It is 1966. In Syria, a radical Baathist faction, headed by Gen Salah Jadid, seizes power. Cevdet Sunay becomes the fifth president of Turkey. Syrian and Israeli forces clash in the skies over Jordan and along the Sea of Galilee. Seven members of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt are executed for conspiring against President Gamal Abdel Nasser.
Elsewhere, the Beatles release the single Yellow Submarine and England wins the World Cup. Demonstrations erupt after the US president, Lyndon Johnson, sends more troops to Vietnam. In China, Chairman Mao launches the Cultural Revolution.
The land that on December 2, 1971, will become the United Arab Emirates consists of seven emirates bound to Britain by a series of long-standing agreements and treaties. For more than a century, Britain has provided the sheikhdoms, known as the Trucial States, with military protection, conducted their foreign affairs, dictated their economic interests and frequently interfered in their internal politics. Most roads in the emirates are desert tracks, and health care, electricity and clean water are only now becoming commonplace. Abu Dhabi is an exporter of oil, which also is now discovered in commercial quantities in Dubai.
The emirates are sparsely populated; many towns consist of little more than coral and palm branch houses. A rudimentary census in the mid-1960s counts a population of about 25,000 in Abu Dhabi. But the winds of change are starting to blow. On the following pages we trace the path to the formation of a new nation in 1971.
February 22 Denis Healey, the British foreign minister, says defence cuts mean that the Labour government will give up its Aden base and confine its presence in the Middle East to the Gulf.
August 6 With British support, Sheikh Zayed becomes the Ruler of Abu Dhabi, succeeding his brother Sheikh Shakhbut.
May 23 British officials in Abu Dhabi tell London that for reasons they do not fully understand, Sheikh Zayed has made a formal request for copies of all agreements and treaties relating to Abu Dhabi and the United Kingdom. There are 18 in total. Perhaps most significant, the Treaty of Peace in Perpetuity, dates from 1853 (see sidebar).
July A diplomatic note from Archie Lamb, the British political agent in Abu Dhabi, observes: “In other Gulf States it is HMG [Her Majesty’s Government] who set the pace for advance; in Abu Dhabi it is Zaid [sic].” In 2000, the veteran diplomat recalls that Sheikh Zayed “was what everybody thinks the Arab of the desert is. Tall, big, good-looking and, as I said, his bisht [cloak] always seemed to be filled with the wind of heaven.”
October Britain continues to insist it has no plans to leave the Gulf. Meeting Sheikh Zayed, Sir Stewart Crawford, the British political resident in the Gulf, notes: “His thinking was directed to constituting an entity of the southern Gulf; it appeared to involve some form of political unity.”
Sir Dennis Walters, a former British parliamentarian and later a special envoy to the Gulf, first meets Sheikh Zayed. “What struck me was that he was highly intelligent and quick. An hour with him was not something you would forget in a hurry. It was obvious he was going to be a power in the area.”
Of a union, he says that almost from the beginning, “Zayed spoke to me about this as his great ambition; that we should have a federation of the Trucial States.”
January 16 There is considerable shock in the region, as Britain now says is it withdrawing its forces from the Gulf and gives a firm date.
In London, Harold Wilson, the prime minister, tells MPs: “We have accordingly decided to accelerate the withdrawal of our forces ... by the end of 1971.”
Zaki Nusseibeh, who would later hold a number of senior government posts, arrived in the emirates at this time as a journalist. “There was a feeling that the UAE was just not ready to become an independent nation. There was no significant police or military presence to provide protection against any hostile neighbours, and the infrastructure of the country was still very basic.”
January 22 Sheikh Zayed and Sheikh Rashid, the Ruler of Dubai, issue a joint communiqué from Abu Dhabi: “The two Rulers met in an atmosphere of friendship and brotherhood and discussed frankly and sincerely everything concerned with the interrelated interests of the two countries and their common destiny. The two Rulers reviewed all the means of guaranteeing the consolidation of their cooperation and solidarity both internally and externally for protecting the interests of their two countries and to safeguard the future of those interests.
“To facilitate the binding together of the two countries, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan decided to pave the motor road between Dubai and Abu Dhabi.” (This is the birth of what’s popularly known as Sheikh Zayed Road, which is completed in 1980.)
Early February Sheikh Zayed agrees to a loan of £1.5 million to Dubai and Sheikh Rashid to be repaid over three or four years. In further gestures of goodwill, he offers to subsidise Dubai’s electricity and fund a telephone system linking Al Khawaneej to the rest of Dubai. Sheikh Zayed also settles territorial issues regarding undersea oilfields, allocating a larger share to Dubai.
February 27 At a meeting in Dubai, nine Gulf emirates – the seven Trucial States along with Bahrain and Qatar – agree to create what they call the “Union of Arab Emirates” and to prepare a draft constitution.
A new Supreme Council issues the following statement: “The Union of Arab Emirates comprises one people, and has one policy, one diplomatic representation, one army and one economic and social structure.
“The organisational structure of the Union is democratic, its official religion is Islam, the source of its legislation is Islamic Law, its official language is Arabic and its people are part of the Arab nation.”
The union will consist of Bahrain, Qatar, Abu Dhabi, Dubai and the United Coastal Arab Emirate, consisting of the five northern emirates. Much remains to be decided, including the site of a capital, a common currency and the powers of the president.
Adnan Pachachi, who would become the United Arab Emirates’ first permanent representative at the United Nations, recalls: “My first visit to Abu Dhabi was in May 1969 and I came over here at the suggestion of the foreign minister of Kuwait, who is now the Ruler of Kuwait, Sheikh Sabah Al Ahmed.
“Because I had just resigned my post as permanent representative of Iraq to the United Nations, he said, ‘If you have nothing else to do why don’t you come and visit us in the Gulf?’
“I thought it was a good opportunity because I had very little contact with the Gulf states; they were bound by protection treaties. I started with Kuwait, then Bahrain, then Qatar, then Dubai and then to Abu Dhabi. I was met by Ahmed al Suwaidi, who was then the chief adviser of Sheikh Zayed, and then I saw Sheikh Zayed himself.
“Both of them asked me if I could be of any help in looking at the draft constitution to make the necessary changes and amendments before it was adopted by the nine, including Bahrain and Qatar.
“Also, they told me that they were intending to set up a government of modern lines in Abu Dhabi. I said I would be happy to help.”
October 20 Al Ittihad (“The Union”) newspaper publishes for the first time.
May Sir Dennis, acting as an envoy for the British, meets the shah of Iran in Tehran over Bahrain, which Iran is claiming because it was once part of the ancient Persian empire. Sir Dennis warns the shah that Britain will use force if the Iranians seize Bahrain. Soon after, Iran renounces its claim to Bahrain but reiterates its claim to the islands Abu Musa and the Tunbs, which are part of Sharjah and Ras al Khaimah respectively.
June The US oil company Occidental causes a crisis in the Gulf by attempting to drill for oil in territorial waters off Abu Musa. Fearing Iranian intervention, the rig is turned back by the Royal Navy.
Edward Heath, leader of the Conservative Party, becomes prime minister of Britain.
October 26 A meeting of the nine members of the proposed Union of Arab Emirates ends with Bahrain effectively opting out of the union. Bahrain wants political power in the union to be apportioned on the basis of population and believes it is the largest of the nine. Its calls for a census, to be taken once the country is formed, are rejected by the other eight emirates. Bahrain signals its effective withrawal from further negotiations by abstaining on a range of provisions in the draft constitution.
Hassan Kamel, a Qatari government adviser, writes: “No Arab citizen can imagine anything worse than the failure to establish the union of the nine emirates.”
December Ahmed al Suwaidi, Sheikh Zayed’s adviser, arrives in Washington to win support for the federation, then visits New York to discuss United Nations membership.
Britain is annoyed by this “freelance activity” because under its treaty obligations the UK handles foreign policy for the Gulf emirates. In diplomatic notes to London, British officials express concern that Ras al Khaimah might not join the union.
The language of diplomacy in 1853
Treaty of Peace in Perpetuity Agreed Upon by the Chiefs of the Arabian Coast on Behalf of Themselves, Their Heirs and Successors Under the Mediation of the Resident of the Persian Gulf, 1853
(This treaty gave the region the name “Trucial States”.)
We, whose seals are hereunto affixed, Sheikh Sultan bin Suggar, Chief of Rassool-Kheimah, Sheikh Saeed bin Tahnoon, Chief of Aboo Dhebbee, Sheikh Saeed bin Buyte, Chief of Debay, Sheikh Hamid bin Rashed, Chief of Ejman, Sheikh Abdoola bin Rashed, Chief of Umm-ool-Keiweyn, having experienced for a series of years the benefits and advantages resulting from a maritime truce contracted amongst ourselves under the mediation of the Resident in the Persian Gulf and renewed from time to time up to the present period, and being fully impressed, therefore, with a sense of evil consequence formerly arising, from the prosecution of our feuds at sea, whereby our subjects and dependants were prevented from carrying on the pearl fishery in security, and were exposed to interruption and molestation when passing on their lawful occasions, accordingly, we, as aforesaid have determined, for ourselves, our heirs and successors, to conclude together a lasting and inviolable peace from this time forth in perpetuity.
Taken from Britain and Saudi Arabia, 1925-1939: the Imperial Oasis, by Clive Leatherdale