The Rise of the UAE in its Contemporary Setting

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) federation stands out as the most successful example of Arab integration in an era that has seen many attempts at such an ideal fail. When the country was originally founded in 1971, many observers predicted its speedy collapse. This year in its 50th year of integration and progress, the survival of the UAE has contributed significantly to stability in the lower Gulf and to the welfare of its people.

Abroad, the UAE presents the face of a conventional nation-state, but at home the seven emirates retain their distinctive identities and many of the prerogatives of sovereignty. The distinguishing characteristic among the sheikhdoms is not geography (though there are fairly dramatic differences in topography within the UAE) but tribal affiliation, which results in a national map unrivaled in the complexity of its political subdivisions.

As there are no lakes or rivers, the country relies on underground and desalinated water resources. The UAE’s major natural resources are petroleum and natural gas. The federation has huge proven oil reserves of 98 billion barrels and gas reserves of 215 trillion cubic feet (Tcf) of which at 2021 rates of production will last over 80 years. Abu Dhabi has 95 billion barrels of the oil reserves, with the reminder in Dubai and Sharjah.

The UAE will continue to produce oil for the next 150 years given its enormous crude reserves that rank fourth in the world. Naturally, this has resulted in the greatest population boom and development activity taking place in Abu Dhabi. It has also given its ruling family the leading role in the union and has secured the location of the federal capital in Abu Dhabi. Dubai’s busy entrepot and commercial activities, along with oil revenues about one-third of Abu Dhabi’s, place it second in importance. Sharjah contains the third largest city, enjoys modest oil revenues, and has built a large port east of the Strait of Hormuz at Khor Fakkan in its enclave on the Gulf of Oman. Ras al-Khaimah claims the largest number of indigenous citizens and, together with its neighbor Fujairah, has the only significant amount of potentially cultivable land in the emirates. Ajman and Umm al-Qaiwan, the two smallest emirates, each consist primarily of one costal town- although Umm al-Qaiwain possesses commercially significant gas reserves.

From the late 18th century onward many of the activities-including outright piracy-of the seafaring Arab tribes of the central and southern Gulf, in particular along the Trucial Coast, became detrimental to the maritime trade of Britain and other powers. From 1770 onward the British Royal Navy became increasingly active in the protection of maritime trade, and several times in the early 19th century expeditionary forces were landed in Ras al-Khaimah, where the power of the Qasimi, the ruling family, was strong. Treaties were signed in the 1820s binding the rulers to refrain from piracy; these developed into annual truces negotiated through the Gulf Political Residency and the President’s Agency established at Sharjah in 1823.

From 1892 onward the rulers conducted all their external affairs through the British government; local political offices were superseded by a political agent in 1953. Since the main purpose was to maintain a pax-Britannica, a central military force able to intervene in interstate disputes, the Trucial Oman Scouts, was established in 1953. The expansion of Imperial Airways led to an airstrip being established at Sharjah in 1932, and in 1940 it became a Royal Air Force base; after 1945 Sharjah became the main military air-staging base for the Gulf.

The seven emirates now making up the UAE themselves crystallized out of changing tribal groupings, British encouragement being given to sheikhs and family leaders to accept the tribal authority of certain leaders. Disputes though diminishing in number and violence were normal. Such disputes include those between emirates, for example between Abu Dhabi and Dubai in the 1950s; those between neighboring rulers, such as that involving Abu Dhabi, Oman and Saudi Arabia over the al-Ain/Buraymi region; and those within ruling families, for example in Sharjah up to 1972. In 1952 a Trucial States Council was established, at which rulers met regularly; and a little later a development office was set up to carry out and encourage cooperation development projects. In the mid-1960s, British financial subventions slowly began to be replaced by local revenue as the discovery of oil, first in Abu Dhabi, transformed the whole scene.

In 1968 Britain proposed regional discussions concerning a possible Arab Gulf Federation that could follow British withdrawal. Immediately after the British termination of existing treaties with the Trucial States in December 1971, the present United Arab Emirates came into being-except for Ras al-Khaimah, which deferred joining until February 1972.

Abu Dhabi and Dubai, the largest and wealthiest of the emirates, assumed leading roles in the federation; until 1985 they jointly provided all federal budget requirements. More important has been the generally prevailing accord between Sheikh Zayed of Abu Dhabi and Sheikh Rashid of Dubai in encouraging movements toward integration. There is still considerable reluctance on the part of the various emirates to give up all independence of action; federation has made it possible, however, for what individually were small, weak and disputatious communities to enjoy cooperation with each other a much greater degree of self-assurance and prosperity.

The economy of the UAE is dominated by oil. The production of crude oil in Abu Dhabi in 1962, in Dubai 1969, in Sharjah in 1974, and in Ras al-Khaimah in 1984. Abu Dhabi not only was the first within the UAE territory to benefit from the discovery of oil and gas but has by far the greatest production and largest reserves. Although the UAE has a federal Oil Ministry, the emirates tend to pursue their exploitation and production policies separately. Thus, while Abu Dhabi voluntarily reduced crude output, Dubai has kept its production level at or about 17.7 million metric tons annually since 1979; and Sharjah and Ras al-Khaimah are still seeking to increase their relatively small production levels.

The relationship between oil production and exports and federal revenue has always been indirect because the UAE’s budget is determined by the size of the contributions made by the three wealthiest emirates, Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Sharjah. Abu Dhabi has become increasingly the main contributor of the total budget covering the remaining deficit, as well as making free loans and grants to the poorer emirates.

One area of recent development has been natural gas. Exports of oil-associated gas-liquefied petroleum gas and liquefied natural gas (LPG and LNG)-increased very rapidly after 1977 to constitute 8% of the value of all UAE exports and re-exports; the same oil-associated gas became essential for electricity generation, water desalination and industrial feedstock. The situation regarding power, water, feedstock and gas is extremely complicated. There are few separate electricity and water authorities for Abdu Dhabi, Dubai, Ras al-Khaimah, Sharjah and the federal government. In total the UAE in 2018, installed capacity of desalination water plants amounted to 7.5 million cubic meters per day.

Six principal tribal groups inhabit the United Arab Emirates; the Bani Yas confederation; the Mansur, who range north to Saudi Arabia and Qatar, the al-Qasimi, who have historically been paramount in the northeast; the Al Bu Ali; the al-Sharqu; and the Al-Nuaym. The Al Bu Falah tribe of the Bani Yas settled in Abu Dhabi in the 1790s, and in 1833 the Al Bu Falasa branch settled in Dubai. Both tribes created maritime principalities, though Abu Dhabi, in contrast to Dubai, drew most of its strength from control over the interior. The proud Qasimi once held sway on both the Persian and Arab sides of the lower Gulf. Members of the ruling families of Ras al-Khaimah and Sharjah both come from that tribe.

All the indigenous UAE tribes are Arab and Sunni Muslim. In the 19th century many of them espoused the teachings of the Hanbali school of Islamic jurisprudence, which spread eastward from Saudi Arabia. During the same period, the British Empire sought to extend its control in the Gulf, particularly against the so-called pirate vessels that plundered ships in the area and charged safe-passage fees. An English expeditionary force was set to the Gulf in 1819 to put down the privateers, and peace treaties with the principal sheikhs were signed in 1820. In 1853 the sheikhs agreed to a “perpetual maritime truce” orchestrated by Great Britain; and what had come to be known in Western parlance as the “pirate coast” became known thereafter as the “Trucial Coast.”

The Trucial States entered into a more formal relationship with Great Britain in 1892. Like their northern neighbors in the Gulf, the emirates surrendered control over their external affairs in exchange for British protection against aggression by outside forces. Recognition of the supremacy of British interests, however, greatly limited the power of the sheikhs, who were thereafter bound to accept British arbitration in internal affairs. The British agents, moreover, controlled the flow of arms to the ruling families, and could enforce desired changes in local practices whenever they felt it necessary. In reality, the British followed a policy of “benign neglect” and allowed the paternalistic and autocratic rule of the sheikhs to continue according to traditional customs.

When Britain in 1968 announced its intention to terminate its protected-state treaties with the emirates and withdraw from the area by 1971, the Trucial States were hardly prepared to carry on as modern political nation-states. Only Abu-Dhabi and Dubai were exporting oil, and in several of the emirates little more than rudimentary social services and economic-development institutions were in place. In all the emirates traditional sheikhly rule had continued, not only unchanged, but for the most part unchallenged.

Traditionally, the most prominent clan or branch of the dominant tribe would provide the paramount sheikh, or leader of the emirate, and guide his policies within the framework of its general consensus.

In turn, this family maintained strong connection with other important groups to promote and sustain a widespread consensus in support of the ruler. Major decision, while basically controlled by the ruling family, would be made only after a thorough sounding of important and relevant constituencies, a decision-making style still evident in the UAE’s current cabinet-style government. In addition to the other powerful families and clans, the more prosperous merchants and prominent religious leaders were consulted and brought into the consensus. The customs of consultation, consensus and Majlis still perform important functions in the UAE today, as they were called upon to make up the informal political structure in 1970.

Judging from their popularity and longevity, such informal practices had clearly served the people well, but could hardly substitute for modern political and governmental institutions in terms of economic planning and the range of services associated with a modern welfare state. This became particularly true as oil-related development brought about urbanization, a cash economy and an end to all but a few of the traditional occupations in herding, oasis cultivation and fishing. In addition to these domestic considerations, the individual emirates were generally too small in size and population to form internationally competitive economies, and, in some cases, even to enjoy a nominal level of national security. Some of these concerns extended to the emirates’ northern neighbors, Bahrain and Qatar, as these two states also pondered a future without British protected-state status.

Great Britain, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait had strongly encouraged all nine states to enter into a federal union. Various disparities among Qatar, Bahrain and the Trucial States in population, oil wealth and political ambitions were compounded by historical conflicts and rivalries, so that the two northern states decided against joining the union in favor of independent status. The seven emirates faced similar obstacles, but shared more intimately a common heritage, economic complementarity, closer geographic proximity and the need to be part of a larger entity.

The disparity in wealth between the two western emirates, Abu Dhabi and Dubai, and the other five presented both the main obstacle and the primary inducement to union. Individually, the seven sheikhdoms, while varying in population, wealth and military power, had always enjoyed a sovereignty independent of the others. With the western emirates’ far greater wealth and population, it was impossible for the seven to join in a union as equal partners across the board. It was clear at the outset, for instance, that Abu Dhabi would have to pay almost all the federal bills.  With a long history of rivalry and jealous competition among the seven dynasties, the other sheikhs feared that a disproportionate amount of power for Abu Dhabi in the union would result in its eventual annexation of the other emirates. Yet ultimately it was the irresistible offer of substantial development aid by Abu Dhabi to the other states, coupled with the extreme pressure of Britain’s deadline to terminate the protected-state arrangements, that led the sheikhs to overcome their reluctance to take a back seat to Abu Dhabi’s leadership and join the federation.

The Trucial States became independent on December 1, 1971, and on December 2, six of the states formed the United Arab Emirates. A federal structure had been devised concentrating political power in the hands of the respective rulers, while giving Abu Dhabi and Dhabi dominant power in federal affairs. As this system was based primarily on economic resources, and to a certain extent altered historical patterns of ascendancy among the emirates, the emirate of Ras al-Khaimah delayed joining until the following year in the hope that oil explorations at the time would prove successful and would enhance its stature in the union. No such advantage developed, and in 1972 it had to abandon these hopes and join the UAE with little political clout. The emirate eventually discovered a small amount of oil in 1983, but not in such quantities as to alter its share in the balance of power.

Occurring rather suddenly, against a backdrop of serious problems (in terms of lack of precedents for nation-building), the birth of the UAE – in the case of two emirates, Sharjah and Ras al-Khaimah – was traumatic. Iran took advantage of the British withdrawal to press its claim to three islands in the Gulf, exceedingly small territories but of great strategic importance in their position just west of the Strait of Hormuz. The Greater and Lesser Tunb islands, claimed by Ras al-Khaimah, and Abu Musa Island, claimed by Sharjah, were all seized by Iranian warships in a massive show of force on the eve of independence. Sharjah had agreed to Iranian troop positioning on Abu Musa without relinquishing its territorial claims, while Ras al-Khaimah had made no such agreement and briefly resisted the Iranian seizure.

A former ruler of Sharjah returned from exile in protest against the accommodation of Iran’s claim by the incumbent ruler, and staged a coup attempt, the incumbent ruler was killed in the unsuccessful move. Since the ouster of the Shah in 1979, Iran’s revolutionary government has continued holding the three islands. The emotional dispute will present serious obstacles to any improvement in relations between the UAE and Iran.

The main themes of contemporary UAE state-affairs have been (1) the achievement of preserving the independence and integration of the Federation, (2) the pursuit of economic and social development, financed by oil exports, without sacrificing their own cultural or religious identity and heritage. Self-preservation and statecraft of nationhood has often been a the major factor and determinant to achieve the overall unity of the United Arab Emirates. As long as the ruling families maintain the public trust, the societies in the region will need careful leadership and a secure basis for national unity as they absorb the rapid global and regional changes and lay the groundwork for those yet to come.

Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, the Crown Prince of the Emirate of Abu Dhabi, Deputy Supreme Commander of the United Arab Emirates Armed Forces and the de facto ruler of Abu Dhabi must continue to provide statecraft vision for the UAE from where his late father Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan the founder of modern left off. UAE’s future will depend in large part upon Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed.

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About Khalid Latif 6 Articles
The author is the Executive Director (COPAIR), Director Program (Middle East) Editor, The Asian Telegraph and Melange Magazine.