The collective Arab shiekhdoms of The United Arab Emirates, UAE, had settlements as far back as the Late Stone Age (5500 BC) when the climate was wetter and humid than it is today. The early settlers were most likely to be skilled herders who for the most part of winter, lived along the coasts and offshore islands, where fishing and shellfish gathering were the main pursuit and moved into the interior in summer where pastoralism and eventually, horticulture were practiced. These settlers, however, were far from being isolated as there are evidence of contacts with the outside world, most notably to the north with the Mesopotamian civilization (southern Iraq).
Around the 3rd century BC, the Umm an-Nar period began near the site of modern Abu Dhabi. Its influence extended to a large part of the interior and along the shorelines of what is now Oman. According to textual sources from Mesopotamia (which referred to the area as ‘Magan’), the area may have been the seat of power for the ‘Lords of Magan’ against whom, several of the Old Akkadian rulers (southern Mesopotamia) waged campaigns in the 23rd century BC.
In 240 AD, arose the Sasanian dynasty in south western Iran where its influence spread to most of eastern Arabia, which included the UAE. The influence brought Sasanian Zoroastrianism and Nestorian Christianity to the region which would have inevitably, eroded much of Arab paganism. In 630 AD, the arrivals of envoys from the Prophet Muhammad heralded the conversion of the region to Islam. However, with the passing of the prophet in 632 AD, the region was plunged into war whereby a widespread revolt was quashed by the army of Abu Bakr, the first Caliph. By 637 AD, the Islamic armies were using Julfar (Ra’s al-Khaimah) as a staging point for the conquest of Iran. Julfar was also the staging point for the conquest of Oman by the Abbasid rulers. Subsequently, the area of Oman and the UAE came under the influence of the Buyid dynasty in the 10th century.
The arrival of the Portuguese in 1498 brought dire consequences to the region and by 1515, had occupied Julfar, Dibba, Bidiya, Khor Fakkan and Kalba. In strategic Julfar, a customs house was erected to tax the Gulf’s flourishing trade with India and the Far East. The Portuguese were to remain in the region until 1633. By then, the British began to make their presence felt, exercising their naval superiority and prowess in the Gulf. However, at that point in time too, a local power, the Qawasim also decided to make their presence felt, much to the consternation of the British, and by the 19th century, had built up a fleet of 60 large vessels. Sensing a serious threat to their influence in the Gulf, the British launched ‘corrective’ raids against the Qawasim. In 1820, the British consolidated their influence in the Gulf by destroying and capturing Qawasim vessels. Based on devious claims that the Qawasim were involved in piracy, the British imposed a General Treaty of Peace on nine Arab sheikhdoms, resulted in the area being called ‘The Trucial States’.
On the other hand, the Bedouin tribes in the interior had a less hazardous existence with the British. The British, naturally, were not particularly interested in what the Bedouins have been up to. Throughout the period when sea battles were fought, the Bani Yas tribe came to power. The Bani Yas was originally based in Liwa, but somehow decided to move to Abu Dhabi in 1793. One of the greatest figures of this period was, Sheikh Zayed bin Khalifa of Abu Dhabi, who ruled the emirate of Abu Dhabi from 1855 to 1909, in the process carved himself into the history books by earning the title ‘Zayed the Great’. For most of the colonial period, Sharjah was the most populous and powerful among the emirates, only to be upstaged by Abu Dhabi towards the end of the 19th century, which in turn, was later overshadowed by Dubai. The British attitude towards the interior, however, changed with the prospect of ‘black gold’.
The first oil concessions were granted in 1939 but it was not until 14 years later that oil was discovered. Abu Dhabi began exporting crude oil in 1962 and with revenues growing steadily as oil production increased, became the richest emirate from being the poorest. With its new found wealth, Sheikh Zayed (Zayed the Great’s grandson, not to be confused with the great man himself!), who was chosen Ruler of Abu Dhabi in 1966, continued to increase contributions to the less fortunate emirates through the Trucial States Development Fund, which was established a few years earlier by the British. The de facto Ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum, in the meantime, concentrated on enhancing Dubai as the region’s main trading post to replace the diminishing revenue from pearling. It got even better for Dubai when oil was discovered and subsequently, began exporting the precious commodity in 1969.
In 1968, the British announced that it has had enough and intended to leave the region in 1971. The announcement came as a shock to most of the ruling sheikhs. However, having recovered from the initial shock, Sheikh Zayed, along with Sheikh Rashid, took on the initiative of calling for a federation that would not only include the seven emirates which made up the Trucial States, but also Bahrain and Qatar. However, following a period of negotiation, agreement was reached between the rulers of six of the emirates (Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Sharjah, Umm al-Qaiwain, Fujairah and Ajman). Thus on 2 December 1971, the Federation, to be known as the United Arab Emirates was formally established. The seventh emirate, Ra’s al-Khaimah, formally acceded to the Federation on 10 February 1972.
However, the coming together of these sheikhdoms also brought along certain controversies. Disputes regarding borders became the point of contention throughout the 1970s. The marriage of the crown prince of Dubai and the daughter of Abu Dhabi’s sovereign in 1999 brought an end (to a certain extend!) to the rivalry between the two emirates. During Operation Desert Shield in 1990-91, the UAE contributed troops to the anti-Iraq coalition, which further strengthened their existence in the volatile region and also their ties with the West. On the other hand, the UAE steered clear of involvement in the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, while maintaining good relations with the US and the British. Although the UAE has vast natural resources in terms of oil and gas, the increasing need for water is seen as the most important underlying threat to its prosperity. The UAE is the highest consumer of water per capita in the world and to make matters worst, the groundwater levels have fallen 30 metres over 30 years.