History of the United Arab Emirates

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Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates have assumed added prominence as a result of Operation Desert Shield in 1990 and the Persian Gulf War in 1991. These states share certain characteristics while simultaneously differing from one another in various respects. Islam has played a major role in each of the Persian Gulf states, although Kuwait and Bahrain reflect a greater secular influence than the other three. Moreover, the puritanical Wahhabi Sunni sect prevails in Qatar; Bahrain has a majority population of Shia, a denomination of the faith that constitutes a minority in Islam as a whole; and the people of Oman represent primarily a minor sect within Shia Islam, the Ibadi.

The beduin heritage also exerts a significant influence in all of the Persian Gulf states. In the latter half of the twentieth century, however, a sense of national identity increasingly has superseded tribal allegiance. The ruling families in the Persian Gulf states represent shaykhs of tribes that originally settled particular areas; however, governmental institutions steadily have taken over spheres that previously fell under the purview of tribal councils.

Historically, Britain exercised a protectorate at least briefly over each of the Persian Gulf states. This connection has resulted in the presence of governmental institutions established by Britain as well as strong commercial and military ties with it. Sources of military matériel and training in the late 1980s and early 1990s, however, were being provided by other countries in addition to Britain.

Because of the extensive coastlines of the Persian Gulf states, trade, fishing, shipbuilding, and, in the past, pearling have represented substantial sources of income. In the early 1990s, trade and, to a lesser extent, fishing, continued to contribute major amounts to the gross domestic product of these states.

Of the five states, Oman has the least coastal area on the Persian Gulf because its access to that waterway occurs only at the western tip of the Musandam Peninsula, separated from the remainder of Oman by the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Partly as a result of this limited contact with the gulf and partly because of the mountains that cut off the interior from the coast, Oman has the most distinctive culture of the five states.

In general, the gulf has served as a major facilitator of trade and culture. The ancient civilization of Dilmun, for example, in present-day Bahrain existed as early as the fourth millennium B.C.

The Persian Gulf, however, also constitutes a ready channel for foreign conquerors. In addition to Britain, over the centuries the gulf states have known such rulers as the Greeks, Parthians, Sassanians, Iranians, and Portuguese. When England's influence first came to the area in 1622, the Safavid shah of Iran sought England's aid in driving the Portuguese out of the gulf.

Britain did not play a major role, however, until the early nineteenth century. At that time, attacks on British shipping by the Al Qasimi of the present-day UAE became so serious that Britain asked the assistance of the ruler of Oman in ending the attacks. In consequence, Britain in 1820 initiated treaties or truces with the various rulers of the area, giving rise to the term Trucial Coast.

The boundaries of the Persian Gulf states were considered relatively unimportant until the discovery of oil in Bahrain in 1932 caused other gulf countries to define their geographic limits. Britain's 1968 announcement that in 1971 it would abandon its protectorate commitments east of the Suez Canal accelerated the independence of the states. Oman had maintained its independence in principle since 1650. Kuwait, with the most advanced institutions--primarily because of its oil wealth--had declared its independence in 1961. Bahrain, Qatar, and the UAE followed suit in 1971. In the face of the Iranian Revolution of 1979, all of the Persian Gulf states experienced fears for their security. These apprehensions led to their formation, together with Saudi Arabia, of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) in May 1981.

The UAE represents an independent state created by the joining together in the winter of 1971-72 of the seven former Trucial Coast states of Abu Dhabi, Ajman, Al Fujayrah, Dubayy, Ras al Khaymah, Sharjah, and Umm al Qaywayn. In early 1993, UAE citizens constituted about 12 percent of the total population of nearly 2.0 million. Oil is the major source of income for the federation, but it is found in a significant amount only in Abu Dhabi and to a lesser extent in Dubayy, Ras al Khaymah, and Sharjah. In principle, each amirate is required to contribute to the federation's budget (according to the provisional constitution, each state's natural resources and wealth are its own), but in practice only Abu Dhabi and, to a lesser degree, Dubayy have financed the federation. The resulting disagreement over budget contributions as well as over the integration of defense measures and forces led to the recurring renewal at five- year intervals of the 1971 provisional constitution, rather than the intended adoption of a permanent constitution. In fact, the separation of powers is nominal; UAE organs consist of the Supreme Council of the Union (SCU) composed of the rulers of the seven amirates (Abu Dhabi and Dubayy have a veto right on proposed measures), the Council of Ministers, and the presidency. The chairman of the SCU is the president of the UAE. In addition, there is an advisory Federal National Council (FNC) of forty members appointed by the rulers of the amirates, based on proportional representation; members serve two-year terms. Following a one-year delay in naming members, the FNC met with UAE citizens in January 1993, after which it held several sessions. FNC actions included a call for private firms to employ more UAE citizens and the establishment of a federal housing loan program for UAE nationals.

Like other gulf states, the UAE has security concerns, of which one is its dispute with Iran over the islands of Abu Musa, Tunb al Kubra (Greater Tumb), and Tunb as Sughra (Lesser Tumb). This dispute flared anew in early 1992, after lying dormant for twenty years, when Iran took actions on Abu Musa that violated a shared sovereignty agreement. The UAE was concerned that Iran intended to extend its control over the entire island. However, in November 1992 the two countries agreed to abide by the provisions of the 1971 memorandum. The UAE would prefer a final resolution of this dispute and has expressed a willingness to have its sovereignty claims arbitrated by the International Court of Justice or the United Nations.

Militarily, the UAE participated in the 1991 Persian Gulf War and contributed personnel to the UN peacekeeping force in Somalia in 1992. The UAE's experience in the Persian Gulf War led it to consider itself inadequately prepared in terms of matériel; consequently, in February 1993 it ordered Leclerc main battle tanks and other equipment from France.

The Persian Gulf War brought with it the realization that the GCC was inadequate to provide the gulf states with the defense they required. As a result, most of the states sought defense agreements with the United States, Britain, France, and Russia, more or less in that order. Concurrently, the gulf countries have endeavored to improve the caliber and training of their armed forces and the interoperability of military equipment through joint military exercises both within the GCC framework and with Western powers. The United States has sought to complement GCC collective security efforts and has stated that it does not intend to station forces permanently in the region.

At a November 1993 meeting, GCC defense ministers made plans to expand the Saudi-based Peninsula Shield forces, a rapid deployment force, to 25,000. The force is to have units from each GCC state, a unified command, and a rotating chairmanship. The ministers also agreed to spend up to US$5 billion to purchase three or four more AWACS aircraft to supplement the five the Saudi air force already has and to create a headquarters in Saudi Arabia for GCC defense purposes. The UAE reportedly considered the proposed force increase insufficient; furthermore, Oman sought a force of 100,000 members.

In addition to these efforts, directed at the military aspects of national security, declining oil revenues for many of the states and internal sectarian divisions also have led the gulf countries to institute domestic efforts to strengthen their national security. Such efforts entail measures to increase the role of citizens in an advisory governmental capacity, to allow greater freedom of the press, to promote economic development through diversification and incentives for foreign investment, and to develop infrastructure projects that will increase the standard of living for more sectors of the population, thereby eliminating sources of discord. The ruling families hope that such steps will promote stability, counter the possible appeal of radical Islam, and ultimately strengthen the position of the ruling families in some form of limited constitutional monarchy.

January 26, 1994
Helen Chapin Metz

SOURCE: Country Studies/Area Handbook by the US Library of Congress

Mother Earth Travel > Country Index > United Arab Emirates > Map Economy History