The harsh climate and the mostly arid terrain played an important role in influencing the social life of people in the past.
One of a tribe
Every one belonged to one tribal group or the other and swore allegiance to it. This way, everyone was bound by obligations to protect his tribe and in turn be assured of the same for himself from the rest of his tribe members.
The tribal people settled and moved together in groups. The Bani Yas group was the largest tribal group. It roamed the deserts of the emirates of Abu Dhabi and Dubai. The other tribes at that time were the Awamir and Manasir that also wandered.
The tribes wandered with their camels in search of greener lands for themselves and their cattle. Almost all Bani Yas families, except the Al Rumaitha, who were into fishing, returned to their dwelling in the oases of Liwa occasionally.
Water: key to economic and social structure
As per the book 'The Tribal Society of the UAE and its Traditional Economy' by Frauke Heard-Bey, the availability of water was key to the economic life and hence the social structure of the then UAE. The country can be broadly divided into three geographically and therefore economically different regions: firstly, the coasts and islands; secondly, the Hajar mountain range with its valleys (wadis) and adjacent gravel plains; and thirdly, the sandy desert.
Life by the coast
On the islands of Abu Dhabi, archaeological evidences show that tribespeople came to fish in the winter and even brought their camels over in boats. They used rainwater, stored in cisterns, or caught in horizontally placed sails.
With the rise of pearling industry, many families moved to the coast. Thus, increasing the size and importance of Abu Dhabi and Dubai.
Life in the oases
The pearling industry resulted in families gathering wealth. Some of these moved to Al Ain and started date farming. They put some of their wealth in bringing underground water for the date farms from springs near the mountains to the plains. The area and its economy started thriving after the availability of water.
Life in the desert
Bedouins had found a way to live in the harsh desert. In the deserts of Empty Quarter in Abu Dhabi, sometimes, they could find water in the dunes, which was potable, sweet and adequate for their population. They even created date gardens and built themselves houses using the branches of the date palms.
The camel supported the bedouin in their daily life struggle. The camel was not only a mode of transport but also a source of food and a thing of entertainment and utility. Camels were herded for their milk and meat. They were also raced for fun as a sport. Camel hide was used to make bags and other useful utensils, while some of the finest mens' outer garments (bisht) were woven from their hair.
Foundation of the governance culture
The culture of sharing and participation is intrinsic to the Emirati culture. In the olden days, the ruling Sheikhs used to travel to remote lands in the UAE and camp in villages where they would hold ad hoc meetings in large tents. These meetings were informal in nature and largely involved sharing, discussing and resolving local issues relating to society, agriculture, trade and economy, housing, medical and other topics relating to the well-being and happiness of the people. These meetings were referred to as Barza or Majlis (Arabic words for gatherings) and drew Emiratis in huge numbers.
The UAE society today
The UAE's population was estimated to be around 8.2 million around mid-2010. The UAE Government has invested its wealth from oil in building a nation with world-class infrastructure. Emiratis now have access to good education, health services, housing and other vital infrastructure such as public works, banks, telecommunication etc. The UAE leads the Arab region in many of these sectors.
Owing to their earlier practice of settling in groups, even today, Emirati families live together. They stand for cohesiveness bound by religious and tribal ties and traditional values of cooperating and sharing.
Emiratis are social. They like to meet people and continue to hold regular gatherings at home or social venues. They are warm hosts and treat their guests with utmost honour. An Emirati man greets another Emirati man by rubbing his nose against the other's nose. A handshake, an embrace and greetings of peace follow.
Economic factors still affect social lifestyle. Yet, the one thing that did not change is that the Emirati culture resonates Islamic values.
UAE Interact website
The book 'The Tribal Society of the UAE and its Traditional Economy' by Frauke Heard-Bey