December 2, 1971: what happened the day the UAE was born?

Sheikh Zayed, the Founding Father, drove himself from Abu Dhabi to Dubai the night before and camped in the desert before signing an agreement to form the Emirates and become its first President

Dawn broke on the day of the formation of the UAE as Sheikh Zayed drove towards Dubai and destiny.

According to Sheikh Zayed’s private secretary, Al Haj Al Mehairbi, the Ruler’s party left Al Manhal Palace before nightfall on December 1 and spent the evening at a camp in Al Sameeh, then open desert.

Sheikh Zayed was at the wheel of his white Mercedes 600, equipped, like all vehicles in those days before tarmac roads, with special desert tyres. He was accompanied by several of his closest advisers, including Ahmed Al Suwaidi.

Al Mehairbi, who followed the Ruler in a government Land Rover, previously told The National: “Sheikh Zayed liked to sleep in the desert. He liked to prepare. This was the leader. Sometimes he had something on his mind and around him, at the fire, were what you would call the ‘group of Zayed’.

"He was a very democratic man. He wanted to ask questions and to see what they would say. He respected others’ points of view.”

An image from the Itihad archive. Courtesy Al Itihad.
Abu Dhabi, UAE. Sheikh Zayed hunting and horse riding. *** Local Caption ***  Z (60).JPG

Mohammed Al Qudsi, a senior member of the Abu Dhabi TV team, was at what would become Union House at 2am to set up.

“We placed our camera near the flag raising, a couple inside the room where the sheikhs were going to be, and on the roof. The roof was a crucial location and the footage from that was very good.” According to some reports, Sheikh Zayed first met with Sheikh Rashid at Zabeel Palace before the two Rulers drove to the official federation ceremonies together, arriving before 10am.

“Sheikh Zayed came in an American car but with Sheikh Rashid and officials of Dubai,” Al Qudsi said. He recalled a sunny day, but cool enough for men to be wearing light jackets.

December 2, 1971, 10am:

The Rulers gather at Sheikh Rashid’s majlis on the beach in Jumeirah. Sheikh Ahmed, the Ruler of Umm Al Quwain, is unable to attend because of illness and has delegated responsibility to Sheikh Rashid, the Crown Prince and future Ruler. Sheikh Saqr, the Ruler of Ras Al Khaimah, is present as an observer.

The Rulers and their advisers gather around a horseshoe-shaped table in the circular meeting room now known as Union House, which is a round building beside the majlis. Their first task is to ratify the provisional constitution that formally brings the United Arab Emirates into existence.

The ceremony and proclamation, read by Ahmed Al Suwaidi, is filmed and broadcast live on the new Voice of the United Arab Emirates radio station, which began broadcasts that morning.

History Project 2010, "The First Day". The signing and speech at Union House, Dubai. December 2, 1971. Credit Ittihad Newspaper **EDS NOTE ***IMPORTANT** SEEK ADVISE FROM KAREN BEFORE USE

According to Al Ittihad: “Sources say that the new station will be among the most influential stations in the Gulf area. It will mainly focus on affairs relating to the new union, along with the accomplishments of the United Arab Emirates as a nation.”

11am:

The Supreme Council, formed of all six rulers, meets in private session. It elects Sheikh Zayed as President of the United Arab Emirates for five years. Sheikh Rashid is elected Vice President and his son, Sheikh Maktoum, becomes the country’s first Prime Minister.

The Supreme Council also discusses its relations with Britain and authorises the signing of a Treaty of Friendship. (According to British diplomatic reports, the radio microphone is unintentionally left on and therefore the first part of the meeting is accidentally broadcast live.)

11.30 (approx):

The leaders move outside, to be joined by delegates, guests and a throng of media. The flag is formally handed to Sheikh Zayed and raised for the first time while a 21-gun salute is fired.

Sheikh Faisal bin Sultan Al Qassimi, then under secretary of the Abu Dhabi Defence Force, recalled: “I was standing facing Sheikh Zayed as the flag was raised. I was from Abu Dhabi but at that moment I felt I was from the UAE. Wherever you were from, at least at that point you had the flag to give you unity.”

Al Mehairbi remembers the expression on Sheikh Zayed’s face as the flag was attached to the staff for the first time.

“There was something you saw in his eyes. He is thinking now: ‘OK. We are independent now.’ That is what he said in the majlis later. We are independent now. You know, like when you have a dream and you wake up. But this was real.

“His eye was on the flag. You can see it in his face. It is not the face of protocol. It is natural. His expression said: ‘This is done. This is my dream. This is the flag.’”

History Project 2010, "The First Day". Sheikh Zayed and UAE rulers at Union House in Dubai. December 2, 1971. Sheikhs pictured from left-right :
Sharjah - Sheikh Khalid Al Qasami, Abu Dhabi - Sheikh Zayed Al Nayhan (born 1981), Dubai - Sheikh Rashid Al Maktoum (born 1912) , Ajman - Sheikh Rashed Al Nuami (born 1902) Fujeirah - Sheikh Mohammed Al Sharqi, UAQ - Sheikh Ahmed Al' Mu'alla.

After the flag raising, the six rulers are persuaded to gather together at the pole by royal photographers Ramesh Shukla and Noor Ali Rashid.

“When the first flag of the UAE, made in the UAE, to symbolise us as a united country, went up, people were hugging each other that we were finally together,” Shukla said.

“I never thought even in my dreams that I would help capture the history of this place.”

11.30am: (Abu Dhabi)

News of the creation of the nation is relayed to officials at Al Manhal Palace by radio, where an identical flag-raising ceremony takes place, watched by dignitaries and guests who include famous Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum.

Mohammed Al Fahim was among those witnessing the ceremony: “I didn’t know what was happening, and just saw a red and white flag being replaced by a colourful one. I realised later what a privilege it was to witness the raising of our flag, and how lucky I was.”

He recalled Umm Kulthum as being gracious to everyone, smiling and congratulating Sheikh Khalifa, who, as Crown Prince, had remained in Abu Dhabi.

“She was patriotic, and so she was genuinely happy with the formation of the UAE,” Al Fahim said.

DUBAI.29th April 2008.Umm Kulthum  antique Indian pearl necklace at the Christie's Dubai Sale held at the Emirates Towers hotel. .Stephen Lock  /  The National. COPY PIC: Umm Kulthum with Sheikh Zayed (who gave her the necklace) taken in the early 1970's *** Local Caption *** na30-necklaceTurn.jpg

Noon:

The British delegation, led by Sir Geoffrey Arthur and with James Treadwell and Julian Walker, were waiting in the British political agency by the Creek in Dubai. They received a formal request to come to the beach majlis.

In his official report, released in early 1972, Arthur wrote: “We went to Jumeirah at noon, to be greeted by a scene of astonishing confusion in the small semi-circular room in which the Supreme Council of the UAE and their advisers had assembled.

“As I sat down on the right of the President, journalists, photographers, television cameramen and others surged forward and climbed on to the table on which the treaty was to be signed.

“My deputy [Walker] narrowly escaped a boot on his hand, and my first secretary, who was carrying the Treaty, needed skill in rugby football rather than diplomacy that day.

“After the signature, Sheikh Zayed, who is not used to public speaking, was prompted into a few friendly sentences by Ahmed Al Suwaidi; but my reply, in carefully composed classical Arabic, was fortunately lost to posterity when one of the throng of journalists inadvertently stamped or sat on the recording device.

“How it came about that nobody was injured and the documents remained intact I cannot say. When it was all over, the President, the members of the Supreme Council of the UAE, my colleagues and I had to escape by the window, thus fulfilling in reverse the words of the propagandists’ saying: ‘The British shall leave the Gulf by the front door only to return through the window.’”

Of the day, Walker now recalls: “There was a fair amount of excitement but in a way we had already got there. The big achievement and the big relief was the signing of the constitution on July 18.”

History Project 2010, "The First Day". The signing and speech at Union House, Dubai. December 2, 1971. Credit Ittihad Newspaper **EDS NOTE ***IMPORTANT** SEEK ADVISE FROM KAREN BEFORE USE

12.30pm (approx)

Official proceedings are adjourned. Sheikh Hamdan bin Rashid reads a proclamation from his father: “Agreements were signed to terminate the special contractual relations between each of our emirates. In this historic meeting we witness the declaration of the establishment of the United Arab Emirates as an independent and sovereign state.

"The aim of the new state is to provide a better life and stability for the nation, protect the rights and freedom of its citizens, achieve close co-operation among the emirates for their common good and to achieve development and progress in all fields, look forward to join Arab League and United Nations, keep in line with the Islamic causes and interests, consolidate friendship and co-operation with all friendly nations, which is based on the principles of the UN Charter and international agreements.”

Sheikh Hamdan added: “At these historic moments, as our nation in particular and the world in general is waiting for the decisions of this meeting, I pray to God to direct us to the right path, and to help us achieve our aims in this meeting.”

Waiting with the crowds at the gates of the majlis was Taru Shukla, whose husband Ramesh was photographing the event.

“I was to wait for him to collect the films and take them back for developing as soon as possible,” she remembered.

After three hours, Shukla emerged and handed over more than a dozen rolls of film to his wife, who made her way back to the studio to start developing them, while Shukla returned briefly to the majlis to take more photographs.

The next day, one of Shukla’s favourite photos emerged – that of Sheikh Zayed speaking into a reporter’s recorder. Ms Shukla blew up the photograph and Shukla tucked it under his arm and had Sheikh Zayed sign it in green ink.

DUBAI UNITED ARAB EMIRATES. 22 NOVEMBER 2020. Photographer and painter Ramesh Shukla, at his home in Dubai. Ramesh took pictures of the Spirit of the Union in 1970 and has been steadily documenting the UAE throughout the years ammasing a body of work unparralled in the history of the country. (Photo: Antonie Robertson/The National) Journalist: Kelly Clarke. Section: National.

“Of all the moments that day, this is my favourite,” Shukla said. “The photo captures the moment when Sheikh Zayed became one of the most powerful men in the world.”

Al Mehairbi remembers Sheikh Zayed surrounded by a throng of international reporters who bombarded him with questions. After the failure of other Arab unions, including the United Arab Republic between Egypt and Syria, many Arab journalists were sceptical that the UAE would survive for more than a few months.

The new President responded calmly, telling them: “I wish now that you could see us after one year. Then you will see.”

Outside the gates of Union House, few ordinary people realised the day’s significance.

Deena Motiwalla moved to Dubai with her husband, Bomi, in 1970. They lived on the edge of the Creek in Deira.

“I don’t remember there being much about it in the newspapers leading up to the event,” she said, “but we were all talking amongst ourselves: What will happen? What shall we do? Will there be parades?

“In those days everybody could go anywhere – there was no need to have special passes or invitations.

“We were very happy that the emirates were getting together ... We all felt that it was a very good thing that they were going to make a country. We felt very patriotic, even though we came from India, because there was such a welcome for everybody at that time.

“Despite that, we took the events in our stride and never thought that the signing of the treaty was a historic moment, just that it was good that the country was getting together.

“On the day itself we didn’t go along to Union House after all. I don’t remember exactly why – it was only going to be the sheikhs and we often saw them anyway – especially Sheikh Rashid, who would often drive around always sitting in the front seat – and if we were downstairs he would wave and say hello as he passed. We did go along a couple of days afterwards to see the new flagpole, though.”

Deena Motiwalla in 1970 outside Al Mulla building – her first home in Dubai. Photo: Deena Motiwalla

Len Chapman, then living in Dubai, remembers: “I lived in Jumeirah Beach Road in those days, not far from the Summer Palace. We went to have a look. A small crowd surrounded the roundabout outside the Palace but there was not much to see. The dignitaries drove out in their cars at the end of the event.

“After that, life went back to normal. I don’t recall any public celebration or flags being flown from street lamps.”

But Saeed Salem Al Muhairbi, the captain of Sheikh Zayed’s dhow, Al Magam, recalled: “When the union just started there were a lot of celebrations. We saw red flags everywhere. Every one received Sheikh Zayed with joy and happiness.”

Afternoon:

The six leaders are reported to have received well-wishers in Sheikh Rashid’s majlis before travelling to Zabeel Palace for lunch, while the media departed to file their reports.

9pm:

Some recalled that Sheikh Zayed spent the night in Dubai. Al Mehairbi said Sheikh Zayed went to his residence at Al Khawaneej, informally receiving congratulations before returning to Abu Dhabi later. This version of events is also supported by Mohammed Al Fahim, whose father was a member of the Abu Dhabi party in Dubai and who did not return to the new capital of the UAE for several days.

However, Al Ittihad reported that Sheikh Zayed “returned to Abu Dhabi yesterday – Thursday – at 9pm after the historic meeting. He was greeted by Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed, the Al Nahyan sheikhs and members of the public who cheered and applauded him. Once he stepped out of the plane, he repeated thrice: ‘Praise to Allah for all His graces.’ After shaking hands with his greeters, he got into the car towards his palace.”

*A version of this story first appeared in The National in 2010 but has been republished to mark the UAE's 50th National Day.

Updated: December 2nd 2021, 10:47 AM