It seems that the land of the Emirates has been occupied for thousands of years. Stone tools found at Jebel Faya in the Emirate of Sharjah indicate settlement by Africans some 127,000 years ago, and a stone tool for butchering animals found at Jebel Barakah on the Arabian coast indicates even older settlement, dating back 130,000 years. There is no evidence of contact with the outside world at this stage, although it developed over time with the civilisations of Mesopotamia and Iran. This contact persisted and expanded, probably motivated by the copper trade in the Hajar Mountains, which began around 3000 BC. In ancient times, Al Hasa (today’s eastern province of Saudi Arabia) was part of Al Bahrain and bordered Greater Oman (today’s UAE and Oman). From the second century AD, there was a movement of tribes from Al Bahrain to the lower Gulf, as well as a migration of the Azdite tribal groups of the Qahtani (or Yamani) and Quda’ah from southwestern Arabia to central Oman. Sassanid groups were present on the coast of Batinah. In 637, Julfar (in the region of present-day Ra’s al-Khaimah) was an important port that served as a way station for the Islamic invasion of the Sassanid Empire. The area of the Al Ain/Buraimi oasis was known as Tu’am and was an important trading post for the camel routes between the coast and the Arabian hinterland.
The first Christian site in the UAE was discovered in the 1990s, a huge monastic complex on the island now known as Sir Bani Yas, dating from the 7th century. The church, believed to be Nestorian and built in 600 AD, appears to have been peacefully abandoned in 750 AD. It provides a rare physical link to a legacy of Christianity believed to have spread across the peninsula along trade routes between AD 50 and 350. It is certain that Oman had a bishop named John in the 5th century – the last bishop of Oman was Stephen in 676 AD.
The spread of Islam to the north-eastern tip of the Arabian Peninsula is believed to be directly related to a letter sent by the Islamic Prophet Muhammad to the rulers of Oman in 630 AD, nine years after the Hijrah. After the death of the Prophet Muhammad, the new Islamic communities south of the Persian Gulf threatened to disintegrate, with revolts against Muslim leaders. Caliph Abu Bakr sent an army from the capital Medina, which completed its reconquest of the area (the Ridda Wars) with the bloody Battle of Dibba, in which an estimated 10,000 people died. This ensured the integrity of the caliphate and the unification of the Arabian Peninsula under the new caliphate of the Rashidun.
The Ottoman and Portuguese Era
The harsh desert environment has led to the emergence of ‘polyvalent tribes’, nomadic groups that subsist on a variety of economic activities, including livestock rearing, agriculture and hunting. The seasonal movements of these groups have not only led to frequent clashes between groups, but also to the emergence of seasonal and semi-seasonal settlements and centres. These formed tribal groupings whose names are still borne by today’s Emiratis, including the Bani Yas and Al Bu Falah of Abu Dhabi, Al Ain, Liwa and the coast of Al Bahrayn, the Dhawahir, Awamir and Manasir inland, the Sharqiyin on the east coast and the Qawasim in the north.
In the 16th century, the ports of the Gulf and part of the population that today form the coasts of Iraq, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia came under the direct influence of the Ottoman Empire. At the same time, Portuguese, English and Dutch colonial troops also appeared in the Gulf, while the entire northern coast remained under Persian rule. In the eighteenth century, the Bani Yas Confederation was the dominant force in much of the area now known as Abu Dhabi. The Portuguese retained their influence over the coastal settlements and, after the bloody conquests of the coastal communities in the 16th century by Albuquerque and the Portuguese commanders who followed him, built forts – especially on the east coast at Muscat, Sohar and Khor Fakkan.
The southern coast of the Persian Gulf was known to the British as the “Pirate Coast” because ships of the Al Qawasim (Al Qasimi) Federation based in the region harassed British-flagged vessels from the 17th to the 19th centuries. British expeditions to protect Indian trade from raiders in Ras al-Khaimah led to campaigns against this headquarters and other ports on the coast in 1809 and again in 1819. The following year, Britain and a number of local leaders signed a treaty to combat piracy along the Persian Gulf coast, giving rise to the term “truce states”, which defined the status of the coastal emirates. Further treaties were signed in 1843 and 1853.
Largely in response to the ambitions of other European countries, notably France and Russia, the British and the Sheikhs of Peace established closer relations in a treaty of 1892, similar to the treaties the British had concluded with other principalities in the Persian Gulf. The Sheikhs undertook not to cede any territory except to the British and not to enter into relations with any foreign government other than the British without their consent. In return, the British promised to protect the coast from attack by sea under the ceasefire and to assist in the event of a land attack. This treaty, the Exclusive Agreement, was signed between 6 and 8 March 1892 by the rulers of Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Sharjah, Ajman, Ras Al Khaimah and Umm Al Quwain. It was then ratified by the Viceroy of India and the British government in London. Thanks to the British maritime police, the pearl farming fleets were able to operate in relative safety. However, with the British ban on the slave trade, an important source of income was lost for some sheikhs and merchants. The accusation of piracy is disputed by modern Emirati historians, including the current ruler of Sharjah in his 1986 book The Myth of Arab Piracy in the Gulf.
In 1869, the Qubaisat tribe settled in Khawr al Udayd and tried to gain the support of the Ottomans, whose flag was sometimes seen there. Khawr al Udayd was claimed by Abu Dhabi at this time, a claim that was supported by the British. In 1906, British political resident Percy Cox confirmed in writing to the ruler of Abu Dhabi, Zayed bin Khalifa Al Nahyan (“Zayed the Great”), that Khawr al Udayd belonged to his sheikdom.
The British era, the discovery of oil
In the 19th and early 20th centuries, the pearl industry flourished, providing both income and employment for the people of the Persian Gulf. The First World War had a severe impact on the industry, but it was the economic depression of the late 1920s and early 1930s, coupled with the invention of the cultured pearl, that wiped out the trade. The remnants of this trade were finally wiped out shortly after the Second World War when the newly independent Indian government imposed a heavy tax on pearl imports from the Arab states of the Persian Gulf. The decline of the pearl trade led to extreme economic hardship in the Truce states.
The British set up a development office which contributed to some small developments in the Emirates. The seven sheikhs of the Emirates then decided to form a council to coordinate business among themselves and took over the development office. In 1952, they formed the Armistice States Council and appointed Adi Bitar, legal adviser to Sheikh Rashid of Dubai, as secretary-general and legal adviser to the council. The Council was dissolved when the United Arab Emirates was established. The tribal nature of the society and the lack of definition of boundaries between the emirates often led to conflicts, which were settled either by arbitration or, more rarely, by force. The Trucial Oman Scouts were a small military force used by the British to keep the peace.
In 1955, the United Kingdom sided with Abu Dhabi in the conflict with Oman over the Buraimi Oasis, another area in the south. A 1974 agreement between Abu Dhabi and Saudi Arabia would have settled the border dispute between Abu Dhabi and Saudi Arabia, but was not ratified. The border between the UAE and Oman was ratified in 2008.
In 1922, the British government received a commitment from the Czech leadership not to sign concessions with foreign companies. Aware of the development potential of natural resources such as oil, a British-led oil company, the Iraq Petroleum Company (IPC), showed interest in the region after discoveries in Persia (from 1908) and Mesopotamia (from 1927). The Anglo-Persian Oil Company (APOC, later British Petroleum or BP) held 23.75% of IPC shares. From 1935, onshore oil exploration concessions were awarded to local leaders, with APOC signing the first on behalf of Petroleum Concessions Ltd (PCL), a subsidiary of IPC. APOC was unable to develop the region itself due to the restrictions of the Red Line Agreement, which required it to operate through IPC. A number of options were signed between PCL and Trucial leaders, providing useful income to communities living in poverty after the collapse of the pearl trade. However, the oil wealth that the leaders could see from the revenues of surrounding countries such as Iran, Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar and Saudi Arabia remained elusive. The first well in Abu Dhabi was drilled in Ras Sadr in 1950 by IPC’s operating company, Petroleum Development (Trucial Coast) Ltd (PDTC). It took a year to drill a 4,000 metre deep hole, which turned out to be dry, at a huge cost of £1 million at the time.
In 1953, a BP subsidiary, D’Arcy Exploration Ltd, was granted an offshore concession by the ruler of Abu Dhabi. BP joined forces with Compagnie Française des Pétroles (now Total) to form operating companies, Abu Dhabi Marine Areas Ltd (ADMA) and Dubai Marine Areas Ltd (DUMA). A series of underwater petroleum studies were carried out, including one led by the renowned marine explorer Jacques Cousteau. In 1958, a floating platform was towed from Hamburg, Germany, and positioned over the Umm Shaif pearl beds in the waters off Abu Dhabi, where drilling began. In March, it found oil in Upper Thamama, a rock formation that would yield many valuable oil discoveries. It was the first commercial discovery on the Trucial Coast, leading to the first oil exports in 1962. ADMA made other offshore discoveries in Zakum and elsewhere, and other companies made commercial discoveries such as the Fateh oil field off Dubai and the Mubarak field off Sharjah (shared with Iran).
PDTC had continued its onshore exploration activities and drilled five more wells, which were also dry, but on 27 October 1960, the company discovered oil in commercial quantities at the Murban No. 3 well on the coast near Tarif. In 1962, the PDTC became the Abu Dhabi Petroleum Company. As oil revenues increased, Abu Dhabi’s ruler Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan embarked on a massive construction programme, building schools, housing, hospitals and roads. When Dubai’s oil exports began in 1969, Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum, the ruler of Dubai, was able to invest the revenues from the discovered limited reserves to kick off the diversification campaign that would create the modern, global city of Dubai.
By 1966 it had become clear that the British government could no longer afford to administer and protect what is now the United Arab Emirates. British MPs debated the readiness of the Royal Navy to defend the Sheikhs. The Secretary of State for Defence, Denis Healey, said that British forces were seriously overstretched and in some respects dangerously under-equipped to defend the Sheikhs. On 24 January 1968, British Prime Minister Harold Wilson announced the government’s decision, reaffirmed by Prime Minister Edward Heath in March 1971, to end conventional relations with the seven truce sheikhs who, with Bahrain and Qatar, had been under British protection. A few days after the announcement, the leader of Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, fearing vulnerability, tried to persuade the British to honour the protection treaties by offering to pay the full cost of maintaining British forces in the Emirates. The British Labour government rejected this offer. After Labour MP Goronwy Roberts informed Sheikh Zayed of the news of the British withdrawal, the nine Persian Gulf sheikhs attempted to form a Union of the Arab Emirates, but by mid-1971 they still could not agree on the terms of the Union, even though British treaty relations were due to expire in December of that year.
Fears of vulnerability became reality on the eve of independence. A group of Iranian destroyers broke formation during an exercise in the lower Gulf and sailed towards the Tunb Islands. The islands were taken by force and the civilians and Arab defenders escaped. A British warship remained idle throughout the invasion. A destroyer group also approached the island of Abu Musa. But there, Sheikh Khalid bin Mohammed Al Qasimi conceded that his forces would not be able to challenge the Iranian naval forces invading the island. The island was quickly leased to Iran for $3 million a year. In the meantime, Saudi Arabia has claimed parts of Abu Dhabi for itself.
Bahrain became independent in August, Qatar in September 1971. When the treaty between the Anglo-Trucial Sheikhdoms expired on 1 December 1971, they became fully independent. The leaders of Abu Dhabi and Dubai decided to independently form a union of their two emirates, draw up a constitution and then invite the leaders of the other five emirates to a meeting and offer to join. It was also agreed between the two emirates that the constitution would be drafted by 2 December 1971. On that day, four other emirates decided at the Dubai Guesthouse Palace to form a union under the name of the United Arab Emirates. Bahrain and Qatar declined the invitation to join the union. Ras al-Khaimah joined later, in early 1972. In February 1972, the Federal National Council (FNC) was established as a consultative body with 40 members appointed by the seven leaders. The United Arab Emirates joined the Arab League in 1971. It was one of the founding members of the Gulf Cooperation Council in May 1981, and Abu Dhabi hosted the first summit. The UAE armed forces joined the allies against Iraq after the invasion of Kuwait in 1990.
The UAE has supported military operations by the United States and other coalition countries in the war against the Taliban in Afghanistan (2001) and against Saddam Hussein in Iraq (2003), as well as operations in support of the Global War on Terror in the Horn of Africa at Al Dhafra Air Base outside Abu Dhabi. The airbase also supported allied operations during the 1991 Persian Gulf War and Operation Northern Watch. The country had already signed a military defence agreement with the United States in 1994 and another with France in 1995. In January 2008, France and the UAE signed an agreement allowing France to establish a permanent military base in the Emirate of Abu Dhabi. The UAE joined international military operations in Libya in March 2011.
On 2 November 2004, the first President of the United Arab Emirates, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, died. His eldest son, Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, succeeded him as Emir of Abu Dhabi. In accordance with the Constitution, the Supreme Council of the Rulers of the UAE elected Khalifa as President. Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan succeeded Khalifa as Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi. In January 2006, Sheikh Maktoum bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, passed away and the Crown Prince, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, assumed both roles.
On 16 December 2006, the first national elections were held in the UAE. A small number of hand-picked voters elected half of the members of the Federal National Council – a consultative body. The UAE was largely spared the Arab Spring, like other countries, but more than 100 Emirati activists were imprisoned and tortured for seeking reform. In addition, some have had their citizenship revoked. A member of the ruling family in Ras al-Khaimah was placed under house arrest in April 2012 after calling for political openness. In November 2012, the United Arab Emirates banned online mockery of its own government or attempts to organise public protests via social media in the face of protests in neighbouring Bahrain.