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In 25 Years, Poor Desert Country Becomes Economic Powerhouse

November 28, 1996

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) _ In 25 years, a string of poor desert shiekdoms has become one of the world’s richest countries in a transformation so breathtaking it has stunned many who lived through it.

The same generation whose parents eked out a living diving for pearls and captaining wooden trading dhows now vacations in southern Spain’s exclusive resorts. They pull up to gleaming shopping malls in the world’s most expensive cars and play golf on greens flown in from the United States.

Awash in money from oil, gas and trade, the Emirates celebrates its silver jubilee next week with expectations it will post a whopping gross domestic product of $41 billion this year.

``We have gone from riding camels to carrying mobile phones and driving Rolls Royces in what’s been only a matter of years,″ says Ahmed Murad, a prosperous construction company owner.

Though the discovery of oil drastically changed life in other Gulf states as well, the small population and concentrated development of the U.A.E. has made the contrast more striking.

The U.A.E. was born on Dec. 2, 1971, a day after the British pulled out of the shiekdoms known as the Trucial States, after an 1820 truce. Sheik Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, ruler of the federation’s largest and richest emirate, Abu Dhabi, became president of a country roughly the size of Scotland.

``What has happened is truly a miracle, difficult to believe even for us,″ said Murad, who was 10 years old when the Emirates became independent.

Oil was first discovered off Abu Dhabi in 1958. With Kuwait still reeling from its 1991 invasion by Iraq, the U.A.E. has emerged as the second-richest and most influential of the Gulf Arab states, behind the super-rich Saudis.

Dubai, the dynamic commercial hub of the Gulf, has dwindling oil reserves but now is getting rich on trade. With its low-tax laws, everything from cars to spices passes through Dubai to countries as far off as Central Asia.

The other five emirates, Sharjah, Ajman, Fujairah, Ras al-Khaimah and Umm al-Qawain, are smaller and less prosperous, but benefit from the prosperity next door. Each emirate has a large degree of autonomy in running internal affairs.

The more-populous Abu Dhabi and Dubai have a cosmopolitan lifestyle more in tune with the West than any other country on the Arabian Peninsula.

The Muslim emirates have a long trading tradition that brought them into contact with foreigners. Today, three-fourths of the 2.4 million residents are expatriates, mostly Asian workers from the Indian subcontinent but also tens of thousands of Americans and Europeans.

The U.A.E is unhindered by the political dissent or Islamic fundamentalism that has swept much of the Muslim world. But the rapid change and growing prosperity have not come problem-free.

There is concern about controlling the foreign work force. Earlier this year, 200,000 unskilled Asian workers in the country illegally were told to leave under an amnesty.

And the government is alarmed at the large number of native men marrying foreign women. Emirates leaders fear that the native population will dwindle even further if they don’t marry among themselves, and the government donates $19,000 to those who do.

Another new phenomenon, virtually unknown in the tribal society of a quarter of a century ago, is divorce. Nearly 30 percent of all unions don’t last.

One thing that has lasted is the traditional pattern of succession in Arab societies _ leadership passed from father to son.

It could be a potential source of instability, but diplomats say a smooth transition is virtually assured in the U.A.E. after Sheik Zayed’s death.

Zayed, recovering from a recent neck operation in the United States, has an undisclosed number of wives and children. But Sheik Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the 78-year-old ruler’s eldest son, is the undisputed crown prince.

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