Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Population of the UAE

Population of the UAE
People shop at the Dubai gold market in Deira in the Gulf emirate, on March 10, 2021. (Photo by Karim SAHIB / AFP)


The population of the UAE was estimated at 9,890 million in 2020, according to United Nations data, broken down by gender by 69% of males (6.824 million), compared to 31% of females (3.066 million), with a gender ratio of 223.8 males per 100 females and with an annual growth rate of 1.2% compared to 2019.
Compared to the official population census for 2016, the annual average rate of population increase was about 2.1%.

According to the Federal Competitiveness and Statistics Authority (governmental), the population of the country at the end of 2016 reached about 9.121 million, distributed by gender to 69.05% of males (6.298 million), compared to 30.95% of females (2.823 million), with a gender ratio of 223. Males per 100 females for the total population. The overall growth rate between the 2005 population census (4.106 million people) and the 2016 census (9.121 million people) was about 122%, with an average annual growth rate of 11% during that period.

There are no recent official data available for broader details of the population mix in a country where expatriates (non-citizens) make up the overwhelming majority of its population, as there are more than 200 nationalities in the UAE that reside and work on the country’s territory. The Indian community is one of the largest expatriate communities residing in the country, followed by Pakistani, Bengali, and other Asian, European, and African nationalities.

The United Nations estimates the number of expatriates (non-Emiratis) at 8,587 million in 2020 AD or 87.9% of the country’s total population.

According to the CIA World Factbook, the population mix of expatriates comprises the following: 59.4% from South Asia (including India 38.2%, Bangladesh 9.5%, Pakistan 9.4%, others 2.3%), and 10.2% from Egypt. , 6.1% from the Philippines, and another 12.7% (2015 estimate).

The UAE government seeks to achieve a balance in the population mix between citizens and expatriates (non-Emiratis). To achieve this, Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, President of the State, launched the year 2008 AD as a year of national identity, in a way that preserves the existence of the Emirati nation, the citizen has its identity, and the social cohesion, according to him, calling for the establishment of a program to confront the defect of the demographics.

For the UAE government, the national identity index is considered one of the key performance indicators specified to preserve the cohesion of society and the pride of its identity and affiliation to achieve the national agenda of the UAE Vision 2021. This composite index also measures the level of belonging and national identity of citizens. In 2020, the actual percentage of the index reached 97.8%, and the index was aiming to reach 100% by 2021.

UAE population growth
Source: @Fanack

Arabic is the official language of the Emirates, and due to the presence of more than 200 nationalities, working or residing in the country, there are also other languages ​​in circulation such as English, Hindi, Urdu, Bengali, Nepalese, Persian, Russian, Tagalog, Filipino, and other European languages.
Muslims (official) 76%, Christians 9%, others (mainly Hindu and Buddhist, less than 5% of the population consists of Persians, Baha’is, Druze, Sikhs, Ahmadis, Ismailis, Daudi Bohra Muslims, and Jews) 15% (2005 estimates).

Islam is the official religion of the country. According to the CIA World Factbook, the percentage of Muslims is estimated at 76% of the total population –  estimates in 2005 AD – while Christians make up about 9%, and the remaining 15% include Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism and other religious sects. The state permits the practice of various religious beliefs.

Age Groups

Estimates of the year 2020 AD indicate that 14.45% of the total population is under the age of fifteen, while 75.97% of the total population falls in the age group 15-54, and 7.68% is between 55 and 64 years old, and for those 65 years and over Their percentage is estimated at only 1.9%. The total fertility rate was 1.4 births per woman, and the average life expectancy was 78.1 years (77.1 years for males, 79.1 years for females).

Areas of Habitation

The population density in the Emirates in 2020 was estimated at 118.3 people / km2, and the capital Abu Dhabi accounted for about 14.68% (1.452 million people) of the total population. The government of the Emirate of Dubai estimated its population in 2020 at 3,411 million, or 43.5% of the total population. Of them, 2.362 million are males and 1.049 million are females, at rates of 68.95%, and 31.05% for males and females respectively, of the total population of the emirate. The highest gender ratio of males (222 males per 100 females) in Dubai society is due to the fact that the majority of expatriate workers are males who are not accompanied by their family members.

Dubai’s population is also distributed by nationality, which is the largest emirate in terms of population in the country, to 271,050 Emirati citizens and 3,140 million immigrants or immigrants (non-Emiratis).
The urban population in 2020 is estimated at the state level, at 86.8% of the total population, according to United Nations data.

UAE population
Source: @Fanack

Income Distribution

Population UAE - Luxury Car Market
The UAE: one of the most important markets for luxury cars

The UAE is one of the richest countries in the world, with a per capita GNI of USD 48,500 (purchasing power parity, PPP) for 2011. This wealth is, however, distributed vastly unequally between different Emirates and among the various population groups. Most of the country’s wealth is concentrated in Abu Dhabi and Dubai. Among the Emirati nationals, who make up 19 percent of the total population, vast differences of income exist, though most people live relatively well and have access to free public services, such as water, electricity, health care, and social security.

However, large numbers of foreign workers earn low wages or inadequate salaries. As of 2003, 19.5 percent of the country’s population was estimated to be under the poverty line. There are no reliable figures for the years after that, though the number has probably stayed around 20 percent.

About 10 percent of the population fall under the lowest household income group, and another 10 percent under the highest income group. The concentration of wealth is so drastic that less than 0.2 percent of the population controls 90 percent of the wealth. Income and other economic inequalities are a distinct feature of the UAE socio-economic system, and they often overlap with ethnic origins or other divisions in the country’s population. The difference in income, even in the same job, between employees with the same qualifications can be large. And the lowest wages are typically reserved for the most difficult and demanding unskilled labour, usually with much lower benefits than those enjoyed in skilled labour or white-collar jobs. Exact rankings of the UAE in any of the income equality indexes are unavailable, for lack of data.

Foreign workers do not benefit from the welfare programmes available to Emirate citizens. The situation created by this policy is one of clear discrimination, which extends to other socio-economic areas, including employment, salaries, inflation compensation, promotions, and labour rights. Many observers criticize the country for its poor record on equality and the extremely low wages paid to its vast expatriate work force and for the few government services provided to expatriates. In addition to the preferential treatment of locals over expatriates, discrimination also involves gender. These facts have led to an extremely polarized income distribution, with Abu Dhabi in almost full control of the wealth.

Ethnic and Religious Groups

Population UAE - Ethnic Religious Groups
Ethnic and religious groups in the UAE, in %

UAE citizens (Emiratis) constitute approximately 19 percent of the population (other estimates give 16.5 percent). Other residents of the UAE hail from numerous ethnic and national backgrounds and some 150 countries. These expatriates are foreign guest-workers, predominantly (80 percent) from South and South-East Asia (approximately 60 percent of the total population), including Indians (1.75 million), Pakistanis (1.25 million), Bangladeshi (500,000), and Filipinos (according to the Directorate of Residency and Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Interior and the Ministry of Labour). The remaining 20-22.5 percent of the expatriate population includes a significant number of Arabs (among them, Palestinians, Jordanians,  Lebanese, Syrians, Iraqis, Egyptians, Yemenis, and Omanis), and many Iranians, Afghans, North and South Americans, Australians, Africans, and Western Europeans (about 500,000).


Bedouins uae
Bedoun girls in traditional dress. Photo: HH

Generations of migrants from neighbouring regions have established permanent homes for themselves and their descendants in the UAE. Some have blended in and become integral parts of the tribal make-up of Emirati society, thus acquiring the legal status of citizens. Others, mostly of Iranian origin, referred to in popular slang as ajam (iyam in the local dialect), became full citizens but are sometimes perceived as less ‘authentic’ by Sunni Muslims and therefore less ‘equal’.

The UAE has an estimated 20,000 to 100,000 persons living in the country without citizenship (or proof of citizenship). Some groups, such as the Bedouns (Biduns, Bidoons or Bidouns), although having lived in the country for as long as others who were naturalized upon independence in 1971, somehow never received that benefit. The Bedoun face discrimination in employment and have limited access to medical care and education. Without passports or other identity documents, their movements are restricted, both within the country and internationally. Their status is essentially similar to that of long-time foreign residents from the Arab world, Iran, and the Indian subcontinent (among them, descendants of a longstanding Indian community), who live in a similar legal limbo. As non-citizens, they are unable to enjoy the advantages of the welfare state and can be summarily deported. The government has for years promised to look into their cases and speed up the naturalization process. There was a slight improvement in this process in 2009, as more stateless residents (Bedouns) were naturalized. For example, on 24 May 2009, the government granted nationality to 70 previously stateless persons, compared with 51 persons in 2008.

Citizenship is generally derived from one’s parents. Children of female citizens married to non-citizens do not acquire citizenship at birth, but female citizens under these circumstances can apply for citizenship for their children, and the government generally grants it. A foreign woman may receive citizenship through marriage to a citizen after ten years of marriage, and anyone may receive a passport by presidential decree. The government has registered Bedoun births but has not granted citizenship to the children.


Foreign workers dubai
Foreign workers in Dubai. Photo: HH

The UAE population is one of the fastest-growing populations in the world, increasing by 75 percent between 1995 and 2005. The growth rate in 2006 was estimated at 6.9 percent, but by 2012, according to the CIA World Factbook, the growth rate had declined to an estimated 3 percent, due mainly to a decrease in the number of foreign workers.

Since its emergence as an important trade centre and the discovery of oil in the 1960s, the country has attracted millions of workers from around the world to provide the labour and expertise needed to run an emerging country with a growing economy. By the time the country became independent in 1971, it already had a majority non-national population. The 1975 census indicated that 69.5 percent were foreigners (compared with 36.5 percent in 1968), in a total population of 557,887. Thirty years later, the imbalance has only increased. According to the official 2005 census, the UAE population was 3,769,080 (plus 335,615 who were not counted), of which the number of counted nationals was 824,921 (21.9 percent), while the counted non-national population was 2,944,159 (78.1 percent). Once the uncounted population is included, the ratio becomes 19 percent nationals to 81 percent non-nationals. In some cases, as in the city of Dubai, the ratio of nationals to non-nationals is closer to 10 to 90 percent.

The population imbalance has sparked a continuing debate amongst UAE nationals about Emirati identity. While the majority seem to favour a gradual phasing out of non-citizens (hardly realistic) or preserving a more Emiratized version of the status quo, very few are contemplating a new social contract, under which the local Emirati minority willingly agrees to share power with the overwhelmingly foreign majority. The importance of the issue prompted the government to form a ‘demographic structure committee’ in 2007, to supervise the establishment of a permanent national demographic authority.

Position of Migrant Workers

Population UAE - Migrant Workers
Photo HH

Some groups of migrant workers engage in cultural activities and enjoy private schools and associations, but migrant workers as a whole do not form cohesive groups. Migrant groups can organize themselves only as registered clubs, charities, or ethnic or religious associations; labour and political organizations are banned by law. Migrant workers lack full civic rights and are typically dependent and under the control of their sponsors for their job, work permit, residence, and other matters. Once their contract has run out, employment is terminated, and the workers are expected to leave the country. Although 81 percent of the UAE population are migrant workers, the UAE still blocks freedom of association and refuses to ratify the 1949 International Labour Organization’s Convention 98, concerning the Application of the Principles of the Right to Organize and Bargain Collectively. There are somewhat different and more flexible regulations in the Free-Trade Zones.

Given their inherent vulnerability, arising from the sponsorship system (kafala) and the lack of reliable and systematic legal recourse, workers often suffer abuse and exploitation. Working conditions, especially for unskilled labourers (e.g., in construction) and domestic workers, can be harsh. Living conditions, usually in squalid labour camps, make things worse. NGOs and international organizations, such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, intervene repeatedly on the behalf of foreign workers.

The kafala system

Kafala (sponsorship) is the key to all labour contracts involving expatriates wanting to work in the UAE. The kafil (or kafeel, sponsor) is the direct employer and can be a person or a company but must be a UAE national. The employment contract between employer and employee is usually valid for a specific duration (1-3 years), and if it is not renewed, the employee must leave the country. Only certain categories of jobs (mostly white-collar) allow employees to move between jobs (and employers) without having to leave the country first. The way in which the sponsorship system has been set up gives the kafil almost absolute control over the life of the guest worker.


Also criticized is the mass deportation of 120 long-term Lebanese (mostly Shiite) families and scores of Palestinian, mostly Gazan, residents since June 2009, after the cancellation of their work permits, apparently on national-security grounds. HRW has noted that ‘more than a year has passed since the United Arab Emirates started deporting hundreds of Lebanese citizens and Palestinians originating from the Gaza Strip. The UAE government has failed to provide any adequate justification for these deportations or to allow those affected to appeal the decision’. HRW urged the UAE government in July 2010 to allow the deportees to appeal their expulsion.

Religious Groups

Population UAE - Praying Ramadan
Praying during Ramadan

About 76 percent of the population is Muslim (all nationals, plus 55 percent of expatriates). Among Emirati citizens, approximately 85 percent are Sunni Muslim and the remaining 15 percent are Twelver Shiite (Ithna ashriyya), the main branch of Shiite Islam. Foreigners are largely Muslims from India, Pakistan, Iran, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, and Arab countries. Christians are mostly Filipinos and guest workers from Western countries. Hindus are mostly from the Indian subcontinent.

Accurate official figures are not available, but it is estimated that the expatriate population consists of 55 percent Muslims (mostly Sunni), 25 percent Hindu, 10 percent Christian, 5 percent Buddhist, and 5 percent other religious groups, including Parsi, Bahai, and Sikh. Data from a 2003 report by the Ministry of Planning, based on information from the 2001 federal census, seem to confirm these estimates. According to the ministry, 76 percent of the population was Muslim, 9 percent Christian, and 15 percent ‘other’.

Population UAE - Religious Groups
Religious groups in the UAE in %

The UAE Constitution declares Islam the official religion of the country, yet it provides for religious freedom, and the government generally respects this right in practice. Non-Muslims have their own houses of worship and can pray freely at Hindu temples and Christian churches and mark their religious holidays. Relations between members of different faiths are generally amicable. Some restrictions on religious freedom do exist; churches, for example, are not allowed to have bell towers, and missionary activity (especially proselytizing Muslims) is, as elsewhere in the Muslim world, forbidden. Some missionary groups are tolerated, because they have been working in the country since before its independence in 1971 (they opened some of the country’s first hospitals in 1960).

Shiites constitute the largest minority group amongst the citizenry of the United Arab Emirates and suffer some disadvantages. Shiites maintain their own mosques and run their own court system for family-law cases, but their sermons are closely monitored by the government, and no Shiites serve in top government posts.