The Story of the U.A.E.

Pre-20th Century History

Not long ago, the UAE was a land of desert inhabited by proud and resourceful nomadic Bedouin tribes, fishing villages and date farms.  Abu Dhabi consisted of several hundred palm huts (barasti) huts, a few coral buildings and the Ruler's Fort.  Situated along the creek, Dubai was a trading hub, providing a safe haven before the Straits of Hormuz and beyond.  Life today in the Emirates bears little resemblance to that of 40 years ago.

Parts of the UAE were settled as far back as the 3rd millennium BC and its early history fits the nomadic, herding and fishing pattern typical of the broader region. The Bedouin tribe was the principal building block of UAE society.  Bedouin, which means desert-dweller, lived in varied terrain - moving between the ocean (where pearl diving and fishing were the main forms of sustenance), the desert (moving as nomads for grazing areas for the camels and herds) and the oasis (where water sources and irrigation allowed for farming of dates and vegetables).  One can still see the luxuriant date farms in Al Ain and irrigated terraced gardens in the mountain wadis (valleys).

The Bedouin were known for their resourcefulness and independence in the face of a harsh environment.  Their code of hospitality continues today among the modern Emirati population, who show great respect and honor to guests. 

The Portuguese arrived in 1498 when Vasco de Gamma circumnavigated the Cape of Good Hope.  Portugese forts and the forts of their local supporters are evident in and around the various Emirates and nearby Oman.  The British then followed, asserting their naval power to safeguard trade links to India. 

The British came into conflict with the Qawasim tribal group, a seafaring clan whose influence extended to the Persian side of the Gulf. As a result, the area acquired the name "Pirate Coast".  In the 1820's, the British fleet the Qawasim navy, imposed a General Treaty of Peace on the nine Arab sheikhdoms, and established a garrison in the region.  The area became known as the Trucial Coast until the creation of the UAE in 1971.

Throughout this period, the main power among the Bedouin tribes of the interior was the Bani Yas tribal confederation, made up of the ancestors of the ruling families of modern Abu Dhabi (Al Nahyan) and Dubai (Al Maktoum). Descendents of these families rule Abu Dhabi and Dubai to this day.

During the colonial era, the British were primarily concerned with protecting their links to India and keeping any European competitors out of the area. 

20th Century History

As the new century unfolded, Abu Dhabi was one of the poorest emirates, while Sharjah was the most populated and powerful.  The region remained a quiet backwater of fishing villages, pearling, camel herding and farming in the oasis.  In the 1930's the pearl industry was devastated by the Japanese invention of the cultured pearl, creating significant hardship for the local population with the loss of thier largest export and main source of earnings.

However, all that changed with the discovery of oil. 

The first oil concessions were granted in 1939 by Sheikh Shakhbut Bin-Sultan Al Nahyan, but oil was not found for another 14 years. At first, oil money had a marginal impact.  In Abu Dhabi, a few lowrise concete buildings were erected, and the first paved road was completed in 1961, but Sheikh Shakbut, uncertain whether the new oil royalties would last, took a cautious approach, preferring to save the revenue rather than investing it in development. His brother, Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahayan, saw that oil wealth had the potential to transform Abu Dhabi.

The ruling Al Nahayan family decided that Sheikh Zayed should replace his brother as Ruler and carry out his vision of developing the country.  Exports from Abu Dhabi began in 1962, turning the poorest of the emirates into the richest.  Dubai concentrated on building its reputation as the region's busiest trading post.  Then, in the mid 1960's, Dubai found oil of its own.  On August 6, 1966, with the assistance of the British, Sheikh Zayed became the new ruler. 

(Reading Resource: Al-Fahim, M, From Rags to Riches: A Story of Abu Dhabi, Chapter Six (London Centre of Arab Studies, 1995), ISBN 1 900404 00 1)

In 1968 Britain announced its intention to leave the Gulf in 1971. The original plan was to form a single state consisting of Bahrain, Qatar and the Trucial Coast states.  However, differing interests made it unsuccessful.  Negotiations eventually led to the independence of Bahrain and Qatar and the formation of a new federation - the United Arab Emirates. 

In July 1971, six of the Trucial States (Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Sharjah, Umm al-Qaiwain, Ajman and Fujairah) agreed on a Federal Constitution for achieving independence as the United Arab Emirates. The UAE became independent on 2 December 1971.  The remaining sheikhdom, Ras Al Khaimah, joined the United Arab Emirates in February 1972.   Sheikh Zayed of Abu Dhabi (the namesake of the University and driving force for the creation of the UAE) took office as the first President of the United Arab Emirates.


Today, the UAE is a major international tourist and business center as well as one of the most modern, stable and safe countries in the world. 

It has one of the highest per capita incomes in the world at nearly $25,000 USD.  The UAE has approximately 10% of the world's total known oil reserves, 90% in Abu Dhabi and about 10% in Dubai.  While the Abu Dhabi reserves are expected to last another 100 years, at present rates of production Dubai's reserves will last only another ten years. 

Fortunately, the UAE is no longer solely reliant on oil and gas revenues.  Today, the oil sector contributes 30% of the country's GDP.  Thanks to the foresight of the UAE leaders, trade, tourism, real estate and construction are large contributors, most notably in Dubai.