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Thursday, March 21, 2019

Twenty-five Years of the United Arab Emirates: A Vision of Union

by Julia Wheeler

The Rulers and members of the Supreme Council addressing the press on federation day
Raising the flag of a new nation

Our vision of history is coloured by our own past and our current perspective, often making events, especially when it comes to relatively recent history, appear quite detached from reality. The arrogance that comes with hindsight can also distort our view of history, and warp our perspective still further.

Many people in the United Arab Emirates take the present state of the country for granted; its stability, its wealth, even its shape are part of their everyday lives. But twenty-five years ago, nothing was so certain. Had it not been for the vision and determination of the key players at the time, we would never be able to make the assumptions we can today.

The gestation period of this country was not altogether a straightforward one. It took nurturing and plenty of nourishment before the birth of a healthy new state could be contemplated- let alone guaranteed.

The idea of the various sheikhdoms in the Gulf co-operating for their mutual security was first seriously and realistically talked of in 1967. Their great wealth, small size and strategic location made them especially vulnerable to threats. But the idea, reportedly initiated by His Highness Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nayhan, to provide greater self-protection gained momentum only when the British announced their intention to withdraw from the Gulf. The Trucial States are unique in history in that they expressed reluctance at the prospect of Britain leaving the region. Britain had provided protection and with the discovery of oil this was even more of an everyday need.

Indeed, the decision of the British to withdraw was the result not of a clamor for independence along the Trucial Coast but of domestic policy concerns at home. The labour government responded to the growing calls among its rank and file members for a reduction in defense spending by announcing that it would pull out of almost all its military bases east of Suez. On 16th January 1968, the British Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, told the House of Commons that Britain’s presence in this part of the world would end by the closing days of 1971.

Britain was determined to make its withdrawal and the handover of the administration in the Gulf as smooth as possible; so much so that some have described its role in the birth of this country as that of a midwife.

The British announcement provided an even greater spur for thoughts of a Union among the sheikhdoms. Of course the Trucial States Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Sharjah, Ajman, Umm Al Qaiwain, Ras Al Khaimah and Fujairah – had plenty in common with one another, over and above their treaty relationship with Britain. The social structure, geography, mutual regard, political characteristics, maritime past and former dependence on the pearl fishing all reinforced the relationship between them.

As well as these ties between the Trucial States, similar links extended to two other Gulf neighbors: Qatar and Bahrain. His Highness Sheikh Rashid Bin Said Al Maktoum had close ties with Qatar, which was ruled by his son-in-law who had been generous towards development projects in Dubai. Teachers and civil servants had come to work in Abu Dhabi from Bahrain and the sheikhdom used the Bahraini dinar as its currency between 1966 and 1972. From the end of the 1960’s, right up until the formation of the United Arab Emirates, there was the possibility (indeed at times very much a probability) that the two would become a part of union.

One of the first crucial steps towards forming that union came from the statesmanlike decision of the rulers of Dubai, Sheikh Rashid, and of Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Zayed. In February 1968, they met on the border between their two territories and formally agreed to merge their two sheikhdoms. By doing that, it meant that from that time on they were to conduct their foreign affairs, defense, security and social services jointly, as well as adopting a common immigration policy.

By the end of the month, they had also invited the other Trucial States and Qatar and Bahrain to become part of a larger federation.

The rulers of all nine states came to Dubai for a constitutional conference at Abu Dhabi and Dubai’s invitation. The agreement that resulted from that first meeting was less a constitution and more an expression of intent.

Sheikh Zayed had always been a highly generous supporter of the federal idea; stressing as early as the late 1960’s the idea that Abu Dhabi’s oil and all its resources were at the service of the Emirates as a whole. This type of sentiment undoubtedly had great benefits on the attitude and establishment of the fledging union.

The nine were to meet several times more over the next few years, still with the idea that they would become one united country. Many decisions, such as the location of the capital and the appointment of individuals to take on the roles of state, were taken when the nine were discussing the union.

The idea of Oman joining was also mooted when Sultan Qaboos became ruler in 1970. As history would have it, as the situation unfolded, Oman remained a Sultanate and both Qatar and Bahrain become independent states, in their own right.

In the spring of 1971, the British Foreign Minister, Sir Alec Douglas Home, announced the idea of a Friendship Treaty between Britain and the ‘Arab Emirates of the Gulf’, which was too replace the existing treaties between the states.

Things moved quickly, with a communiqué announcing the planned formation of the Untied Arab Emirates in July 1971, and meetings with legal advisors were held and discussions between the rulers took place.

Ras Al Khaimah did not join the union until just over two months after its birth, the hesitation stemming from its representation and the complication of potential oil find off its coast around that time.

When the proclamation of a new state was made on 2nd December 1971, the great hope was expressed “that this federation will form the nucleus of a complete federation which will include the remaining members of the brotherly family of emirates”. Ras Al Khaimah officially joined the UAE on 1st February 1972.

The membership of Al Imarat Al Arabiyya Al Muttahida was complete.

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