions of dollars in oil wealth, were delivered to his home. He instructed the delivery men to store millions of dollars in a spare room of his palace.

After mice were discovered eating away $10 million in cash, discontent with Shakhbut boiled over. With the help of the British, Shakhbut was gently overthrown and replaced with his younger and much wiser brother, Zayed, in 1966.

This 1968 documentary describes the state of the country and Zayed’s vision. What a dramatic contrast to what the country has become.

I didn’t find a video on Youtube that captures the UAE succinctly. This one is probably better than others, but there’s at least one mistake towards the end, referring to the “Persian Gulf” — that’s what the Iranians call it, but the Emiratis call it the “Arabian Gulf.”



We are in a little country of about seven million people, the size of the state of Maine, located in the Arabian peninsula. It is bordered by Qatar, Oman, Saudi Arabia. Across the Persian Gulf — or, Arabian Gulf, as locals controversially call it — is Iran. (I don’t think we’ll go hiking over there on the weekends!) Not far away to the northwest is Kuwait. To the southwest is Yemen. UAE also shares sea borders with Iraq and Bahrain.

First Impressions After Hurtling Through Space, Traveling Through Time, Trying to Orient Myself to a New City and Country, Abu Dhabi, UAE

After six weeks, five countries (Turkey, UK, USA, UAE, and Oman), 14 cities, nine time zones, in September, 2011 I was trying to settle down in a new city, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. But the rhythms and patterns of life were so different that after five days I was still feeling somewhat disoriented.

Work week begins Sunday AM — actually Saturday night US time — and ends Thursday pm (Thursday am US time). Friday & Saturday are weekend. Late September feels like the hottest part of July where I come from in North Carolina — with lows of 88 and highs of 105 degrees. Just five days earlier, I left a chilly fall day in Missouri, so I felt like I was traveling back in time to summer’s blazing sun.

October through March, the weather in the UAE is wonderful. “Your best summer will be your winter in Abu Dhabi,” the tourism bureau proclaims.

The feeling of time traveling is certainly enhanced by Internet technology, when I Skype, chat, text and email with friends and family back home. I left the states on a Tuesday afternoon, arrived in Abu Dhabi on Wednesday night (though my body clock told me it was Wednesday morning). I was fresh and wide awake as local people were winding down for the evening. Then at 5 pm, I’d crash and sleep until 2:30 am local time. I was up well into three nights. On night five, I fell asleep at midnight local time (4 pm EST, “my time” in the US) — and rose at 6 AM Monday (10 pm Sunday EST). Alex had the same difficult sleep adjustment after he arrived, he said.

To avoid the hottest part of the day, everyone seems to rise early here. My son Alex catches the bus to school at 6:45 am, and returns home at 3:45 pm. Lucia usually leaves for class before 7 — her first class is at 8 am — and she says most colleagues leave work by 4 pm.

As a stranger in a strange land, I yearned for the familiar. All the street signs are in both English and Arabic. Old-timers tell me there’s really no need to learn Arabic, as nearly everyone speaks at least some English.

I was thrilled to see Hardees, Pizza Hut, Starbucks, and KFC, though I realize they certainly don’t generally represent the best of America.  I felt at home when I saw Best Buy and computer prices similar to what they’d be in the states.

This place isn’t all that different temperature- and landscape-wise from Phoenix, Arizona, where the daily temperatures are similar, I tell myself.  But the culture, heavily influenced by Britain, India, Pakistan, the Philippines, Arabia, Islam, and America, is just plain strange.

I was thrilled to see “St. Andrews Anglican/Episcopal Church,” to attend and follow a familiar worship service and familiar-seeming coffee hour with fellow Americans and Brits. The service was held at 6 pm Sunday night rather than Sunday morning because Sunday is a work day here. Christian worship services are also held on Friday mornings.

Abu Dhabi is a land of expats — 80 percent of the residents are from other countries. Only 20 percent are “natives” of the United Arab Emirates, a country that was founded in 1971, about the same time air conditioning was widely adopted in hot climates. Without AC, this country could not exist.

I had feared Abu Dhabi would be a “playground for the super-rich,” as it is sometimes portrayed in the media — wealthy people with servants (“the help”) who are paid a pittance and segregated in unspeakable conditions. While that might be part of the story here, there seem to be plenty of middle class people, confident and aspiring immigrants from developing nations. Certainly, the home we have here would classify as middle class in the US, not grand. I don’t think it will give son Alex a distorted view of reality.

Prices for utilities, food, drinks (yes, even water), clothing, technology — seem quite in line to what you’d pay in the US, if not cheaper. We have a free “cadillac” health plan, something no longer easy to obtain in the US. Our employers offer far more generous vacation packages than in US.

One of the main reason for moving here while continuing to live abroad is for the education of our son. The UAE offers English-speaking international and American schools with International Baccalaureate degrees, teaching “a respect for and understanding of others’ perspectives, values and attitudes”; “an understanding of the interactions and interdependence of individuals, societies, and their environments”; “a sense of internationalism and a desire to be proactive as a responsible global citizen.”

Artistic and Architectural Marvels

The video was produced before the fabulous Louvre opened at the end of 2017. That deserves a video all its own. I recommend spending at least four hours there.

In my first job in the UAE, I could look out my office window and see this circular building, Aldar Properties.


I frequently drove or walked by Al Bahar Towers, next to Mangrove Village in Abu Dhabi. They use a computerized solar shading system to control the buildings’ facade and either allow or block off sunlight, use less artificial lighting while reducing the use of air conditioning. The towers won a “best tall buildings award” from the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat. Google search: Al Bahar Towers.


This is the spaceship-like building I worked in for four years: Zayed University, Abu Dhabi.

World-class Museums, Universities, Media and Technology Centers

The art museums, universities, media and technology centers rising up in the United Arab Emirates and Qatar, emphasizing the connections between Western, Eastern, and Middle Eastern cultures, sound truly awesome.  To have peace, “we need to first respect each other’s cultures,” says the daughter of the Emir of Qatar. ““And people in the West don’t understand the Middle East. They come with Bin Laden in their heads.” The museums, she hopes, will change that mindset.

The challenge will be how to integrate the struggling underclass into this haven for the wealthy, educated and privileged.

Dark Side of the UAE

ABC’s 20/20 report on UAE

As due diligence, to get some idea, both positive and negative, of what we could expect living in Abu Dhabi/Dubai, UAE, I searched the Internet for articles and videos.

“Dubai was meant to be a Middle-Eastern Shangri-La, a glittering monument to Arab enterprise and western capitalism. But as hard times arrive in the city state that rose from the desert sands, an uglier story is emerging. Johann Hari reports.” For this article from the (UK) IndependentClick.

The writer’s hostility shone through. She seemed to think the world would be better off if Dubai, with its huge carbon footprint and human rights violations, would simply fall into the sea, drowning all associated with it.

She did not appreciate the remarkable human ingenuity that created these gleaming modern cities in the desert. Nor dic she seem to think there are any compromises to be made on workers’ rights. If she bothered to interview workers from poor countries, she would have found many who described their time in the UAE as a way up and out of the abject poverty of their homelands.

In a more balanced but still critical article, Anne Applebaum in The Washington Post compared Dubai to New York City or Chicago in the 19th century — a place without indigenous history or culture — “vulgar, blatantly commercial, lacking in taste.” Read the whole thing.

Matt Duffy, an assistant professor of communication at Zayed University in Abu Dhabi, addressed the real damage done by drive-by Western journalists offering scathing critiques of the UAE, or of the Arab world in general. Referring specifically to a blistering article about Dubai by A.A. Gill in Vanity Fair that had UAE officials up in arms Duffy wrote:

“Gill gave palpable evidence to those in the UAE who believe that journalists can’t be trusted to be “free.” His behavior provides powerful ammunition to those who oppose creating stronger protections for press freedoms here. Gill’s article shows these opponents that the country’s current laws are beneficial because they force journalists to be “responsible” in their reporting.

“This is a shame. Gill’s article does not show the need for restrictive press laws. His Vanity Fair piece shows the need for journalists to take their profession seriously and to act with integrity.

“It’s doubtful that Gill will ever realize the error of his ways. He’s probably moved on to his next journalistic victim. Unfortunately, the UAE may feel the effects of his report for years to come.”

Ironically, Dr. Duffy himself was thrown out of the UAE after just two years, despite positive reviews from both students and his supervisors, for presumably pushing the envelope on freedom of speech. But that’s another story, a very inspiring yet tragic one.

Other “Dark Side” stories and critiques of these stories:

Drill Deeper:

Books and documentaries about the UAE: These are the books about the UAE that gave me a much broader understanding of the history and culture.












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