Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 24 October 2019

How Sheikh Mohammed set up a military force and confronted the first crisis of the Union

In his new autobiography, the Ruler of Dubai describes dealing with 1972's attempted coup in Sharjah

Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid was at the centre of efforts to build the country up following unification in 1971. 
Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid was at the centre of efforts to build the country up following unification in 1971. 

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As a witness to history, there can be few better placed to tell the UAE's story than Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid.

In his new autobiography, My Story, the Vice President and Ruler of Dubai sheds light on some crucial events of the past 50 years and gives his own interpretation of their significance.

The creation of the UAE in 1971 ended treaties that had bound the seven emirates to Britain and its empire for 150 years.

It was a relationship Sheikh Mohammed felt had yielded very little of benefit.

Soon to be put in charge of military defence, he went as far as to describe the British presence as “a burden because they did not attend to the development needs of the people".

As the last of Britain's forces left from their Royal Air Force base in neighbouring Sharjah, Sheikh Mohammed recalled: “I felt ultimate freedom when the last military jet departed. Troops beamed and shouted in excitement. My military and force defence mission had started.”

Yet Sheikh Mohammed also reveals an understanding of some of the complexities and apparent contradictions involved.

In the late 1960s he received training at one of Britain’s leading military academies, Mons Officer Cadet School in Aldershot, which later merged with Sandhurst.

How, he wonders, was Britain “able to control a quarter of the Earth’s area and be an empire that always sees the light", referring to the UK's idea that the territory under its control was so vast, the sun never set on all of it.

It was clear, the young Sheikh Mohammed thought, that British officer training must be the best in the world.

“I pledged not to return to Dubai unless I was physically, mentally and militarily able to withstand everything.”

Returning to his emirate in 1968, his qualities would soon be tested. As a young commander, he faced challenges that now seem like distant memories.

He was 19 when he had to "establish an army in a country with no army, prepare a defence plan to a nation that wasn’t born yet, work on unifying forces for seven emirates that were not yet bonded by trust.

“My duty was to create an army that would fill the British gap in only three years and secure protection for a small nation in an unstable region that is stricken with conflict, greed and conspiracy.”

Those conflicts were external and sometimes internal. He was at the forefront of dealing with a string of aircraft hijackers who landed their hostages in Dubai.

The creation of the UAE saw the new country at first relying on the Trucial Oman Scouts for its defence. This was a force of 2,500 men created by the British with its own officers and troops gathered largely from Jordan, as well as a few local soldiers.

It was these men that Sheikh Mohammed relied upon to deal with the UAE's first crisis. Sharjah's former ruler – Sheikh Saqr bin Sultan bin Saqr Al Qasimi –attempted a coup in early 1972.

UAE leaders were concerned about Sheikh Saqr’s support for Arab nationalism and the Egyptian leader, Gamal Abdel Nasser.

Sheikh Saqr, who had fallen out of favour and was exiled in the 1960s, returned from Egypt with mercenaries. Sharjah's Ruler, Sheikh Khalid bin Mohammed Al Qasimi, was killed in the fighting.

“It was inconceivable to threaten the security of the emirate, change its policy and throw a coup at their legitimate leaders at all costs,” Sheikh Mohammed writes in his new book.

“Our main fear was that the coup’s dimension would be deeper than an internal dispute over governance and involve foreign factions, supporters and followers.”

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Instructed by the new UAE president, Sheikh Zayed, to “get it over quickly", as Sheikh Mohammed recalls, he negotiated with Sheikh Saqr by phone while waiting for reinforcements to arrive from Abu Dhabi.

“I warned him that I had a great army that will break into the palace any time and that there was no way for them to escape.”

After six days, Sheikh Saqr surrendered to make way for the current Ruler of Sharjah, Dr Sheikh Sultan bin Mohammed Al Qasimi.

Sheikh Saqr died in the early 1990s.

Updated: January 16, 2019 10:55 AM

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