To Mark 50 Years, United Arab Emirates Maps Growth and Quality of Life

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) has grown at an extraordinary rate in the years since it was formed in 1971. Not only has the UAE diversified its economy beyond oil, which required careful planning and great discipline, but its seven emirates—particularly Abu Dhabi and Dubai, where the bulk of the country’s population lives—have seen dramatic urban growth. Abu Dhabi, for instance, is now a modern city with gleaming office towers, a complex multimodal transportation network, utility-scale renewable energy, and an education system that ranks in the top 20 in the world.

A dashboard showing the UAE’s non-oil trade, with a world map on the right and charts and graphs on the left and bottom that display different types of trade with countries all over the world
The United Arab Emirates (UAE) carefully tracked the diversification of the country's economy away from oil dominance.

In advance of the 50th anniversary of the country’s founding, the UAE’s Federal Competitiveness and Statistics Centre (FCSC) mapped the country and its people, using GIS to quantify how far the nation has come.

FCSC adopted GIS to modernize workflows and visualize the statistical indicators it gathers for sectors such as health, education, the environment, and the economy. GIS data feeds the UAE’s 1Map, a collection of map layers housed in a hub site, created using ArcGIS Hub, that includes roads, facilities, and demographics. The information in 1Map allows residents to see how the UAE is faring and enables government ministries to evaluate the country’s strengths and weaknesses so that they can better target investments.

“We launched our GeoStat geostatistical initiative four years ago’,” said Marwa Elkabbany, the GIS expert with FCSC. “We started by collecting detailed facilities datasets from ministries, like health and education facilities, and geoenabling statistics to map more than 70 national indicators.”

Setting Goals and Meeting Objectives

The discovery of oil in the 1950s fueled growth in the UAE, displacing pearling, fishing, and agriculture as key industries. Two decades ago, almost all the country’s economy was oil based. Now, oil makes up less than 30 percent of the UAE’s gross domestic product (GDP). A series of plans have guided national investments away from oil dependency.

His Highness Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the third president of the UAE, spoke in 2015 about this effort and the steady focus toward a future without oil.

“In 50 years, when we might have the last barrel of oil, the question is, When it is shipped abroad, will we be sad?” he asked. “If we are investing today in the right sectors, I can tell you, we will celebrate.”

The UAE has diversified with investments in infrastructure, hospitality and tourism, and technology. There are three sovereign wealth funds in the UAE that invest on behalf of the government, including the Abu Dhabi Investment Authority, which has assets of nearly US$700 billion. Many of the investments aim to improve quality of life—for example, by making the UAE a destination for world-class health care.

A map of the UAE with three pop-ups showing various ways to search facilities throughout the country
The UAE Community Facilities Catalog allows anyone to search for health, education, recreational, religious, and cultural sites across the country.

In pursuit of this goal, statistics have driven societal advancements. First, the UAE needed to know about the health of its people. Then, it needed to compile details on health-care facilities.

“We started the National Facilities Catalog by collecting the health facilities datasets along with the indicators, such as how many are publicly owned, how many beds they have, and the number of medical staff and physicians,” Elkabbany said. “We mapped it to feed our geostatistical platform. Then we overlaid facilities with our population and administrative maps to understand and evaluate their geographic distribution.”

Building a Modern Map

FCSC has been mandated by the Ministry of Cabinet Affairs to collect data from federal government entities—including location data where applicable—in a seamless manner while establishing best practices regarding data quality and standards. The 1Map name and branding by FCSC support the country’s data integration goal, which aligns with the capabilities of modern GIS to tackle challenges across sectors.

The FCSC team has come a long way in four years. It started by developing national foundational administrative maps for districts and subdistricts while defining national urban areas. The process included setting national standards and harmonizing data to produce an up-to-date, authoritative geodatabase.

The FCSC GIS team has been working with federal and local partners to implement a national, collaborative geographic information portal that collects geospatial data from partners. FCSC then processes the data to harmonize and standardize it and uses it to create various apps and sites that serve the community and governmental partners through the one-stop 1Map portal.

The creation of a national digital data ecosystem is a key priority for the UAE government. FCSC has been working on a variety of projects as the lead federal entity for this effort. One such project is the Data Maturity Index, which aims to help agencies manage and administer their data in accordance with international standards and best practices to ensure data accessibility, flow, governance, and quality. Another example is the Emirates Data Network project, which supports the exchange of federal administrative data.

An ArcGIS StoryMaps narrative about urban growth in the UAE, with a map of the country on the right and information about this growth on the left
Urban areas in the UAE have grown tremendously since the country’s founding.

At FCSC, the move to GIS started slowly with licenses for ArcGIS Pro and ArcGIS Online. But the organization soon expanded to ArcGIS Enterprise to enable integration among each ministry’s ArcGIS system through portal-to-portal collaboration. The UAE’s 1Map provides the foundational maps that each ministry builds on with its own data. Then all the ministries share their maps through ArcGIS Enterprise, which allows them to maintain authority and security over the data they create.

The 1Map datasets include population distribution; land use and housing; public facilities such as hospitals, schools, and cultural and religious destinations; and preserved natural areas and parks. This data is then further broken down. For example, with population data, added demographic details—such as gender, citizenship, and age—become available at different geographic scales. Maps show each of these indicators, as well as population density, across the country.

Much of the 1Map data is sensitive and restricted. So while some datasets are public, others are only available to certain ministries or approved researchers.

The data is displayed in dashboards built with ArcGIS Dashboards to show progress on issues, some of which are specific to a ministry’s objectives, while others apply to the whole nation. For instance, a public-facing dashboard gathers total international non-oil trade for the country. Narrative maps, built with ArcGIS StoryMaps, are used to better communicate with the public. One ArcGIS StoryMaps story employs satellite imagery of Earth at night to illustrate urban growth in the country. Data is organized using ArcGIS Hub, which helps show progress. And experts perform further analysis on the data to inform leaders, check on the progress of existing policies, and craft new policies that focus on moving the country forward.

Measuring to Plan, Act, and Understand

Competitiveness on quality-of-life issues is central to the way FCSC operates. For instance, an initial calculation by international organizations about rural access to roads showed that just 76 percent of people living in rural areas had access to an all-season road within two kilometers.

“The roads in UAE are amazing, so it didn’t make sense that rural areas lacked road coverage,” Elkabbany said, relating how the World Economic Forum report in 2019 ranked the UAE seventh in the world for quality of road infrastructure, and the Legatum Prosperity Index ranked the UAE first in the world for satisfaction with roads and highways.

“We looked at the dataset the international organization used to understand it. Then we consolidated rural and urban boundaries from local municipalities, built a national population grid reflecting local statistics for population estimates, and overlaid all this data with the roads network according to the World Bank methodology,” Elkabanny said. “Now when we run this indicator, it shows 99.54 percent of rural-area residents have access to a road within two kilometers.”

This was one of the many examples of how maps help verify the accuracy of data and how data helps verify the accuracy of maps.

As in many nations, official statistics for the UAE have long been maintained in spreadsheets. But there is a growing move to put these measurements on a map, thanks to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that were adopted in 2017. The SDGs recognize intertwining issues, such as how alleviating poverty goes hand in hand with improving health and education and spurring economic growth. Putting indicators on a map provides a crucial view that helps address inequalities and pinpoint where the impacts of climate change need to be limited.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, FCSC had just launched maps of health facilities and population distribution. That data became critical for identifying areas of risk and helping leaders understand the importance of maps and geostatistics for crisis management.

“Government stakeholders are endorsing the use of GIS and geospatial intelligence capabilities across different sectors, with growing demand for map-driven meetings where geospatial dashboards are used as a decision-support tool,” Elkabbany said.

Lately, FCSC has been using satellite imagery and machine learning to fill in data gaps. The team has collected all building footprints across the country and used smart meter data about electricity and gas consumption to derive population estimates for where people live and work. FCSC continually looks at nontraditional data sources, such as employing anonymized phone location data to understand the movement patterns of people. This helps compare facilities and opportunities across different geographic areas, which is a great input for planning purposes.

“We have to be ready. We must prepare our data,” Elkabbany said. “We need to measure prosperity and competitiveness to ensure that high quality-of-life standards are maintained and elevated.”