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National Day in the UAE / Photo Shutterstock

UAE society has one of the highest standards of living, due mainly to its vast oil wealth, small population, and welfare system. Citizens of the UAE receive many privileges and benefits from their federal and local governments, including free higher education and social security. Emiratis are thus well-educated and mostly urban.

Citizens of the UAE constitute roughly 19 percent of UAE society; the remainder (approximately 81 percent) are expatriate foreigners of approximately 200 different nationalities. The largest single group are South and South-East Asians, especially Indians, who make up about 60 percent of the total population. As temporary or long-term foreign residents, expatriates are ineligible for state benefits, and their standard of living can vary considerably, according to their employment and income. Western employees, at the top of the expatriate salary scale, can expect to be paid handsomely, while labourers and construction workers are paid extremely low wages and receive fewer benefits.

The social and economic status of these workers is defined by harsh working and living conditions. While national Emiratis occupy many of the positions in the government and public sector, expatriates (with the exception of some top management positions) occupy most of the other positions in the economy. The UAE government is trying to reduce this dependency on foreign labour by encouraging the gradual nationalization (called Emiratization) of certain jobs. In addition, expatriates (with few exceptions) are not allowed to start or own a business, unless they have a national Emirati partner.

Outside the work place, the interaction between these segments of society is very limited, and each group leads a mostly insular existence, living in secluded labour camps, apartment towers, gated communities, or exclusive residential areas. Differences of culture, language, religion, and social status tend to separate and even alienate various classes or sections of society into distinct communities reflecting the national or ethnic origins of these populations. One of the most marginalized groups is the Bedouns, long-time residents who had never been naturalized in the UAE.