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When the United Arab Emirates Won Independence From Britain

December 2, 1971, National Day Festival

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UAE national day festival dubai

The face of Dubai: a young girl decked out in the United Arab Emirates' colors celebrates National Day Festival, marking the day, on Dec. 2, 1971, the seven-sheikhdom UAE won independence from Britain.

Chris Jackson/Getty Images

Before The Emirates

Before its re-creation as the United Arab Emirates in 1971, the UAE was known as the Trucial States, a collection of sheikhdoms extending from the Straits of Hormuz to the west along the Persian Gulf. It wasn’t a country so much as an expanse of loosely defined sheikhdoms spreading over some 32,000 square miles (83,000 sq. km), about the size of the state of Maine.

For centuries the region was mired in rivalries between local emirs on land while pirates scoured the seas and used the states’ shores as their refuge. Britain began attacking pirates to protect its trade with India. That led to British ties with the Trucial States’ emirs. The ties were formalized in 1820 as Britain offered protection in exchange for exclusivity: the emirs, accepting a truce brokered by Britain, pledged not to cede any land to nay powers or make any treaties with anyone except Britain. They also agreed to settle subsequent disputes through British authorities. The subservient relationship was to last a century and a half, until 1971.

Britain Gives Up

By then, Britain’s imperial overreach was exhausted politically and bankrupt financially. Britain decided in 1971 to abandon Bahrain, Qatar and the Trucial States, by then made up of seven emirates. Britain’s original aim was to combine all nine entities into a united federation.

Bahrain and Qatar balked, preferring independence on their own. With one exception, the Emirates agreed to the joint venture, risky as it seemed: the Arab world had, until then, never known a successful federation of disparate pieces, let alone bicker-prone emirs with egos enough to enrich the sandy landscape.

Independence: December 2, 1971

The six emirates that agreed to join in the federation were Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Ajman, Al Fujayrah, Sharjah, and Quwayn. On Dec. 2, 1971, the six emirates declared their independence from Bitain and called themselves the United Arab Emirates. (Ras al Khaymah initially opted out, but eventually joined the federation in February 1972).

Sheikh Zaid ben Sultan, Emir of Abu Dhabi, the richest of the seven emirates, was the union’s first president, followed by Sheikh Rashid ben Saeed of Dubai, the second-richest emirate. Abu Dhabi and Dubai have oil reserves. The remaining emirates do not. The union signed a treaty of friendship with Britain and declared itself part of the Arab Nation. It was by no means democratic, and rivalries among the emirates didn’t cease. The union was ruled by a 15-member council, subsequently reduced to seven—one seat for each of the unelected emirs. Half the 40-seat legislative Federal National Council is appointed by the seven emirs; 20 members are elected to 2-year terms by 6,689 Emiratis, including 1,189 women, who are all appointed by seven emirs. There are no free elections or political parties in the Emirates.

Iran’s Power Play

Two days before the emirates declared their independence, Iranian troops landed on Abu Musa Island in the Persian Gulf and the two Tunb islands that dominate the Straits of Hormuz at the entrance to the Persian Gulf. Those islands belonged to Rais el Khaima Emirate.

The Shah of Iran contended that Britain had wrongfully granted the islands to the emirates 150 years before. He was retaking them, he alleged, to look after oil tankers traveling through the Straits. The Shah’s reasoning was more expedience than logic: the emirates had no way to endanger oil shipments, though Iran very much did.

Britain's Enduring Complicity in Complications

The Iranian troop landing, however, was arranged with Sheikh Khaled al Kassemu of the Sharja Emirate in exchange for $3.6 million over nine years and Iran’s pledge that if oil were discovered on the Island, Iran and Sharja would split the proceeds. The arrangement cost Sharja's ruler his life: Shaikh Khalid ibn Muhammad was gunned down in a coup attempt.

Britain itself was complicit in the occupation as it explicitly agreed to let Iranian troops take over the Island one day before independence.

By timing the occupation on Britain’s watch, Britain was hoping to relieve the emirates of the burden of an international crisis. But the dispute over the islands hung over relations between Iran and the Emirates for decades. Iran still controls the islands.

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