x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

The First Test

"It has become crucial that Britain leave this country for its own people." Sheikh Zayed, interviewed in Al Ittihad for its December 1 edition.

Two young locals on the Greater Tunb before the invasion.
Photo courtesy Ittihad
Two young locals on the Greater Tunb before the invasion. Photo courtesy Ittihad

November 30-December 1, 1971

As final preparations for the ceremony that will create the United Arab Emirates get under way, a deal is brokered by Britain that will allow Iran to maintain a military presence on the island of Abu Musa. Then, in a move that shocks the Arab world, the Iranians seize the Greater and Lesser Tunbs, killing a Ras al Khaimah policeman and expelling the local population. Anger erupts across the seven emirates and on the eve of the creation of the country, its leaders face their first test on the international stage.

November 30 Under the provisions of a deal negotiated by Britain, Iranian troops are allowed to land on Abu Musa to establish a military base without any concessions on the question of sovereignty.

An attempt to resolve the issue of the islands has been the final stumbling block in the creation of the UAE.

In his end-of-year report for 1971, Sir Geoffrey Arthur writes: "The shah continued to make it quite clear that he would disrupt any union which included Sharjah or Ras al Khaimah and wreak vengeance on British interests in Iran to the bargain unless a satisfactory solution of the Tunbs and Abu Musa was reached before the union was formed."

The agreement with Tehran permits Iran to station forces on part of Abu Musa. Iran agrees to pay a lease fee to Sharjah for the base, while future revenues from natural resources such as oil and gas that might be discovered in Abu Musa's territorial waters are to be split 50/50.

No agreement is reached over the Greater and Lesser Tunbs, part of Ras al Khaimah, which remains outside the planned union. At the same time as the Iranians land on Abu Musa, they also take the Tunbs by force. A small detatchment of Ras al Khaimah police resists the invaders, three of whom are reported killed in fighting. A Ras al Khaimah policeman, Salem Suhail Khamis, also dies.

Many of the local population are observing six days of fasting that take place during Shawwal, the month after Ramadan. They are rounded up, deported and deposited on a beach in Ras al Khaimah that evening, frightened, hungry, thirsty and exhausted.

Kaltham al Tamimi, who is at home with her family, remembers: "The Iranian army came inside our house, and told us to leave. We saw lights, and planes, and those things that move on the ground," referring to armoured vehicles the Iranian army brought on their ships. "We hadn't even seen cars before."

Another former resident, Fatima al Tamimi, also deported on that day with her family, recalls how Iranian forces destroyed their home.

"They barged into our houses, they broke the doors and the cupboards with their boots. We thought the house was going to collapse on us. They asked us if there were any British soldiers."

As word of what has happened travels, growing anger begins to spread across the entire seven emirates, especially in the north.

Reporting on the Abu Musa settlement, Abu Dhabi News, the official English-language newspaper, says: "Under the agreement the island's civil population will continue under Sharjah jurisdiction and Iranian troops will occupy an agreed part of the island."

Sheikh Khalid, the Ruler of Sharjah, "said that the four point agreement did not affect Sharjah's claim to sovereignty over the island," the article continues. "The flag of Sharjah will continue to fly over the Sharjah police post and the Sharjah administration will continue in the remainder of the island."

In the same issue, under the headline "Iranian Aggression", the paper reports that "the Ras al Khaimah Government had lodged a strongly worded protest to Britain, which under existing agreements had responsibility of the State's defence".

Abu Dhabi News reports that the Government of Abu Dhabi expressed regret over "the action taken by Iran to occupy a part of the Arab world" and, in another story, that hundreds of demonstrators had taken to the streets of Abu Dhabi two days after.

The report says that "the police at one stage had to use tear gas to disperse the demonstrators" and that similar demonstrations took place in Al Ain.

December 1 Al Ittihad reports the final preparations for independence day: “An Abu Dhabi delegation, headed by Lt Col Faisal bin Sultan Al Qassimi, the Undersecretary of the Defence Ministry, left for brotherly Dubai at 10am yesterday to make preparations for the historic meeting of their Greatnesses the Rulers of the six Arab emirates tomorrow – Thursday – in Dubai.

The delegation includes Lt Col Hamooda bin Ali, the Interior Ministry’s Undersecretary; Abdul Majeed al Qissi, the Secretary General of the cabinet; and Najm al Din Hamooda, the director of the union’s affairs at the Emiri Court.”

Legal representatives of all six emirates meet in Deira to agree on the final stages of the procedures for creating the new state on December 2.

Sir Geoffrey Arthur, the political resident, begins formally terminating the existing treaties between Britain and each of the seven emirates. In the morning, James Treadwell, who is to become the first British ambassador to the United Arab Emirates, and Sir Geoffrey terminate the treaty with Sheikh Zayed at Al Manhal Palace.

Sir Geoffrey then travels to Dubai to meet Sheikh Rashid, observing: “As business-like as ever, he signed the note which in effect made Dubai independent as though it was one of the pile which is put before him every morning.”

In the northern emirates, the situation is more difficult.

There are accounts of demonstrations, some of them violent, against Iran and Iranian interests after the invasion of the islands. Eight Iranians are reported to have been killed by a mob in Ras al Khaimah. The Financial Times also reports that police in Abu Dhabi used tear gas to break up attacks on Iranian businesses, including a bank.

Sir Geoffrey and Julian Walker, the political agent, obtain the use of a Wessex helicopter from RAF Sharjah. They visit each of the northern emirates in turn, carrying the papers to end the existing treaties.

Fujairah is reached last, at 7.30 pm. The Ruler, Sheikh Mohammed, is actually staying in his house in Dubai and has a surprise in store for the British. As Sir Geoffrey puts it: “He had changed his mind: he did not want to be independent.”

It takes some coaxing from Walker and Sir Geoffrey, but by the end of the day, Britain had successfully terminated its treaties with each of the seven emirates.

Elsewhere, the revolutionary council of Iraq breaks off diplomatic relations with the UK and Iran over the invasion of the islands and calls on other Arab countries to do the same.

The Iraqis criticise the British for not taking military action to recover the islands, saying that at the time of the invasion, the United Kingdom was bound by its treaties with the Trucial States to defend them.