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United Arab Emirates

Joseph A. Kéchichian
The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World What is This? Provides comprehensive scholarly coverage of the full geographical and historical extent of Islam

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United Arab Emirates

Although the seven Emirates that form the United Arab Emirates (UAE) boast rich histories, little of their past glory survived into the first half of the twentieth century. The destruction of the once dominant Qawāsim tribes by British forces in 1819, and the forced settlement of the remaining clans after that date, meant that the entire coast would be subjugated until the early 1970s. Remarkably, no Emirati leader gave up his authority to successive British Political Residents, even if reality required that they cooperate with London. To be sure, the 1971 federation experiment in the Lower Gulf went well for various reasons, including Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan's unique abilities in consolidation, ranging from foresight to generosity. In fact, the unification of the federation was not an easy task; few anticipated that the UAE experiment would last more than a few years, much less celebrate a silver jubilee and embark on its fourth decade with remarkable accomplishments to its credit. Still, and despite many difficulties associated with federation, a devout Zayed was fortunate to deal with fellow rulers who were legitimate in their own right. An entire generation of men, led by six talented and politically acute rulers, accepted Zayed's mantle. In turn, these seven men operated within specific tribal confines which defined Emirati sociopolitical life. Not surprisingly, their calculated actions changed the country from a neglected backwater in the Muslim world into a modernizing society based on coexistence and tolerance.

The United Arab Emirates is a constitutional federation of seven independent Sheikhdoms (or emirates): Abu Dhabi, Ajman, Dubai, Fujairah, Ras al-Khaimah, Sharjah, and Umm al-Qaiwain. The federation was formally established on December 2, 1971, on an area of 83,600 sq km along the southeastern tip of the Arabian Peninsula. Four-fifths of the UAE is desert, with landscape ranging from dunes to oases, rocky mountains, and fertile plains. The UAE has one of the most diverse populations in the world. After the mid-1970s oil boom, a large South Asian population migrated to the Lower Gulf, primarily as laborers in construction. In 2007, it was estimated that up to 90 percent of the 4 million total population were noncitizens, probably the highest such demographic condition anywhere. Indians and Pakistanis number over one million each, along with tens of thousands of expatriate workers from Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. Individuals from all Arab countries and major Western ones mingle in a mixed economic setting. The largest city is Dubai, with approximately 1.2 million people. Other major cities include Abu Dhabi, Al Ain, Sharjah, and Fujairah. An estimated 90 percent of the population is urbanized, with the remaining scattered in small towns. Affluence for the upper classes coexists with appalling living conditions for expatriate workers, who toil in ramshackle labor camps that draw the ire of the International Labor Organization.

Culture and Religion.

Rooted in Islam, the UAE has strong ties with the rest of the Arab and Muslim worlds, as the government is committed to preserving traditional forms of art and culture through the Abu Dhabi Cultural Foundation. Nearly all citizens are Muslims, approximately 75 percent Sunnī and 25 percent Shīʿah. Although no official figures are available, local observers estimate that approximately 40 percent of the foreign population is Muslim, 25 percent is Hindu, 25 percent is Christian, and 10 percent belong to other religions. Dubai is the only emirate of the UAE with a Hindu temple and a Sikh gurudwara. Churches are also present in several cities. There is a variety of Asian as well as European schools and cultural centers.

Islam first spread to the Lower Gulf after the arrival of envoys from the prophet Muhammad in 630 A.D. Within two years, a major battle at Dibba, on the UAE's East Coast, resulted in the death of over 10,000 apostate rebels. By 637 AD, Muslim armies were using Julfar (modern Ras al-Khaimah) as a staging post for the conquest of Iran. In 892 AD, Julfar acted as a jumping-off point for the ʿAbbāsid invasion of Oman, and in the tenth century, Oman and the UAE came under the control of the Buyid dynasty. The growth of Sohar, an important trade emporium on the Batinah coast of Oman, multiplied domestic trade routes leading to Julfar in the north and Tuʿam (modern Al Ain/Buraimi) in the west. By the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, the local states had established close commercial contact with the Kingdom of Hormuz, which was later curtailed by the Portuguese and British occupations of the area.

The Rise and Fall of the Qawāsim.

The Emirati confederal tribe that most incurred the wrath of regional and imperial powers was the Qawāsim, which ruled over much of the Persian Gulf. The Qawāsim clan imposed its authority over extended families that, at least for British administrators in India, represented all Arabs living on the Lower Gulf. Members of the clan were drawn from the larger Hawalah tribe that dominated Qeshm Island, Lingeh, Shinas, and Ras al-Khaimah, on both sides of the Persian Gulf. Qawāsim rulers in Ras al-Khaimah gained further prominence beginning in the mid-1500s because of their growing maritime capabilities, by which they largely controlled the trade routes connecting the cities along the Gulf, which antagonized the Persians, the Omanis, and eventually the British.

Qawāsim rulers succeeded in extending their control over tribes that had little in common. Rather than subdue them by force, the Qawāsim created opportunities that allowed them to build a formidable naval power. Both Persian and Omani opposition to the Qawāsim intensified in the early to mid-eighteenth century. By 1850, a compromise was reached between Sultan bin Saqr (1803–1866), the ruler of Ras al-Khaimah, and Saʿid bin Sultan (1807–1856), Sultan of Muscat and Oman, whereby Qāsimī rule would extend over territories from and north of Sharjah to Khawr Kalbah (with the exception of Dibbah and inaccessible mountain ranges). Sultan bin Saqr proved to be a roving ruler, residing alternatively in Ras al-Khaimah, Sharjah and Qeshm Island, delegating local authority to sons or relatives. Revenues from pearl-fishing, at the time the primary source of income, generated the political will to rule—accepting tribute in exchange for security—that naturally clashed with the will of intruding British forces. London perceived Qāsimī defensive behavior as “piracy,” and it began to refer to the Lower Gulf Coast as the “Pirate Coast.” The Qawāsīm faced the British in several major wars, in 1805, 1809, and 1816, and lost their nominal suzerainty in 1819. Ras al-Khaimah was burned to the ground and, with a few exceptions, the mighty Qāsimī fleet was destroyed by militarily superior British forces.

The British, having “pacified” the Lower Gulf Coast, introduced in 1820 the General Treaty of Peace, to permanently muzzle whatever Gulf opposition arose against their domination of the high seas. This key treaty accomplished two major objectives: it recognized the tribal holdings of several clans—by introducing the concept of territorial integrity—and set the stage for a British dominion that would last until 1971. Still, the “piracy” problem that has fascinated analysts since the nineteenth century did not grow out of fanaticism. Although the Qawāsim professed the Wahhābī (also called Unitarian) creed, and were closely allied to the Saudi rulers of Nejd, it did not follow that they were “fanatical.” Rather, the piracy problem was driven by a classic clash between the haves—the Qawāsim—and the have-nots—the British.

The Rise of the Banū Yas.

In addition to the Qawāsim, the Banū Yas tribal confederation also benefited from the breakdown of the Yaʿribah Imamate in 1750, as intratribal warfare raged. The Banū Yas set up its headquarters in Al Dhafrah, not far from the modern city of Abu Dhabi, and by the first half of the nineteenth century three prominent political leaders emerged in the Gulf: Shakhbut bin Dhiyab al-Nahyan, Sultan bin Saqr al-Qāsimī, and Saʿid bin Sultan al-Bu Saʿid. These three men made their mark on the region. Shakhbut bin Dhiyab bin ʿIsa al-Nahyan created a legitimate emirate in Abu Dhabi. Sultan bin Saqr established the al-Qāsimī emirates in Ras Al Khaimah and Sharjah. He was also responsible for the substantial al-Qāsimī naval capability that so frightened London. To his credit, Sultan bin Saqr, one of the most charismatic personalities in contemporary Gulf affairs, angered the foreign intruders, thus undoubtedly planting the seeds of an Emirati consciousness. Saʿid bin Sultan was a no less dramatic personality: he founded the Omani Empire that extended its dominion over Eastern Africa. By the end of the nineteenth century, Abu Dhabi emerged as a serious contender after its inhabitants built a significant naval force to match in size that of the powerful Qawāsim to the north. The growing hamlet was transformed into the headquarters of the Banū Yas clan as various tribes reiterated their loyalty to its ruler.

The Post–World War II Period.

After World War II, when the Gulf region was still relatively isolated, Shakhbut bin Sultan appointed Zayed as his representative in Al Ain. Between 1946 and 1966, Zayed justified his brother's confidence in him: his manner of dealing with problems and getting things done in the era before significant income from oil illustrated his innate abilities. These were not easy years, but Zayed was active in bringing development to Al Ain. He borrowed money and mortgaged his sheikhdom's potential wealth to build a water pipeline from Al Ain to Abu Dhabi and achieved many firsts for his subjects.

Oil was discovered in Abu Dhabi in 1958, and commercial production began in 1962. New revenues meant that development projects would soon follow, and Zayed was eager to act quickly even if the ruler, Shakhbut, was far more cautious. Given the dizzying pace of change elsewhere in the region, and the pressure for progress by Emiratis eager to remove the shackles of poverty, it was not long before Zayed sought and received the support of Abu Dhabi's leaders to lead the emirate. When the British announced in early 1968 their intention to leave the Gulf after 150 years of control, Zayed seized the opportunity to shape the political course of the Lower Gulf. He successfully persuaded Rashid bin Saʿid to join him in a federation of all nine emirates (the seven plus Bahrain and Qatar). In the event, Bahrain and Qatar opted for full independence, and Zayed redoubled his efforts to set up the federation with the remaining seven.

Constitutional Formation of the Emirates.

After December 2, 1971, the UAE adopted a Provisional Constitution, a federal agreement in which each ruler was allocated specific powers. Because this was the first such agreement in the region and because the rulers had no previous experience in joint governance, there were no precedents. As President of the UAE, Zayed sought to strengthen federal institutions, even if his preferences were often rejected by Dubai and Ras al-Khaimah. Sadly, serious political differences between Abu Dhabi and Dubai in 1976 and 1979—chiefly over centralization—threatened the very existence of the UAE although cooler heads prevented a breakup. Likewise, several coups in key emirates created leadership crises, but each time Zayed cajoled his colleagues in the Supreme Council of Rulers into rallying around national unity. The most important characteristic for these conservative tribal leaders was their ability to compromise. Most drew support from their rich religious traditions and articulated evolving views firmly grounded in age-tested norms.

In Abu Dhabi, Shakhbut bin Sultan abdicated on August 6, 1966, in favor of his younger brother, who was eager to accomplish things. With limited opportunities for education, the devout young Zayed sharpened the convictions, principles, and skills that propelled him into a leadership position by learning the Holy Qur’ān. No bloodbath followed Zayed's death in November 2004, when Khalifah bin Zayed succeeded his father as ruler of Abu Dhabi and became President of the UAE.

In Dubai, Rashid bin Saʿid al-Maktoum defined the emirate in modern times as he ruled for twenty years for his incapacitated father before acceding peacefully to rulership in 1958. It was his father Saʿid bin Makhtoum (r. 1912–1958) and mother Hussah bint al-Murr (or Hussah Umm Rashid), however, who had set the first “precious stones” on the Shaykhdom having established a commercial and political power base. This pioneering couple managed the country, administered shipping to and from Dubai's famous Creek, and, after the discovery of oil, regulated concessions with various companies. Power was firmly in the hands of Saʿid bin Makhtoum until 1958, and in those of Rashid bin Saʿid between 1958 and 1990. To his credit, Rashid bin Saʿid, like his parents, displayed a sophisticated acumen for rule. Undoubtedly, he stood as a dreamer and builder and, throughout the 1960s—well before the idea of federation was taken seriously in the Lower Gulf—guided his three sons, Maktoum, Hamdan, and Muhammad, in transforming Dubai into a modern trade center. He welcomed Indian and Iranian tradesmen and entered into gigantic building schemes. His keenness to tolerate diversity, as long as it protected and promoted the Shaykhdom's interests, meant that non-Muslims joined in a myriad of development projects. After his father died on October 7, 1990, Maktoum was entrusted with the premiership once again, and he served both Dubai and the UAE until his death on January 4, 2006. Maktoum was in turn succeeded by his brother Muhammad bin Rashid as ruler of Dubai and Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE.

In Ras al-Khaimah, Saqr bin Muhammad al-Qāsimī, a mercurial personality and astute sovereign since 1948, never missed an opportunity to advance al-Qāsimī interests. Of course, political intrigue was widespread, because two sides of the family vied for power—meager as their authority was at the time. Interestingly, Saqr's political interpretations stood out from the more conservative ones espoused by fellow Gulf rulers. Throughout the 1960s, for example, he championed liberal Arab nationalism—going so far as to support the establishment of an office of the League of Arab States in nearby Sharjah—only to face the ire of British officials. He retaliated by holding out on compromises over the creation of the UAE, and he resented London's imprimatur on the Abu Dhabi–Dubai alliance that stood at its center. Nevertheless, his uncanny ability to irritate fellow rulers proved legendary; his controversial positions raised both anger and concern.

Other Emirati ruling families underwent similar experiences but, as was amply demonstrated in the spring of 2006 after the attempted purchase of several American ports, aggressive Dubai investments throughout the world upset foreign regulators, who objected to the fast pace preferences of the UAE. Its economic boom, its alleged money laundering, and the freewheeling banking system that allegedly enabled the transfer of funds to putative terrorist organizations, were among the issues that dominated UAE external affairs. Still, despite its petroleum resources, it relied on economic diversification to prosper. According to the Arab World Competitiveness Report 2007, drafted by the World Economic Forum, the UAE enjoyed the most competitive economy in the Arab world because of its highly developed infrastructure, particularly air and sea ports. Yet this success was built on the foundation of an abundant labor pool, with the problems of abuse inherent in such exploitation. Remarkably, the UAE addressed many of its contemporary challenges in a measured way, having developed a highly tolerant religious environment—probably the result of its large non-Muslim population—accompanied by ethical transparency and fair play.



  • Alkim, Hassan Hamdan al-. The Foreign Policy of the United Arab Emirates. London: Saqi, 1989. Examines especially UAE ties with Saudi Arabia and Iran.
  • Davidson, Christopher M.The United Arab Emirates: A Study in Survival. Boulder: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2005. Assesses how the country promotes and protects gains.
  • Fahim, Mohammed al-. From Rags to Riches: A Story of Abu Dhabi. London: I. B. Tauris, 1995. Describes the fabulous wealth that changed Emiratis.
  • Gurg, Easa Saleh al-. The Wells of Memory: An Autobiography. London: John Murray, 1998. The insightful memoirs of a UAE diplomat.
  • Heard-Bey, Frauke. From Trucial States to United Arab Emirates: A Society in Transition. 2d ed.London: Longman, 1996. A thorough academic study.
  • Nahyan, Sultan bin Zayed bin Sultan al-. “Gulf Security: The View from Abu Dhabi.” In A Century in Thirty Years: Shaykh Zayed and the United Arab Emirates, edited by Joseph A. Kechichian, pp. 273-280.Washington, D.C.: Middle East Policy Council, 2000. The assessment of a Deputy Prime Minister.
  • Qasimi, Sultan Muhammad al-. The Myth of Arab Piracy in the Gulf. London: Croom Helm, 1986. The doctoral dissertation of the ruler of Sharjah on a sensitive subject.
  • Sayegh, Fatma al-. Al-Imarat al-ʿArabiyyah al-Muttahidat: Min al-Qabilat ilal-Dawlat. Dubai: Markaz Al-Khalij lil-Kutub, 1997. This key academic study provides a unique local perspective on the creation of the federation.
  • Zahlan, Rosemarie Said. The Origins of the United Arab Emirates: A Political and Social History of the Trucial States. London: Macmillan, 1978. The best single-volume study of the country before independence.
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