'The most precious of things': Sheikh Zayed and the road to the union

Fifty years ago, the formation of the UAE seemed far from certain

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Milestones on the road to union

1970

October 26: Bahrain withdraws from a proposal to create a federation of nine with the seven Trucial States and Qatar. 

December: Ahmed Al Suwaidi visits New York to discuss potential UN membership.

1971

March 1:  Alex Douglas Hume, Conservative foreign secretary confirms that Britain will leave the Gulf and “strongly supports” the creation of a Union of Arab Emirates.

July 12: Historic meeting at which Sheikh Zayed and Sheikh Rashid make a binding agreement to create what will become the UAE.

July 18: It is announced that the UAE will be formed from six emirates, with a proposed constitution signed. RAK is not yet part of the agreement.

August 6:  The fifth anniversary of Sheikh Zayed becoming Ruler of Abu Dhabi, with official celebrations deferred until later in the year.

August 15: Bahrain becomes independent.

September 3: Qatar becomes independent.

November 23-25: Meeting with Sheikh Zayed and Sheikh Rashid and senior British officials to fix December 2 as date of creation of the UAE.

November 29:  At 5.30pm Iranian forces seize the Greater and Lesser Tunbs by force.

November 30: Despite  a power sharing agreement, Tehran takes full control of Abu Musa. 

November 31: UK officials visit all six participating Emirates to formally end the Trucial States treaties

December 2: 11am, Dubai. New Supreme Council formally elects Sheikh Zayed as President. Treaty of Friendship signed with the UK. 11.30am. Flag raising ceremony at Union House and Al Manhal Palace in Abu Dhabi witnessed by Sheikh Khalifa, then Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi.

December 6: Arab League formally admits the UAE. The first British Ambassador presents his credentials to Sheikh Zayed.

December 9: UAE joins the United Nations.

It is December 2, 1970. The date has no significance in the calendar of the UAE, a country that in any case, does not yet exist, except as an idea.

All that is certain is the clock is ticking. In 12 months, Britain will leave the Arabian Gulf after well over a century of rule.

The empire is gone, and London no longer has the money or motivation to defend a region so far from its shores.

For the people of those lands, British protectorates that include Bahrain, Qatar, and the seven emirates of Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Sharjah, Ras Al Khaimah, Fujairah, Ajman and Umm al Quwain, known as the Trucial States, the future is clouded with uncertainty.

Only in Abu Dhabi’s Al Manhal Palace is there confidence and resolve. It is here that the Ruler, Sheikh Zayed, confers daily with a tight knit circle of his closest advisers to plan a new country.

In 12 months' time, on December 2, 2021, the UAE will celebrate its 50th anniversary. What seems today like a clear path to nationhood, was at the time a road full of many twists and difficulties.

Talks had dragged on for nearly three years. The original goal of a nine-strong “Union of Arab Emirates” that would include Bahrain and Qatar is beginning to crumble.

By October 1970, Bahrain had declared it would go it alone, withdrawing from further talks on a draft constitution for the new union as a prelude to independence the following August. Qatar would shortly do the same.

Meanwhile, Iran prowled like a hungry predator waiting for the British warships and fighter aircraft to leave. Tehran continued to press an old imperial Persian claim over Bahrain as its “14th Province”, while casting covetous eyes over Sharjah’s Abu Musa island, and the Greater and Lesser Tunbs, offshore possessions of Ras Al Khaimah.

The best – probably the only – hope for survival, Sheikh Zayed knew, was for the remaining seven to become one.

There is strong evidence that he saw this coming long before Britain’s centre-left Labour government abandoned its commitment to protect the Gulf in 1968.

A year earlier, when Ruler for barely a year, Sheikh Zayed had puzzled British officials by making a formal request for full copies of all 18 agreements and treaties between London and Abu Dhabi.

Now, in December 1970, he confounded Britain again, this time by sending perhaps his closest adviser, the future Minister of Foreign Affairs, Ahmed Al Suwaidi to New York for preliminary talks about United Nations membership, dismissed by London as “freelance activity".

The first six months of 1971 brought little in the way of good news. In early March, the UK foreign minister, Alec Douglas-Home, affirmed in parliament that all existing treaties protecting the region “will cease by the end of 1971".

British diplomats spent much of the first months of 1971 taking the temperature from Washington to the capitals of the Middle East, attempting to assess the viability of the proposed new country, which despite Abu Dhabi’s new oil wealth would have a fragile and fragmented infrastructure.

Promises were made of continuing military support, including developing the existing Trucial Oman Scouts as a new national army. But behind the scenes there was growing pessimism.

“So far little practical progress has been made in spite of very great efforts on our part,” Antony Acland, a senior British diplomat who had served in Dubai, reported in January.

History Project 2010, "The First Day". From the Al Itihad Union Day collection (AL Manhal Palace folder 1) November - December 1971.  Photograph of events and meetings inside Al Manhal Palace, Abu Dhabi. **needs to be confirmed***

Another confidential briefing, prepared for the UK foreign secretary that month, noted that future planning was “based on the proposition that there will be a viable Union. This is unlikely.”

To the question “What will happen if there is no Union?”, the foreign secretary responded “There remains a general recognition in the area that the very small states of the Trucial Coast can no longer retain a wholly separate identity in the world of today.”

Events came to a climax in July. A meeting of all seven Rulers at Sheikh Rashid’s Jumeirah majlis on July 10 made little progress. Privately, British officials watching the negotiations began to worry that the Northern Emirates might instead seek closer ties with Oman or Saudi Arabia.

Quote
A man would give a lot for something he deems precious. And the union is the most precious of things

Yet, just two days later, the deal was done. Meeting in private, Sheikh Zayed and Sheikh Rashid made a binding pledge to create a union of their emirates.

On July 18, 1971 the formal announcement was made of a signed temporary constitution of the UAE beginning with the words “It is our desire and the desire of our people of our emirates to establish a union between these emirates to promote a better life, more enduring stability and a higher international status for the emirates and their people".

Many obstacles remained but the momentum was now unstoppable. On August 6, Sheikh Zayed postponed celebrations for the 5th anniversary of his accession until the end of November, observing “It is the establishment of the union which compels us all to give it all the effort and hard work we can to fulfil the will of the people in this region".

Iran proved the major stumbling block. Diplomatic pressure forced Tehran to give up its claims on Bahrain, which achieved full independence on August 15, followed by Qatar on September 3.

The unborn UAE was forced to wait longer and talks dragged on. In the end, an attempt to broker a power-sharing deal over Abu Musa saw Iran use military action on the evening of November 30 to take over the island.

At the same time, it seized the Greater and Lesser Tunbs, despite heroic resistance that would see the death of a local policemen, Salem bin Khamis, whose name many years later would become the first carved on the Wahat Al Karama memorial to those killed in service to their country.

The date for the foundation of the UAE was finally agreed on November 25, and set for just a week later, on December 2. A day before what would become National Day, a confident Sheikh Zayed gave an interview to Al Ittihad newspaper.

“A man would give a lot for something he deems precious,” the man, who in 24 hours would become the UAE’s first President, told his people.

“And the union is the most precious of things.”

_________________

Sheikh Zayed and the story of a nation

Milestones on the road to union

1970

October 26: Bahrain withdraws from a proposal to create a federation of nine with the seven Trucial States and Qatar. 

December: Ahmed Al Suwaidi visits New York to discuss potential UN membership.

1971

March 1:  Alex Douglas Hume, Conservative foreign secretary confirms that Britain will leave the Gulf and “strongly supports” the creation of a Union of Arab Emirates.

July 12: Historic meeting at which Sheikh Zayed and Sheikh Rashid make a binding agreement to create what will become the UAE.

July 18: It is announced that the UAE will be formed from six emirates, with a proposed constitution signed. RAK is not yet part of the agreement.

August 6:  The fifth anniversary of Sheikh Zayed becoming Ruler of Abu Dhabi, with official celebrations deferred until later in the year.

August 15: Bahrain becomes independent.

September 3: Qatar becomes independent.

November 23-25: Meeting with Sheikh Zayed and Sheikh Rashid and senior British officials to fix December 2 as date of creation of the UAE.

November 29:  At 5.30pm Iranian forces seize the Greater and Lesser Tunbs by force.

November 30: Despite  a power sharing agreement, Tehran takes full control of Abu Musa. 

November 31: UK officials visit all six participating Emirates to formally end the Trucial States treaties

December 2: 11am, Dubai. New Supreme Council formally elects Sheikh Zayed as President. Treaty of Friendship signed with the UK. 11.30am. Flag raising ceremony at Union House and Al Manhal Palace in Abu Dhabi witnessed by Sheikh Khalifa, then Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi.

December 6: Arab League formally admits the UAE. The first British Ambassador presents his credentials to Sheikh Zayed.

December 9: UAE joins the United Nations.

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