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Ethnicity, Language, & Religion of the United Arab Emirates

Ethnicity

Only about 20% of the people living in the United Arab Emirates are actually citizens, but nearly every citizen is ethnically Arab. The Arab people are from the Arabian Peninsula, on which the U.A.E. sits. The Arab people have numerous genetic variations from region to region and country to country. In the case of the Emiratis, the people are almost wholly Bedouin, although today that name generally only refers to a nomadic Arab. Among the other 80% of the population, about half of the total population is South Asian, particularly Indians, Pakistanis, and Bangladeshis. About 25% of the total population comes from other Middle Eastern countries and are Arab or are Persian. The last 10% or so consists of people from every part of the world, but primarily from Europe, North America, or the Philippines.

Language

Arabic is the only official language in the United Arab Emirates. The written form of the language is called Modern Standard Arabic (written in the Arabic script), which gives the language consistency across countries from a written perspective. The spoken dialects of Arabic are so drastic from location to location that Arabic speakers in the U.A.E. may not even understand Arabic speakers from a country further away, like Morocco. Obviously the dialect of Arabic in the U.A.E. is most closely related to the dialects spoken in nearby countries like Oman and Saudi Arabia.

Arabic is a Semitic language; other closely related Semitic languages include Amharic (Ethiopia) and Hebrew. More distantly related are languages like Berber (North Africa) as well as historic languages including Phoenician and ancient Egyptian.

English is the most commonly taught second language in the country and nearly everyone speaks at least a minimal amount of English if they are not completely fluent. Among the immigrant groups dozens of additional languages are spoken, including Persian, Hindi, and Urdu, but again many of these people speak either English or Arabic as a means to communicate across linguistic groups.

Religion

Nearly every citizen in the United Arab Emirates is a Muslim, most of whom are Sunni Muslims. The rest of the citizens, only about 4-5% of the population, are generally either Christian or Hindu. These numbers only represent citizens, which is about 20% of the population; among non-citizen temporary workers various other religions exist and are followed in larger numbers than Muslim is. Among these religions the most common are Christianity (both Roman Catholicism and Protestantism) and Hindi.

Islam (the name of the religion, whose followers are called Muslims) is a monotheistic religion, whose holy book is called the Qur'an. The Qur'an is believed to be the word of God spoken through the prophet Muhammad from 609-632 CE (Common Era is preferred over AD (Anno Domini or "year of the Lord") since the Islamic world doesn't believe Jesus was the messiah). Islam believes Muhammad was the last prophet sent to earth by God, the last in a long line of prophets, which includes Moses, Abraham, and Jesus among others.

Muslims follow five pillars of their faith: testimony, prayer, alms-giving, fasting, and pilgrimage. These pillars, and other tenants of their faith, can give great structure to their lives as some foods, like pork, are forbidden and every Muslim is expected to pray five times a day. However, the level of participation in each of these pillars and to what degree Islam influences an individual's life varies from person to person and community to community. The United Arab Emirates has a range of both liberal and conservative Muslims, but nearly everyone is very tolerant of other religions and most people in Dubai and Abu Dhabi are quite liberal.

Most Muslims are Sunni, which is the branch of Islam that closely follows the teachings of Muhammad and accepts Abu Bakr as the first Caliph (a ruler of an Islamic community); the Sunni Muslims are sometimes referred to Orthodox. Shia Muslims believe only God can chose who heads the Islamic community and believed it was Ali, Muhammad's son-in-law who was first chosen; Ali became the first Imam (according to Shia Muslims, this term only refers to the leaders of the faith, to Sunni Muslims Imam is often times used in reference to the prayer leader in mosques).

This page was last updated: May, 2014