Over the past four decades Dubai has become one of the most important economic centres in the Middle East and a key destination for investors, tourists and corporations from around the world. The emirate boasts a diversified economy, an open business environment, and a multinational population and workforce, all of which have contributed to its reputation as a leading investment destination. While many local industries sustained substantial losses during the 2008-09 global economic downturn, as of early 2013 the emirate was widely considered to be once again ascendant, due largely to its considerable growth in the tourism and retail sectors. Dubai’s recovery over the past four years is the result of strong government leadership and support, from both the local authorities and the federal government in Abu Dhabi. With these strengths in mind, and taking into account the rapid growth in a number of key sectors in recent years, Dubai is looking to the future with renewed confidence.

GEOGRAPHY: The UAE occupies 83,600 sq km on the south-eastern shore of the Gulf, stretching northward almost to the Strait of Hormuz. It borders Saudi Arabia to the west and south, and Oman to the east. Dubai is the most populous emirate in the UAE and the second largest by total area, covering 4110 sq km in total as of the late 2000s. It is the second-largest emirate in total area behind Abu Dhabi. The emirate’s area has grown by around 200 sq km since the early 1990s as a result of a series of major land reclamation projects. Dubai is bordered by the emirates of Sharjah and Abu Dhabi, in the north and south, respectively, and the Gulf to the west. The emirate accounts for less than 100 km of the UAE’s 1318 km of naturally occurring coastline, though land reclamation projects carried out over the past decade have expanded the total coastline substantially. Most of the country is focused along the Gulf coast, with the exception of Fujairah and some of Sharjah, which lie on the Gulf of Oman. The emirate also considers Hatta – a small exclave that is located in the Hajjar mountains around 115 km east of the city of Dubai – as its own. Hatta is bordered by the emirates of Ajman and Ras Al Khaimah (RAK) to the east and north, respectively, and Oman on all other sides. The great majority of Dubai’s land area is covered in fine sand and gravel desert.

CLIMATE: Like much of the rest of the Gulf, Dubai has an extremely hot, desert climate. During the summer months, which span roughly from June to September, the emirate is hot and humid near the coast (where the great majority of the population resides) and hot and dry further inland, with average temperatures around 34°C. During the rest of the year temperatures vary from a low of around 19°C in January-February to 25-30°C in the autumn months. As in most desert climates, temperatures generally drop substantially at night.

DEMOGRAPHICS: As of late October 2012 Dubai had a population of 2.09m, up from 2m at the end of 2011, 1.9m at the end of 2010, 1.7m at the end of 2009 and 1.6m at the end of 2008, according to data from the Dubai Statistics Centre (DSC). Since 2000 the emirate’s population has more than doubled, almost entirely as a result of foreigners settling in the UAE. As of the end of 2011 Emiratis made up around 16% of the population, while expatriates accounted for the remaining 84%. The majority of foreign workers in Dubai are male, which has skewed the emirate’s gender mix. Indeed, as of the end of 2011, men accounted for nearly 77% of the population, according to DSC figures. Like many other countries in the Middle East, albeit to a slightly lesser extent, Dubai skews fairly young. Nearly 45% of the population is 29 years old or younger, while almost 80% is younger than 40 and nearly 95% is younger than 50.

LANGUAGE: According to the constitution, Arabic is the official language of the UAE. That said, given the emirate’s diverse and multinational population a wide variety of other languages are also spoken, including English, Chinese, Farsi, Hindi, Urdu, French, Spanish, German and Russian, among others. English is the lingua franca of business throughout the region, and is in use at all levels of government as well.

RELIGION: While Islam is the official religion of the UAE, Dubai’s diverse population includes adherents of a wide variety of other religions as well. The constitution guarantees freedom of religion in the UAE in accordance with established customs and traditions. That said, daily life throughout the UAE is strongly influenced and informed by Islam. The Sunni tradition – the dominant form of Islam in the country – has had some bearing on the legal system, which was developed as a combination of international practices and sharia law.

HISTORY: Relatively little is known about the early inhabitants of the land that now includes Dubai and the other emirates, though the area has been a centre for trade between a wide variety of cultures for thousands of years. The earliest recorded archaeological evidence has been traced back to the Umm An Nar civilisation, which was active during the latter half of the third millennium BCE, from around 2000 BCE to 2700 BCE in what is now the UAE and Oman. Ceramics dating to the third and fourth century CE have also been found. The earliest written mention of Dubai can be found in the Book of of the British empire. This alliance lasted until the late 1960s, when the UK announced that it planned to leave the Gulf entirely by the early 1970s. In December 1971 the newly formed emirate of Dubai became a founding member of the independent state of UAE, which was primarily organised by Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, the leader of Abu Dhabi at the time, and Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum, the ruler of Dubai from 1958 until his death in 1990. When the new country was formed, the city of Dubai consisted primarily of a small grouping of buildings on the banks of the Dubai Creek. Since then, under the leadership of Sheikh Rashid and his successors, Dubai has developed into the cosmopolitan economic centre it is today. The current ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, took over in 2006.

GOVERNMENT: Under the constitution of the UAE, which was written jointly by the rulers of Dubai and Abu Dhabi in 1971, each of the seven emirates that make up the country – namely Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Sharjah, Ajman, Fujairah, Umm Al Kuwain and RAK – retain a substantial amount of political autonomy. The federal government, which is based in Abu Dhabi city, manages a number of areas that require national-level oversight, including national security, defence, foreign relations, fiscal policy, monetary policy, labour relations, air traffic control, immigration, communications regulation and education standards, among others. Outside of these strategic areas, each emirate operates on an individual basis. In some cases, federal and local regulators and other government organisations work together. For example, the Dubai Health Authority, which has a mandate to develop and manage the emirate’s health sector, works closely with the federal Ministry of Health. Each individual emirate is allowed to set its own pace in terms of local development and diversification. At the same time, a certain percentage of each emirate’s revenues are put toward the federal budget, which is developed with the entire country in mind. In practical terms, Dubai has the freedom to focus almost exclusively on the development of the economy.

Due to their status as the original founding members of the UAE, Dubai and Abu Dhabi hold a number of additional powers at the federal level, and are generally considered to have more influence on national affairs than the other five emirates. For example, the rulers of Dubai and Abu Dhabi hold veto power on the Supreme Council, the presiding national body in the UAE, which is made up of the rulers of the seven emirates. Additionally, as a result of Sheikh Zayed’s leading role in the formation of the country in the early 1970s, the ruler of the Abu Dhabi traditionally serves as president of the UAE, while the ruler of Dubai traditionally serves as prime minister and vice-president of the country.

POLITICAL ORGANISATION: The federal government is organised into three branches, namely the executive branch, the legislative branch and the judicial branch. The executive branch consists of the aforementioned Supreme Council and the cabinet, which is officially known as the Council of Ministers, and is made up of the nation’s 22 government ministers. The cabinet, which is overseen by the prime minister (traditionally the ruler of Dubai) and two deputy prime ministers, plays an advisory role to the Supreme Council, in addition to overseeing the operation of the UAE’s federal ministries.

The legislative branch comprises the Federal National Council (FNC), a 40-member, partially elected body consisting of representatives from all seven emirates. Since the UAE’s first public elections in 2006, half of the members of the FNC have been elected by an Electoral College, which is composed of prominent citizens appointed by the Supreme Council. The other 20 members of the FNC are appointed directly by the Supreme Council. The number of representatives each emirate sends to the FNC is based on the emirate’s size and population. Dubai and Abu Dhabi, as the most populous and largest emirates, each send eight representatives (four appointed by the respective rulers and four elected by the Electoral College), while Sharjah and RAK each send six and the remaining three emirates each send four.

The FNC, which plays an advisory role to the federal government, has the power to review and amend federal draft laws and amendments before they are put before the cabinet and the Supreme Council for approval. Other tasks carried out by the FNC include questioning ministers on their performance and developing and discussing the federal budget.

The council has been a key beneficiary of the Supreme Council’s efforts over the last decade to boost public participation in government. For 35 years following the creation of the FNC in the early 1970s, representatives were appointed by the Supreme Council. In 2006 a 6000-strong Electoral College elected 20 members of the council, in what were the UAE’s first public elections. By the time the second round of elections took place in September 2011, the Electoral College had grown to include 129,000 prominent individuals.

In line with this expanded representation, the Supreme Council has worked to boost the FNC’s powers in recent years. In 2008 a handful of new constitutional amendments both extended representatives’ terms to four years – which was previously limited to two years – and expanded the council’s responsibilities to include the UAE’s involvement with international conventions, among other alterations. The Supreme Council has indicated that it plans to continue extending the FNC’s powers in the future.

The federal judicial branch of government, meanwhile, comprises the Federal Supreme Court and the Courts of First Instance, both of which operate independent of each other and separate from the other branches of government, as laid out in the constitution. The Federal Supreme Court deals primarily with federal-level disputes, while the Courts of First Instance, which include a variety of local and regional courts spread throughout the country, deal with civil, personal status and commercial case at the local level.