Early Years: The United Arab Emirates (UAE) was formed from the group of tribally organized Arabian Peninsula sheikhdoms along the southern coast of the Persian Gulf and the northwestern coast of the Gulf of Oman. This area was converted to Islam in the seventh century and forcenturies afterward was embroiled in dynastic disputes. Most UAE nationals are descended from two tribal groupings, the Qawasim and the Bani Yas, which emerged as leading powers in the eighteenth century. The Qawasim, mainly land and sea traders, dominated what are today the emirates of Ras al Khaymah and Sharjah. The Bani Yas, who were agricultural and pastoral, lived in what are today the emirates of Abu Dhabi and Dubai. From the seventeenth to the nineteenth century, the area became known as the Pirate Coast, as both European and Arab pirates attacked foreign ships. The British mounted expeditions against the pirates during this period, culminating in an 1818 campaign against the pirate headquarters of Ras al Khaymah and other harbors along the coast. This action ostensibly was taken to safeguard British maritime routes, particularly those of the British East India Company, but some historians have noted that the war was in fact motivated by the British desire to establish supremacy in the region against the claims of other European powers.
British Rule: In 1820 Britain concluded a general treaty of peace with the principal sheikhs of the Pirate Coast and Bahrain. Its purpose was to end plundering and piracy and to establish a commitment to desist from the slave trade. The 1820 treaty includes the first denunciation of the slave trade ever written into a formal treaty. However, this treaty did not in practice prevent regular warfare at sea among the tribes of the coast, and in 1835 the sheikhs agreed to a new truce, pursuant to which they agreed to report aggression to British political or naval authorities rather than to retaliate themselves. This truce was renewed several times until May 1853, with the signing of a treaty to bring a complete halt to all hostilities at sea, establishing a “perpetual maritime truce.” The truce was supervised by Britain, to whom the signatories referred all violations. The coastal sheikhdoms now became known as the Trucial Coast, stemming from the treaties signed with the British that resulted in the maritime truce, or as Trucial Oman, because the treaties separated the sheikhdoms from Oman. These terms remained in use until 1971, upon independence from Britain.
In 1892, as France, Germany, and Russia were developing an interest in the Gulf Region, Britain and the sheikhs of the Trucial Coast signed a new treaty, known as the “Exclusive Agreement.” Under this treaty, the sheikhs agreed not to enter into any agreement or correspondence with any power other than Britain and not to cede, sell, or mortgage any part of their territory to anyone other than Britain without British consent. From this period until independence in 1971, the individual coastal sheikhdoms were under British protection, which meant that Britain assumed responsibility for their defense and external relations, while the sheikhdoms followed the traditional form of Arab monarchy, i.e., each ruler had virtually absolute power over his subjects.
Road to Independence: In 1952 Britain recommended that the rulers of the seven sheihkdoms establish the Trucial Council to encourage the adoption of common policies in administrative matters, possibly leading to a federation of states. The rulers met at least twice a year under the chairmanship of the political agent in Dubai.
Since 1958, when petroleum was first discovered beneath the coastal waters of Abu Dhabi, petroleum assets have largely determined the power structure and relative prestige of the emirates. Onshore petroleum was found in Abu Dhabi in 1960, and commercial production followed in 1962, providing significant wealth to the sheikhdom, which remains the largest and most affluent emirate. Sheikh Shakhbut ibn Sultan Al Nuhayyan, who had ruled Abu Dhabi since
1928, failed to use the income from petroleum royalties to develop the sheikhdom and was deposed in 1966. He was replaced by his younger brother, Sheikh Zayid ibn Sultan Al Nuhayyan, under whose rule Abu Dhabi was transformed, with considerable income from the petroleum industry allocated for public works and the provision of welfare services. In 1966 petroleum was discovered in Dubai, which prospered greatly from this new wealth.
Independence: In 1968 the United Kingdom announced its decision, reaffirmed in March 1971, to end the treaty relationships with the seven Trucial Coast states and to withdraw British military forces from the area. In March 1968, the Trucial Coast states joined Bahrain and Qatar (which had also been under British protection) to form the Federation of Arab Emirates, but Bahrain and Qatar seceded from the federation in 1971, opting for separate independence. In July 1971, six of the Trucial States (Abu Dhabi, Ajman, Al Fujayrah, Dubai, Sharjah, and Umm al Qaywayn) agreed on a federal constitution for achieving independence as the United Arab Emirates (UAE). On December 1, 1971, the United Kingdom terminated all existing treaties with the Trucial Coast states, and independence was declared the following day. The seventh sheikhdom, Ras al Khaymah, joined the UAE in February 1972. At the time of independence, Sheikh Zayid ibn Sultan Al Nuhayyan of Abu Dhabi was named the first president of the UAE, a role he fulfilled until his death in 2004. The ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Rashid ibn Said Al Maktum, became vice president, and his eldest son, Sheikh Maktum ibn Rashid Al Maktum, the crown prince of Dubai, was named prime minister. In 1986 Sheikh Rashid assumed the posts of both vice president and prime minister, but on his death in 1990 Sheikh Maktum succeeded his father as ruler of Dubai and as vice president and prime minister of the UAE.
In 1971 the UAE adopted a provisional constitution that was intended to expire after five years but it was in fact renewed until the adoption of a permanent constitution in 1996. The government was centralized further in 1976, when the federal government attained control over defense, intelligence services, immigration, public security, and border control.