Changes in workers' rights, education and the environment can happen only if private companies - not just the Government - chip in and help, experts say.
To that end, corporate social responsibility programmes are beginning to sprout in the UAE, although they are less prevalent than in many other countries.
Critics say the field, known as CSR, is simply a sophisticated form of marketing that aims to present companies in a positive light.
But Habiba Al Marashi, chairwoman of the Emirates Environmental Group, said the field has developed significantly and there are schemes to provide recognition for the genuine efforts.
One is the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI), an alliance of sustainability experts, which is affiliated with the UN Global Compact, a United Nations sustainability scheme for the private sector.
"It is very well structured to be able to measure results. You cannot bluff your way around it," said Mrs Al Marashi, who is also the founder of the Arabia CSR Network. Reporting, she added, "is not about fooling anyone. You would be fooling yourself".
Members of GRI commit to implementing 10 UN principles that focus on human rights, labour and the environment. After a year, an organisation is expected to produce a report, explaining what it has done. Failure to do so leads to delisting and, eventually, expulsion.
"At the moment, we stand at 73 members from the GCC. The original number was more than 200, but they were not able to communicate their progress, which resulted in them being delisted," she said.
Forty-seven of GRI's members are companies in the UAE.
Membership was "an immediate door-opener on the global scene", added Mrs Al Marashi.
The Arabia CSR Network is holding a training session from today until Tuesday in Dubai.
Aglaia Ntili, training and partnerships manager at the Centre for Sustainability and Excellence, an advisory and training firm with offices in Chicago, Brussels and Athens, said her company had offered CSR training in the UAE since 2008.
"Adopting sustainability practices is about striving to become better and being honest about what you want to achieve," she said.
CSR, she added, is not a trend but a new way of doing business that could offer tremendous benefits.
"It is about the responsibility and duty of an organisation towards its employees, clients, the environment, the economy, and all of it is done in a structured way," she said.
Programmes went above charity as they sought to measure the impact of investments and initiatives and maintain it over time, she said.
The benefits for a company include accessing niche markets, innovation, monitoring internal performance and attracting and retaining good employees.
The company has already done several training courses in Dubai and Abu Dhabi with organisations including Adgas, Al Nabooda Holding, the Dubai Electricity and Water Authority and the Dubai Executive Council. It is holding another training workshop, Certified Sustainability Practitioner Training, in Abu Dhabi in October.
"We have been working in the UAE since 2008. We are surprised by the huge progress," she said. "We are now moving from philanthropy to CSR - we are moving to more measurable ways of evaluating the impacts of investment and initiatives in organisations."
The UAE company the Chalhoub Group, which specialises in luxury retail, recently began a CSR programme. Through a project called Chalhoub Impact, the firm is providing scholarships for students and has measured the carbon footprint of its headquarters in Dubai.
"This year, we are looking to research different technologies so that our carbon footprint can be reduced," said Ayla Bajwa, senior CSR executive at the company.
The firm is also contemplating joining GRI but would first prefer to focus on its own initiatives. "We really look at this as the beginning of a journey," Ms Bajwa said.