Before 1960, the only settlements were small towns and villages. Oil resources have enabled massive modernization. Towns have been transformed from mud-walled communities into commercial capitals integrated in the global economy. Because of the small population and harsh desert interior, 80 percent of the population lives in the coastal capital cities, leading social scientists to describe them as city-states.
Urbanization has been characterized by unparalleled growth. Abu Dhabi is one of the most modern cities in the world. UAE cities have been heavily influenced by the global city type. Dominant urban features include skyscrapers in the commercial city centers, multistory residential buildings, large shopping malls, wide boulevards, an extensive network of highways, and sprawling new suburbs.
The cities have a multiethnic composition, with segregated housing areas for nationals and the immigrants. Housing is subdivided further according to class, social power, ethnicity, and nationality.
To create a balance between their global and local aspects, in municipalities have adopted policies projecting Arab-Islamic architectural design, particularly arched windows, gates, and decorative stucco. Recently, more urban settings have exhibited decorative designs with local themes related to the national heritage. Preservation of the urban heritage also is seen in the renovation of old forts, palaces, souks (marketplaces), and mosques. Date palm trees, symbols of the local culture, have been planted extensively along city roadsides.