This first blog post puts me in something of an awkward position, mainly because I managed to log onto the zoom meeting with our American University of Sharjah partners without any audio. How did I do this? Why was I unable to fix it? It’s a long story and does not have much to do with this post. Instead, I will be using this space to outline what I have learned through research about the United Arab Emirates (UAE), its relations with the United States, and the American University of Sharjah itself, our partner.
The first thing that I found striking about the UAE was how multiethnic and religiously pluralistic it is. In a region made up almost entirely of nations with overwhelming Muslim majorities, it is not shocking that the Emirates are 62% Muslim. But the remainder of the population is divided among other religions, with Hindus (21%), Christians (9%), and Buddhists (4%) all making up noticeable chunks of the believing populace. Perhaps this has something to do with the diverse ethnic makeup of the country: as of 2015, the largest group in the country was Indians (38%), followed by Emiratis, Bangladeshis, Pakistanis, Egyptians, and Filipinos, all of whom make up about 10% of residents. Only one-ninth of these, however, are citizens. The rest are foreign laborers. Conditions for these people can be difficult and there is significant poverty in parts of the UAE. Labor practices were criticized during the FIFA world cup this past year, as it was low-paid foreign workers who constructed many of the stadiums and facilities used during the competition. The UAE also caught my attention as an elective monarchy, where a new President is selected by the Supreme Council, a hereditary body. The legislature is unicameral and its members are selected by the Emirates, not elected by the people. Their terms, like the American House of Representatives, last two years. Despite the lack of democratic institutions, the UAE has modernized at a breakneck pace in the past fifty years. The law here is a mix of western influence and Islamic sharia law. Many legal proceedings are left to local bodies, much like in the US.
The United States and the United Arab Emirates have remained on good terms ever since the nation’s independence from the United Kingdom in 1971 and the formation of official ties in 1972. This relationship is built on economic benefit for both nations. As the largest export market for the United States in its region, the UAE plays host to upwards of 1,000 American firms. As a nation that sits on massive oil and gas reserves, the UAE aligns with American interests in the Middle East. Interestingly, the United States assists the UAE with its border security and exports. Dubai, a cultural and economic hub in the UAE, is a port city through which goods pass at a rapid pace. It is also one of the largest of the seven Emirates, along with Abu Dhabi. Sharjah, where our partner institution stands, is a smaller partner among this union.
The American University of Sharjah (or AUS) is a young institution, founded in 1997 by a Member of the Supreme Council and the ruler of Sharjah, His Highness Sheikh Dr. Sultan bin Mohammed AlQasimi. It is made up of four schools: Engineering, Business, Arts and Sciences, and Architecture, Art, and Design. As the name suggests and the school’s website advertises, it is set up on the American liberal arts framework (not unlike Dickison). But the website is also careful to note that this institution is grounded in the culture and traditions of the nation where it was founded, again not dissimilar to Dickinson. It places emphasis on civic responsibility and intellectual inquiry. As I have read more about AUS, I become more and more intrigued by the dialogue we will have with its students and the mutual benefit this will be to all involved. It is my sincere hope that on our next call I will be able to be fully engaged in conversation. While it has been wonderful to explore the UAE through reading and statistics, I would much prefer a dialogue with people who live and work there. As someone who comes from a rural Pennsylvanian background, I certainly crave the opportunity for cross-cultural discussion and friendship. There is so much left to learn, both on a macro-level as it comes to relations between our two nations and on a smaller scale, the stories of individuals living half a world away. I look forward to the next phases of this cooperation with the students in Sharjah.