UAE national flag: What do the colours mean?

Following a series of raids in the Arabian Gulf in the early 1800s, a treaty with Britain required ships to display 'friendly' flags, prompting the introduction of new designs

Powered by automated translation

The story of the UAE flag is well known, but one always worth retelling.

It was created by Abdullah Mohammed Al Maainah, then just 19, after reading a newspaper article about a contest to design the new nation’s flag.

Mr Al Maainah, who much later would become the UAE ambassador to Chile, only realised he won as he watched the flag being raised for the first time at Mushrif Palace on December 2, 1971.

The flag is celebrated every year on Flag Day, on November 3.

But the full story of flags in the UAE is much older than 50 years. It can be traced back hundreds of years when the sailing dhows of the Arabian Gulf often identified themselves with a red flag, usually in the form of a pennant fluttering from the mast.

How each emirate got its flag before the unification

For British naval ships that increasingly patrolled the Gulf in the early 19th century, though, red flags signalled a potential enemy.

A series of destructive raids by Britain along the coast of the Northern Emirates resulted in a series of enforced treaties, or truces, that effectively gave the British control over the Gulf, and the emirates the name “Trucial States”.

The 1819 General Treaty also established how Arab shipping along the Gulf should identify themselves as non-hostile.

“The friendly Arabs shall carry by land and sea a red flag, with or without letters in it, at their option,” it specified.

“This shall be in a border of white, the breadth of the white in the border being equal to the breadth of the red, as represented in the margin (the whole forming the flag known in the British Navy by the title of white pierced red).”

It concluded “this shall be the flag of the friendly Arabs, and they shall use it, and no other”.

In practice, the designs varied between states, from Bahrain to Ras Al Khaimah. Among the seven Trucial States that now form the UAE, five distinct flags emerged, some with the ruler’s personal touch.

Much later, in the 1950s, the British established the Trucial States Council, a consultative body for the rulers of the seven emirates, and which, almost forgotten, was also given a flag that featured a green seven-point star and a white and red design.

These three shades, along with black, are generally known as the Pan Arab colours, and feature on the flags of nine Arab countries, including the UAE.

Here is the complete guide to the flags of the UAE, past and present.

The current UAE flag

Mr Al Maainah’s design is a green, white and black horizontal tricolour with a vertical red band nearest the flagpole.

To see if it had been chosen, he ran to Mushrif Palace and peeked through the fence as it was raised for the first time on the morning of December 2, 1971.

“There was no wind that day, so I waited until there was a draft to make sure that the flag up there at the pole was mine,” he told The National.

The colours can be interpreted in a number of ways. According to Mr Al Maainah, the black is for the early years of Islam and the first two Caliphates.

Green represented the Caliphate of the Fatimids, who ruled out of Egypt, while Red was the Ottoman flag and represented blood.

Finally, white symbolised the Prophet Mohammed’s first victory, at the Battle of Badr in 624 CE, but also peace.

Other variations of the Pan Arab colours attribute red to the Hashemite dynasty, but also a quote from the 14th century Iraqi poet Safi Al Din Al Hilli: “White are our acts, black our battles, green our fields, and red our swords”.

The first use of these colours was in the flag of the Arab Revolt in 1916. The design is said to have been selected by Hussein bin Ali, the Sharif of Makkah and leader of the revolt.

He is reported to have been presented with a number of alternatives created by a British diplomat, Sir Mark Sykes.

Ironically, Sykes, with the French diplomat François Picot, would that year also draw up the infamous Sykes-Picot Agreement, which created many of the divisions in the Middle East that still exist today.

Abu Dhabi's flag

The flag of Abu Dhabi is still occasionally seen today. It is red, with a white square in the top corner.

In fact, this is a relatively new version. Until the late 1950s, Abu Dhabi used a plain red flag, at least on land.

In 1958, the then Ruler of Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Shakbut bin Sultan Al Nahyan, announced to Britain that he would be adding a white square “on its upper side corner to take one third of the width and slightly more than one third of the length of the flag”.

It was flown for the first time on February 27, 1958, and was used for state occasions until December 1971, when the UAE flag was adopted.

Dubai and Ajman's flag

The flag of Dubai is red, with a white band next to the hoist, as the flag staff is technically known. In the early 1960s, oil companies also agreed to fly the Dubai flag when operating in the emirate. Ajman’s official flag also uses the same design.

Sharjah and Ras Al Khaimah's flag

The fact Sharjah and Ras Al Khaimah use the same design is also a reflection of their past, with both Emirates ruled by branches of the Al Qasimi family.

The flag is red with a white border, whose width is a quarter of the total and most closely resembles the design proposed by the British in the 1820, perhaps unsurprisingly, since the British military expeditions that led to the signing of the treaty were directed at the Al Qasimis.

Umm Al Quwain's flag

The flag of Umm Al Quwain is a design created in 1961 by the ruler, Sheikh Ahmad bin Rashid Al Mualla, who had ruled the Emirate since 1928 and was the oldest leader at the ceremony to create the UAE in 1971.

The flag features a white band next to the hoist, white crescent moon and a five-point star, both symbols of Islam.

According to British diplomatic files, the ruler initially wished a plain red background, but added a white band after it was pointed out the original design might be confused with the flag of Turkey. Its official use was confirmed in May, 1961.

Before that date, Umm Al Quwain had adopted the same design as Dubai and Ajman.

Fujairah's flag

Fujairah’s flag reflects its history. At the time of the signing of the General Treaty with Britain in 1819, it was considered part of the Sultanate of Muscat, and adopted the plain red flag used there. Around 1850, it came under Sharjah, and was accepted as an emirate in 1902, although the UK government did not recognise it as a Trucial State until 1952.

The Ruler of Fujairah, Sheikh Mohammed bin Hamad Al Sharqi, at this point replaced the red flag with one that included the name of the emirate in white Arabic letters.

In 1961, Fujairah is understood to have reverted to the old red flag until 1975, when the current ruler, Sheikh Hamad bin Mohammed Al Sharqi, replaced it with the flag of the UAE.

The flag of the Trucial States Council

Established in 1952, the Trucial States Council was a consultative body set up by the UK and chaired by the political agent, Britain’s top administrative official who was replaced by an ambassador in 1971.

The council consisted of the rulers of the seven emirates, but lacked funding and met just twice a year. It did, however, have a flag. The design incorporated red stripes at the top and bottom, with white between, and a seven-point green star in the centre, each point presumably to represent an emirate.

The flag is almost identical with that of Lebanon, which features a cedar tree rather than a star, but there is no indication this in anything other than a coincidence.

It does not seem to have been widely used, but badges of the Trucial Oman Scouts, the paramilitary force established by Britain, sometimes use a similar colour scheme, with the crossed khanjar daggers of the regiment instead of a star.

Updated: November 29, 2022, 7:23 AM