Reaching the Nations

United Arab Emirates

By David Stewart and Matt Martinich

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United Arab EmiratesGeography

Area: 83,600 square km.  Situated on the Arabian Peninsula, the United Arab Emirates borders Oman, Saudi Arabia, the Persian Gulf, and the Gulf of Oman.  Oman claims an enclave in eastern United Arab Emirates and the northern tip of the eastern Arabian Peninsula.  Desert and plains cover the entire country with a small section of mountains in the extreme east by the ocean.  Most of the territory is unproductive desert wasteland.  The few oases provide water for limited agriculture.  The country occupies a strategic location on the Strait of Hormuz where crude oil from the Persian Gulf exists into the Indian Ocean for worldwide distribution.  Sand and dust storms are frequent natural hazards.  Environmental issues include lacking natural fresh water resources and desertification.  Much of the fresh water comes from distilling ocean water.  The United Arab Emirates is divided into seven emirates.

 

Population: 4,798,491 (July 2009)

Annual Growth Rate: 3.689% (2009)

Fertility Rate: 2.42 children born per woman (2009)

Life Expectancy: male 73.56, female 78.78 (2009)

 

Peoples

South Asian: 50%

Non-Emirati Arab and Iranian: 23%

Emirati: 19%

Expatriates: 8%

 

Citizens account for less than 20% of the population.  The remainder of the population includes South Asians, other Arabs, Iranians, and expatriates from Western countries.  The United Arab Emirates has the highest population growth rate worldwide due to immigration.

 

Languages: Arabic, Farsi, English, Indian languages (Hindi, Bengali, Malayalam, ect.), Urdu, Balochi.  There are no reliable estimates of the number of speakers for each language.  Arabic is the official and most spoken language.  Arabic dialects are the only language which appears to have over one million native speakers. 

Literacy: 77.9% (2003)

 

History

The eastern Arabian Peninsula was inhabited for millennia prior to the birth of Christ.  Roman and later Arab trade occurred in the Indian Ocean.  The Portuguese controlled the peninsula for 150 years during the 16th and 17th centuries; British and Ottoman rule followed.  During the 19th and early 20th centuries the region was economically viable for the pearling industry.  The present day United Arab Emirates were formally known as the Trucial States and received military protection by the British under condition that the Trucial States were not to allow other foreign nations to make territory claims.  Oil exploitation began in the 1960s and independence from the United Kingdom occurred in 1971 for six emirates and the seventh in 1972.  Economic growth accelerated through the rest of the 20th century, bringing the GDP per capita up to Western European levels. 

 

Culture 

Emirati culture consists of a cosmopolitan blend of Arab, South Asian, Iranian, and Western influences.  Architecture, cuisine, and art are heavily influenced by Arab culture.  Indigenous Emirati Arabs constitute less than one fifth of the population and consequently have allowed greater religious and cultural tolerance than perhaps any other Middle Eastern nation.  Some ethnic tensions occur primarily between differing immigrant groups.  The selling and distribution of alcohol and pork is limited.  Football and cricket are popular sports.  Polygamy is practiced by some Muslims.  Islamic dress code is not mandatory.  Men outnumber women due to the high numbers of immigrant workers who are single or unable to bring their families from native countries.

 

Economy

GDP per capita: 41,800 (2009) [90% of US]

Human Development Index: 0.903

Corruption Index: 5.9

The government has worked over the past several decades to diversify the economy from oil and natural gas production.  Free Trade Zones exempt foreign investors from taxes and allow full ownership of businesses.  Due to the global financial crisis in the late 2000s and lower oil prices, the GDP dropped by around 4% in 2009.  The large number of transient non-citizen foreign workers  who account for 85% of the workforce present challenges for integration and communication.  Unlike the situation in the U.S. and many European nations, legal foreign workers have no path to citizenship, as Emiratis have become minorities in their own land and desire to retain control over government and economy.  The nation depends heavily on oil revenues for economic growth.  78% of the workforce labors in services and 15% in industry.  GDP is nearly evenly divided between industry and services while agriculture accounts for only 1.1% of the GDP.    Crude oil accounts for 45% of exports, many of which are destined to Japan, South Korea and India.  Other trade partners include China, India, and the United States. 

 

The United Arab Emirates has lower corruption levels than most Middle Eastern nations.  Due to the nation’s wealth and location, past financial ties to terrorists have been discovered.  Government has been cooperative in addressing this issue.

 

Faiths

Muslim: 76%

Christian: 9%

Other: 15%

 

Christians

Denominations  Members  Congregations

Catholic  250,000

Seventh-Day Adventists   385  5

Latter-Day Saints  800+  5

 

Religion

Most living in the United Arab Emirates are Muslim; the Shia sect accounts for 16% of the population.  Christianity and Hinduism are the most practiced minority religions.  Some reports indicate that as much as 15% of the population follows Hinduism and 5% adhere to Buddhism.   

 

Religious Freedom

Persecution Index: 36th

The constitution allows for freedom of religion within the bounds of Emirati customs.  The government has typically upheld the religious freedom of the population and imposes some restrictions, including defining all citizens as Muslims.  Islam is the official religion and government controls Sunni mosques.  The government has interfered very little with the religious activities of non-Muslims, but bans proselytism and distributing non-Islamic literature.  In contrast, Emirati missionaries have been active in spreading Islam and funding mosque construction in Central Asian nations like Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan.  More than 30 Christian denominations have received government recognition in the UAE, allowing for the construction of chapels.  Some non-Muslims received trials according to Shari’a law.  The entire population is forbidden from eating, drinking and smoking in public during daylight hours of fasting during the month of Ramadan.  Muslims who convert to a different religion face societal pressures to return to Islam.  The United Arab Emirates is considered perhaps the most tolerant Islamic nation in the Middle East toward non-Muslims.[1] 

 

Largest Cities

Urban: 78%

Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Sharjah, Al Ain, Ajman, Ras Al Khaimah, Fujairah, Um Al Quwain, Khor Fakkan, Dibba.

 

Cities in bold have no LDS congregation. Four of the 10 largest cities have a congregation.  55% of the national population lives in the 10 largest cities. 

 

LDS History

The first meeting of LDS members in Dubai occurred in 1982.  Sacrament meetings were held in a member’s home with one expatriate family, one woman from the United States, and two Filipino men.  A branch was formed shortly thereafter, with membership increasing  to 24 in 1983 and 36 by 1985.  Meetings were later held in a rented space in an American school.[2] 

 

Membership Growth

LDS Membership: 800 + (2008)

Membership in the Arabian Peninsula Stake stood at 900 in 2004.  By 2009, membership increased to 1,950.[3]  In 2008, membership stood at 300 in Abu Dhabi and 250 in both Dubai and Sharjah, indicating that at least 750 members resided in the country.  The Al Ain Branch has the smallest membership, likely less than 50.  Increases in membership growth come primarily from members moving to the area and non-Muslim converts, mainly Filipinos. 

 

Congregational Growth

Wards: 3 Branches: 2

Elder Boyd K. Packer became the first apostle to travel to the United Arab Emirates in 1983.  At the time, he organized the Arabian Peninsula Stake for expatriate members primarily from Western countries.  In 2000, the United Arab Emirates belonged to the Europe Central Area.  In 2008, the country came under jurisdiction of the newly created Middle East/Africa North Area. 

 

In the early 2000s, two congregations met in Abu Dhabi and Dubai.  Both were wards by the mid-2000s.  In 2008 and 2009, several new congregations were organized.  New congregations included the Sharjah Ward, and the Dubai 2nd and Al Ain Branches.  By 2009, 16 units functioned under the Manama Bahrain Stake; an increase of four units from the year before. 

 

Elder M. Russell Ballard became the second apostle to visit in 2007 when he visited members in Dubai.[4]  Elder Holland visited in 2009 to conduct stake conference.[5]  No missionaries serve in the country.

 

Activity and Retention

In 2008, the Dubai session of stake conference had a record 450 in attendance.  The following year attendance increased to 636.[6]  Activity rates appear very high, but this is also likely due to the many inactive members who reside in the country - primarily expatriate workers from the U.S., the Philippines or other southeast Asian nations nations - who are unknown to the Church.  Activity rates may be as high as 65%.

 

Language Materials

Languages with LDS Scripture: Arabic, English, Bengali, Farsi, Hindi, Tagalog, Urdu

All LDS scriptures are available in Arabic and Tagalog.  Book of Mormon translations have been completed for Hindi and Urdu; only Book of Mormon selections are available in Bengali and Farsi.  Most Church materials are available in Arabic and Tagalog whereas Urdu and Farsi have more limited Church materials.  Gospel Principles and The Prophet Joseph Smith’s Testimony are available in Farsi and Gospel Principles, The Prophet Joseph Smith’s Testimony, and the Articles of Faith are translated into Bengali.  The Liahona annually has 12 issues in Tagalog, three issues in Urdu, and one issue in Hindi. 

 

Meetinghouses

Church meetings have been held in rented spaces.  Members reported in 2009 that approval was pending for the Church to begin construction of the first Church-built meetinghouse in Musaffah to house the Abu Dhabi Ward.  Additional Church-built meetinghouses are being considered for Dubai and Sharjah. 

 

Humanitarian and Development Work

No large humanitarian or development work projects have occurred in the United Arab Emirates; the UAE has a well-off, rapidly developing economy compared to most other states in the region.

 

 

Opportunities, Challenges and Prospects

 

Religious Freedom

The Church has periodically published information about the Church in the United Arab Emirates for those relocating to the country.  Since 2009, the Church has made available the contact telephone number for local Church leaders for four of the congregations.  Government legislation forbids proselytism and limits outreach among non-Muslims.  However outreach among non-Muslims, particularly Christians, can occur through individual Church members, who must respect laws prohibiting the distribution of non-Islamic literature. 

 

Cultural Issues

In accordance with the Muslim day of worship, Church meetings are held on Fridays.  The Church is banned from teaching Muslims.  Muslims who desire to convert to Christianity face ostracism and often move out of the country.  The cosmopolitan atmosphere of the larger cities allows for greater religious tolerance of Christian denominations.  Opportunities are high for developing local priesthood leadership among the immigrant population as men outnumber women.  However, this also results in fewer member families from these nations.

 

National Outreach

Congregations are established in cities which account for 47% of the national population.  Emirates without reported congregations include Ajman, Fujairah, Ras Al Khairmah, and Um Al Quwain, which account for 15% of the national population.  Areas which have the highest population density without congregations are northeast of Sharjah, Ras Al Khaimah and Fujairah. 

 

No foreign missionaries serve in the country and efforts to reach out to non-Muslims are limited due to bans on proselytism. 

 

Member Activity and Convert Retention

The sensitive nature of the Church in an Islamic country has challenged member activity.  Over the years many members have had trouble learning when and where Church meetings are held as  the Church did not publish this information for many years.  In 2009, the Church made available congregation names and contact information for Church leaders in the United Arab Emirates on its meetinghouse locator site.  This has provided opportunity for more members to find the Church and participate in meetings. 

 

Convert baptisms occur regularly and appear concentrated among the non-Muslim Filipino and South Asian immigrant population.  Retention also appears good from the growth in congregations and increases at stake conference.

 

Trends in membership growth and convert retention may be influenced by the economic situation of the United Arab Emirates with the influx of many foreign workers from southeast Asia.  Economic hardship may result in slower growth or a decrease in membership from Western expatriates returning to their home countries. 

 

Ethnic Issues and Integration

The Church faces the challenge of a limited membership and high ethnic diversity.  In Qatar, the Church has created a congregation specifically for Filipinos in order to better meet language needs.  It is unclear a similar course may be pursued in the United Arab Emirates.  The Muslim majority combined with most temporarily living in the country has facilitated member fellowshipping despite differences in ethnicity and culture among members.  Emiratis and Muslims remain legally and culturally unreached by the Church. 

 

Language Issues

Church services held in English meet the needs of most members.  Churches in the United Arab Emirates report that most Christians speak English, Tagalog, Mandarin, Korean, Arabic, or Hindi.  Those investigating the Church may experience language difficulties if unfamiliar with English.  The Church has language materials in most of the immigrant languages which have Christian speakers, but likely only a significant outreach occurs among Tagalog speakers.  There are no language materials in Balochi, which has a couple hundred thousand speakers, but this group remains unreachable as there are very few reported Christians.  Non-Muslim immigrant workers from South Asia are difficult to reach by the Church as the Church has few members in these countries, yet many of these individuals likely have some competency in English.  Very few members likely speak Arabic fluently, limiting associations between members and Arabs. 

 

Leadership

Member leadership in the United Arab Emirates matches the quality and availability seen in the United States on a smaller scale.  This is due to most members coming from the United States or Western Europe for business.  Experienced leadership has facilitated the independence and organization of the Church in the Manama Bahrain Stake.  However life-long members in leadership positions may lack the vision needed for mission outreach among immigrant Christian groups. 

 

Temple

The United Arab Emirates belongs to the Frankfurt Germany Temple district.  Temple trips are arduous due to a 3,000 mile trip to Frankfurt.  The United Arab Emirates appears the most likely country in the Middle East for a temple to be built as it has the greatest tolerance towards non-Muslims, an active, rapidly growing LDS membership, and the potential for construction of religious buildings..

 

Comparative Growth

The United Arab Emirates has one of the strongest Church presences in the Middle East and may experience the most rapid membership and congregational growth.  Together with Bahrain, Oman, and Qatar, the United Arab Emirates is among the most accommodating nations to LDS members in the Middle East.  Members living in many other Arab countries face greater restrictions on religious freedom. 

 

Many Christian denominations have a larger presence than the LDS Church as these groups have a stronger presence among South Asians.  The Catholic Church claims the largest membership mainly consisting of Filipinos, Indians and Americans.  Christian groups tend to have good relations with the government. 

 

Future Prospects

Conditions for future growth appear favorable but limited due to a ban on proselytism.  Social networking and a more visible Church presence allows for greater outreach among members not knowing the location and times of Church meetings.  A separate stake for members in the United Arab Emirates and Oman may be organized as membership increases and at least five wards are organized. 



[1] “United Arab Emirates,” International Religious Freedom Report 2009, 26 October 2009. http://www.state.gov/g/drl/rls/irf/2009/127360.htm

[2] Platt, Joseph B. “Our Oasis of Faith,” Liahona, Oct 1988, 27

[3] Chatterly, Matt. “Growth, friendship serve as Middle East ‘Miracles’,” LDS Church News, 7 March 2009. http://www.ldschurchnews.com/articles/56735/Growth-friendship-serve-as-Middle-East-miracles.html

[4] Swensen, Jason. “Message-laden tour,” LDS Church News, 10 March 2007. http://www.ldschurchnews.com/articles/50227/Message-laden-tour.html

[5] Chatterly, Matt. “Middle East stake: 10 cities in 10 days,” LDS Church News, 7 March 2009. http://www.ldschurchnews.com/articles/56729/Middle-East-stake-10-cities-in-10-days.html

[6] Chatterly, Matt. “Growth, friendship serve as Middle East ‘Miracles’,” LDS Church News, 7 March 2009. http://www.ldschurchnews.com/articles/56735/Growth-friendship-serve-as-Middle-East-miracles.html