In the Middle Ages, the city-state of Hormuz controlled the entrance to sea traffic in the Persian Gulf, while Bedouin raiders along the coastline earned a living by extracting protection money from land caravans and, until the 1950s, by trading slaves. Later the Portuguese, followed by the British, would claim dominion over this region. Even so their yoke was a fairly light one. Both were more interested in protecting the trade routes to India and the Far East than in exerting control over the bleak desert regions of Eastern Arabia. Once they had quelled the threat of piracy (in the process changing their name for the area from the "Pirate Coast" to the "Trucial Coast"), they were content to allow the region to remain a sleepy backwater of fishermen, pearl divers and camel herders.
As the region's oil reserves were discovered, the British became more involved in the region's political affairs. They demarcated the borders of the seven sheikhdoms which would eventually become the United Arab Emirates, although their original plan for a single state comprising today's Bahrain, Qatar and the Trucial Coast collapsed almost immediately after their withdrawal in 1971. Instead the sheikhs controlling Abu Dhabi and the surrounding emirates joined together in a loose confederation. These sheikhs and their families maintain near-absolute power over their fiefdoms to this day. While the UAE constitution expressly grants freedom of speech, in practice the press is reluctant to criticize the ruling families, and all television and radio stations are government-owned. There are some signs that these restrictions are growing looser. Among academics there has been a rising trend toward criticism, albeit muted, of some government decisions, and the operators of the UAE proxy server appear primarily interested in blocking access to sites which advocate Islamic radicalism or which feature pornography. While the government routinely censors foreign publications satellite dishes are found throughout the region and tolerated by the government, thereby allowing the population at least some access to unfettered news programming.
As with many other countries in the region, the UAE relies extensively on foreign workers, who constitute over 80% of the population. While their freedom of religion is protected (you can find Christian churches throughout the region, while a Hindu temple in Abu Dhabi serves the religious needs of the large population of Indian migrant workers), proselytizing or missionary activities are forbidden, as is the distribution of religious literature. Incidents of harassment and abuse of foreign workers, particularly women, have been reported; there have also been credible complaints of Pakistani and Bangladeshi children shipped into the country to work as jockeys in camel races, and of women from the former Soviet republics brought in as white slaves or prostitutes. For the most part investigations into these issues have come to an abrupt halt when it became clear that members of the ruling families were directly or indirectly involved. Foreign nationals involved in disputes with their employer may be blacklisted with the immigration authorities, effectively preventing them from remaining in or returning to the UAE.
Despite their shortcomings in the realm of democracy, the UAE enjoys a good relationship with the United States. While they may not have free elections, they have free markets; they are also sitting on top of substantial oil reserves. While some 70% of the UAE's GNP comes from or is connected to the petroleum industry, they have made efforts in recent years to diversify their holdings. Abu Dhabi, the largest and most propserous of the Emirates, has become one of the major banking centers in the Middle Eastů and is also considered by many to be a center for money laundering and transnational shipment of drugs coming in from southwest Asia and the former Soviet states. While low-level traffickers are regularly sentenced to imprisonment and lashing, the UAE's ruling families are essentially "above the law" and are unlikely to be prosecuted for any involvement in the lucrative drug trade. Anti-money laundering laws have also been in effect since January of 2002, but it is not clear how effectively they will be enforced. Still, these shortcomings are not likely to garner any loud international condemnation; the UAE is considered one of the more moderate of the Arab nations, and is seen as an important ally in the "war on terrorism."