RAS AL-KHAIMAH, United Arab Emirates (Reuters) - Driving north from Dubai, the gleaming glass-and-chrome skyscrapers fade away and in their place are low-rise, dusty concrete buildings that few visitors to the United Arab Emirates would expect to see.
Long reliant on richer Abu Dhabi and Dubai, the five northern emirates of Ras al-Khaimah, Sharjah, Ajman, Fujeirah and Umm al-Quwain are the lesser-known parts of the federation.
But recent fuel shortages, along with unreliable utilities services, have contributed to increased grumbling among residents there.
“The water sometimes is cut for five, six or seven days,” Khadiga Gomaa, a 60-year-old Bedouin woman, said of her neighborhood in RAK, as Ras al-Khaimah is sometimes called.
She was shopping at an outdoor fruit and vegetable market, which itself would be an unusual sight in Dubai or Abu Dhabi where air-conditioned malls and supermarkets dominate.
Oil-rich UAE boasts the world’s eighth highest annual per capita income at $47,000, and has avoided the political upheaval sweeping across the Arab world.
Offical statistics nonetheless point to stark economic gaps between the northern and southern emirates. For example, Fujairah had an unemployment rate of 20.6 percent in 2009, well above the national average of 14 percent.
Recent fuel shortages in the northern emirates have added to frustrations, especially since authorities have struggled to provide an explanation. They first blamed maintenance work but analysts point to reluctance to adhere to government subsidies for petrol.
The subsidies are aimed at providing cheap fuel to customers but soaring oil prices eat into fuel-providers’ bottom lines.
Concerns remain that the gap between the rich and poor, one of the main triggers of protests that toppled the presidents of Tunisia and Egypt, could fuel greater tensions in the world’s third largest oil exporter if left unaddressed.
“No country in the region is immune from the regional unrest,” Ghanem Nuseibeh, founder of London-based Cornerstone Global Associates, said.
“The wealth disparity between the northern emirates and Dubai and Abu Dhabi remains the most challenging issue for the stability of the country as a whole.”
“This is not only because of increased threat of localized unrest, but it also creates an opportunity for regional powers to attempt to meddle in the local affairs of those emirates.”
Realizing this, the UAE government, led by Abu Dhabi, pledged $1.6 billion in March for infrastructure in the northern emirates. The decision came after UAE President and Abu Dhabi ruler Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed al-Nahayan ordered a tour of the emirates in February.
During a visit to the Ministry of Public Works this month, UAE Prime Minister and Dubai ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum called on federal and local governments to take part in developing the UAE’s remote regions and rural areas.
“Dubai’s success is an extension of Abu Dhabi’s success and vice versa. The same dynamic applies to the other emirates,” Sheikh Mohamed was quoted as saying on his website. “The union of these seven emirates represents an unshakeable force.”
But Emiratis living in the capital, Abu Dhabi, and the business hub, Dubai, said speedier developments in the northern emirates were needed to encourage people to seek work there.
They said developing utilities, health care and education were the most pressing needs. Some added they rarely traveled to emirates outside Dubai and Abu Dhabi because they lacked adequate services and were not sufficiently marketed.
“I know there are resorts (in other emirates), but I don’t know much about them,” Maitha El Mansoury, a 26-year-old Abu Dhabi resident working in the IT sector, said.
“They sometimes send us emails but we’re not sure of the places, they are not well-promoted,” Mansoury said, describing RAK dismissively as a “village.”
In past years, RAK, which sits on the Strait of Hormuz through which 40 percent of the world’s seaborne oil passes, and which lies close to Iran’s coastline, has seen small protests, quickly quashed by Abu Dhabi security forces.
Unlike the oil-rich capital, RAK’s economy is based on industries such as cement, pharmaceuticals and glass.
Absent are the digital billboards, shopping centers and hotels that typify Dubai. Instead, desert roads are dotted with clusters of small apartment blocks, car repair workshops and discount retailers.
Clotheslines are laden with laundry left to dry in the sun, and diesel generators are placed near commercial and residential buildings, to compensate for power shortages.
The government has said a two-decade plan will address some of the gaps and other issues such as healthcare, education, housing, roads and water.
“The federal government is capable of increasing spending in these smaller emirates to stave off any social unrest,” Bryan Plamondon, a senior manager at IHS Global Insight, said.
RAK was the last emirate to join the UAE in the early 1970s when Britain withdrew from the Gulf and supervised negotiations to create a federation of Bahrain, Qatar and the seven emirates that now make up the UAE.
Bahrain and Qatar opted to become independent.
Others retained their own character. The emirate of Sharjah, which has close ties to Saudi Arabia, enforces stricter Islamic laws and is the only emirate that bans alcohol and enforces more conservative dress codes.
RAK, facing problems during that period over Iran’s occupation of the Emirate’s islands, initially had been reluctant to join because of the greater influence of the richer emirate of Abu Dhabi. It joined later, in 1972.
Some living in RAK today still feel the disparities.
“The investment just in the northern emirates in itself shows that there is a difference. There is no point of comparison,” a resident said.
Editing by Michael Roddy