UAE birth overcame friction and disputes

Sheikh Zayed's vision and persistence were the key to stitching the seven emirates into a unified country.

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ABU DHABI // Historical papers released yesterday reveal fractious relations around the time the UAE was founded, including rivalries and international territorial disputes. Julian Walker, a retired member of the British Foreign Office, presented an insider's perspective on the creation of the UAE at the Centre for Documentation and Research's International History Conference in the capital this week.

Mr Walker worked with the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan to stitch the seven emirates into a unified country. People with close links to the Government at the time of federation have presented academic papers based on their recollections and later research. Dozens of academics, diplomats and government officials also spoke during the three-day conference. Mr Walker noted that in 1968 the British were ending their involvement in the region and announced they would withdraw from the Gulf states for financial and political reasons.

This left the British protectorates, which also included Bahrain and Qatar, only a few years to form independent nations. Sheikh Zayed met with Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum, the then-ruler of Dubai, to form a union between the two emirates, which had warred over their borders only a generation before. Dubai initially had hoped it could survive as an independent city-state under the protection of Iran, which was then the dominant military force in the Gulf, Mr Walker said.

Sheikh Zayed eventually convinced Sheikh Rashid that a unified country was necessary to prevent fighting among the Northern emirates, which might draw other Gulf states into a wider conflict. Bahrain and Qatar eventually pulled out of talks and formed their own states. Mr Walker said that, at the time, those nations did not need to form an alliance because they had greater oil wealth, better developed infrastructures and their citizens had received better educations.

While the Northern emirates argued over boundaries, Ras al Khaimah quit the negotiations as it was not granted membership into the UAE on the same terms as Abu Dhabi and Dubai. The planned union of nine emirates had become a union of six but, in December of 1971, the UAE was formed. It already faced an uncertain future as Saudi Arabia had an ongoing border dispute with Abu Dhabi, and the Iranians were furthering their own territorial ambitions.

As part of its agreement with the UN to leave Bahrain, the shah of Iran pressed his claim over the three islands that sit in the Strait of Hormuz, to the north of the UAE. Just before the British handover, Iran occupied the islands of Abu Musa, and the Greater and Lesser Tunbs. "It was certainly an occupation and it was occupied by force, and there was nothing we [the British] could do about it," Mr Walker said. "The shah was the great power in the lower Gulf."

John Duke Anthony, the president of the National Council on US-Arab Relations and a professor at Georgetown University in Washington, DC, said the Iranians "gave the residents of the Tunbs two options. They could become citizens of Iran, or they could return to Ras al Khaimah. All 120 returned to Ras l Khaimah." Abu Musa was divided into two parts: the northern tip went to Iran, while the southern section was granted to Sharjah.

The dispute with Iran continues to this day. Ras al Khaimah joined the UAE in February of 1972. Zaki Anwar Nusseibeh, the deputy chairman of the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage, said diplomats and international media were sceptical of the new nation's ability to survive. At the time of federation, Mr Nusseibeh was a journalist working for the new Abu Dhabi civil service department. The UAE was formed in a time of regional instability, had a small military force and no protection from the British, and emerging oil reserves, he said. "All the observers believed that this new political entity was poorly equipped to survive as an independent state."

Newspapers pointed to the factional disputes between the leaders of the emirates, and the fact that the British had given the UAE little time to create the administration and military it would need to run and protect a modern state. All of the speakers credited the work of Sheikh Zayed in helping the country overcome the odds. Mr Anthony said the late ruler was able to stitch the nation together by being pragmatic. "He was no idealogue or starry-eyed visionary," he said.

Mr Walker agreed: "The UAE owes much to the initiative, persistence and generosity of Sheikh Zayed." Papers presented at the conference will be compiled into a book that will be made available to the public next week. Each paper was accompanied by a lecture, which is available online at the centre's website at