RAS AL KHAIMAH // When Fatima Sultan moved into her house in 1997, she wondered how she would cope with three young children in a place without neighbours.
Back then, her back yard was a horizon of empty dunes.
Mrs Sultan was one of the first recipients of the Sheikh Zayed Housing Programme that allocates thousands of home loans to Emiratis.
The money enabled the Sultans to buy a four-bedroom house, which would otherwise have been impossible. Up until then, she had grown up in her father's home, which housed nine people in three bedrooms. She shared a room with her husband and three children.
Today, her house is at the heart of a sprawling Emirati community of palatial houses, mostly funded by the programme.
"There are 52 houses in this neighbourhood and I know 45 of the families living in them," said Mrs Sultan with evident pride. "Our life is the same as it was before we moved. We all know each other. Slowly, over the years, we became a family."
Housing was one of the first social benefits extended to citizens in the Northern Emirates after the formation of the UAE. But as generations passed, extended families stayed on in these houses, cramped into quarters that were only intended for one immediate family.
In the past five years, housing programmes that give grants and interest-free loans have transformed the landscape of the north.
In some places, new villages pop up beside old ones and opulent mansions are frequently seen rising out of the mountainside thanks to generous government grants.
Social welfare in the Northern Emirates was increased after a visit in February of Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces. Sheikh Khalifa, the President of the UAE, has approved the construction of 667 new villas in three months.
A block away from Ms Sultan's house, men gather in a tent for a funeral. "If somebody dies, we all must go," said Ali Mattar, 35. "Here if somebody has a small pain, everybody will go to help."
Mr Mattar grew up in a tiny two-bedroom house of seven people. Today, he shares a nine-bedroom home in comfort with 17 family members. Large grants have allowed recipients to build big houses that keep families together.
This is a matter of safety as well as community, he said. "Many men work in Abu Dhabi and we cannot leave our wives alone," he said. "If I take my wife to her father's home, there will be nobody in our house."
After a five-year wait for approval, his friend Jaber Ebrahim will have a home of his own in two weeks.
"It will change my life," said Mr Ebrahim, 33, who lives with 12 family members, including six children in a five-bedroom house. "My house is small. Every day there is trouble with my mother and my wife."
But with more federal support, the wait for housing will be shorter. Once a loan or grant is approved, getting land and support from the municipal government is not hard.
Another of Mr Mattar's friends, Abdulla Rashid, 20, was granted approval almost immediately, and will have a house of his own next year.
This week, Ms Sultan's house is strung with lights to celebrate her son's wedding. The celebration of 700 guests took place in a reception hall, but neighbours and relatives have come by the dozen to offer their blessings. There would have been no room to receive them in her father's home.
Her husband has a pension of Dh10,000 a month, after a 25-year career in the police.
The majlis in her home is being converted into a bedroom for her eldest son and daughter-in-law when they return from honeymoon.
"And then the babies will come," said Ms Sultan. "They will live here and they will be like my babies."