Given the city’s soaring international profile, many people unfamiliar with the region think that Dubai is a country – which it isn’t. Dubai is actually just one of the seven statelets which collectively form the United Arab Emirates, or UAE, a loose confederation founded in 1971 following the departure of the British from the Gulf. Technically the seven emirates are considered equal, and preserve a considerable measure of legislative autonomy, rather like the various states of the USA – which explains, for instance, why local laws in Dubai are so different from those in neighbouring Sharjah. In practice, however, a clear pecking order applies. Abu Dhabi, easily the largest and wealthiest of the emirates, serves as the capital (even if Abu Dhabi city is barely half the size of Dubai) and wields the greatest influence over national policy, as well as providing the UAE with its president. Dubai ranks second, followed by Sharjah and then the other emirates of Umm al Quwain, Ras al Khaimah, Ajman and Fujairah, which remain relatively undeveloped and even surprisingly impoverished in places.

The fact that the union has survived despite the sometimes considerable differences of opinion between Dubai and Abu Dhabi is a glowing tribute to local diplomacy, even it is has also created the anomaly whereby Dubai, with its headline international standing, isn’t even the capital of its own low-key country. Abu Dhabi, meanwhile, continues to regard its upstart neighbour with a certain suspicion – although the true relative power of the rival emirates was vividly demonstrated during the credit crunch of 2009, when oil-rich Abu Dhabi was obliged to bail out its dazzling but virtually bankrupt neighbour to the tune of around US$20 billion.

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