The History of the United Arab Emirates

A Modern Arab State in the Persian Gulf Establishes Independence

The United Arab Emirates sits atop the “rhinoceros horn” of the Arabian peninsula. A small prosperous federation of tribal states, the UAE was founded on 2 December 1971.

The UAE is made up of seven emirates, which are essentially small independent tribal kingdoms. Six of the emirates —Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Sharjah, Ajman, Umm al Quwain, and Fujairah—united to form the original UAE. The seventh, Ras al Khaimah, joined in 1972. Two additional emirates, Qatar and Bahrain, were a part of early negotiations. In the end, though, they each opted for independence, becoming member states of the United Nations in September 1971, just ahead of the United Arab Emirates .

British Influence in the Persian Gulf

The UAE’s location between the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman makes it of strategic importance – today for oil and in the past for the spice routes from India and further east. The Portuguese arrived in the 1500s, but the British dominated the region from the early 1700s until they began their withdrawal in the 1960s (UAE Yearbook). The British dubbed these small states of the Gulf the Trucial States because of the truces that were signed with the local tribes to facilitate peaceful shipping, trade, and later oil exploration.

First Steps toward Unification of the Trucial States

The concept of unification, or at least mutual cooperation, was suggested by the British in 1952, in the face of growing resistance to British (as well as French and American) influence in the region and rising nationalism, according to Grahme Wilson, in his 1999 book, Father of Dubai. This resulted in the creation of the Trucial States Council.

The local impetus toward unification came in late 1961 when Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al-Maktoum, ruler of Dubai, began discussions of a possible union both within his majlis (open council) and between himself and other sheikhs of the region. Progress was halting, blocked by old rivalries and fears of losing individual power.

The strongest resistance came from Sheikh Shakhbuut of Abu Dhabi and Sheikh Saqr of Sharjah, the emirates located just east and west of Dubai. In 1964, Rashid approached Sheikh Zayed in Abu Dhabi in hopes that Zayed could influence his older brother, Sheikh Shakhbuut, according to Wilson. Rashid’s dream was enthusiastically picked up by Zayed, but it took until 1966, with Shakbuut’s abdication and Saqr’s overthrow, for the balance to shift seriously toward unification.

Sheikh Rashid and Sheikh Zayed Work Together

Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan became ruler of Abu Dhabi in 1966. With the power given him as ruler, Zayed began to work as a full partner with Sheikh Rashid toward uniting the various small tribal powers of the northern peninsula into a loose federation with Dubai, Abu Dhabi, and Sharjah. In a test not of “shuttle” diplomacy, but of diplomacy via Land Cruiser, horse, and camel, they traveled throughout the region listening and talking, working to find the best path toward the common good.

Mohammed Al-Fahim’s first-hand history of Abu Dhabi (1995) makes it clear that Sheikhs Rashid and Zayed saw unification as the best approach to individual and collective success, particularly in light of the full withdrawal of the British from the Trucial States, which was to take effect by late 1971. Their fear that the sudden absence of the British would leave the area without military protection and with few financial resources outside of Dubai and Abu Dhabi gave new energy to their endeavor.

The Union is Made — The United Arab Emirates is Born

It is clear that the country came into being only due to the dedication and commitment of these two men. Agreements were made, fell through, made again, collapsed, and built again. When the documents of unification were finally ratified in 1971, their vital role was recognized. Zayed was elected by the Supreme Council as the country’s first President and Rashid its first Vice-President and later Prime Minister. Their creation, though small at 83,000 sq km (about the size of the U.S. state of Maine, according to the World Factbook), became the basis of the only long-lasting federation of Arab states. It also opened the door for the transformation of a region so remarkable that it has been called repeatedly a “miracle in the desert.”

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