Up to the middle of the twentieth century, UAE society was largely semi-nomadic, moving between desert and coast in an attempt to exploit very limited natural resources. Sea trade and the pearling industry supported a few coastal towns. In general, especially after the collapse of pearling in the 1940s, the standard of living in the region was low, access to formal education restricted, health care practically non-existent, and housing and infrastructure undeveloped. Nevertheless, traditional Emirati society was distinctly cohesive and resilient, reinforced by strong family, religious and tribal bonds as well as traditional values of hospitality, cooperating and sharing.
In the few years since its formation in 1971, the UAE has used its oil wealth to create a prosperous, stable, well-administered modern state and the long-term vision of its leadership has ensured that these political and economic achievements have been accompanied by a giant leap in social conditions.
Investment in its people as the 'wealth of the nation' has been a primary focus of the UAE Government's ambitious programme of modernisation. Today, the citizens of the UAE enjoy a very high standard of living and are reaping the benefits of considerable Government investment in infrastructure, housing, education and health services. This investment is ongoing, amounting to over 50 per cent of the 2014 federal budget. Government strategy contained in Emirates Vision 2021 has as its declared outcomes: an ambitious and confident people, a strong federation, a competitive economy and a good quality of life in a generous and sustainable environment.
It is not surprising, therefore, that the UAE was ranked fortieth (out of 187 states) and in the category of countries with very high human development in the 2014 UNDP Human Development Index. Life expectancy, which was as low as 49.3 years in 1970, is now 76.8 years; the expected years of schooling for a UAE citizen is 13.3 years; and the UAE's gender equality ranking at forty-third is also higher than a significant number of countries in the very high human development category.
Earlier in 2014, the UAE was ranked number one in the region (and thirty-seventh worldwide) in a global study conducted by the non-profit Social Progress Imperative measuring social progress in 132 countries. The UAE and Kuwait were ranked ahead of the BRICS countries – Brazil (46), South Africa (69), Russia (80), China (90) and India (102) .
Investment in the welfare of its citizens, coupled with political stability and sound economic fundamentals, have ensured a high level of satisfaction with life in general in the UAE. This is evident from the results of a survey conducted by TNS MENA of 5,000 Emiratis across the seven emirates in which 97 per cent of respondents stated that they were 'very satisfied' or 'fairly satisfied' with their overall quality of life, an increase of 6 per cent on a similar survey conducted in 2011. This UAE satisfaction rating among nationals is on a par with indices for Scandinavian countries, considered the 'gold standard' in such surveys.
Although the UAE has changed dramatically in the space of a few generations, UAE society still remains socially cohesive and the UAE population has, by and large, successfully integrated modernity and globalisation with traditional values. The UAE continues to be a remarkably tolerant, open, harmonious, caring society that cherishes and build on its traditional roots. Nevertheless, the impact of development has been significant on society. Outstanding challenges are a massive rise in population and demographic imbalances brought about by large-scale immigration and urbanisation.
The total population of the UAE is now estimated to be over 9.4 million, a hundredfold increase since 1960. Most people live in the UAE's major cities, Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Sharjah. Dubai has a population of over 2.1 million and Abu Dhabi emirate around 2.3 milion. Males outnumber females by a ratio of 7:3, whilst UAE citizens comprise roughly 12 per cent of the total population.
Opportunity provided by a thriving economy has brought immigrants in large numbers to the UAE. But it is quality of life, including safety and security and the ease of raising children, that help to keep them here. These are just some of the factors that prompted many expatriates in the latest HSBC Expat Explorer survey to rank the UAE as the ninth best country globally for people choosing to move abroad.
Regional sentiment concurs with this choice: when Arab youth were asked in a recent survey (Arab Youth Survey conducted by Asdaa Burson-Marsteller) to name the ocuntry in which they would most like to live from a list of 20 nations, including the United States, Britain, France and Germany, the UAE was cited as their top choice, for the third consecutive year.