As a collection of sheikhdoms extending from the Straits of Hormuz to the west along the Persian Gulf, the UAE was called the Trucial States before it was reconstituted in 1971 as the United Arab Emirates. In reality, it was more a loosely defined collection of tribal groups spread over a vast area about the size of Maine, about 32,000 square miles (83,000 square kilometers).
The region has been plagued by rivalry between local emirs on land while pirates scoured the seas and sheltered by the states’ shores for centuries. For the protection of its trade with India, Britain began attacking pirates. As a result, the British developed ties with the emirs of the Trucial States. Britain offered protection for exclusive rights in 1820, and the emirs accepted a truce brokered by it, pledging not to cede any land or treaties to any other nations. As part of their agreement, British authorities would resolve subsequent disputes. From 1871 until 1971, the relationship was subservient.
Britain’s imperial overreach had run its course politically and financially by then. In 1971, Britain abandoned Bahrain, Qatar, and the Trucial States, a group of seven emirates. The Trucial States, by then made up of seven emirates, and Bahrain were abandoned by Britain in 1971. An initial aim of Britain was to unite all nine entities. The two countries balked, preferring their own independence. It seemed risky, but the Emirates agreed to the joint venture despite one exception: until then, the Arab world had never known a successful federation of disparate pieces, much less bickering emirs with enough ego to enrich sandy landscapes.
Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Ajman, Al Fujairah, Sharjah, and Quwain were among the six emirates that agreed to join the federation. A declaration of independence from Britain was made by the six emirates on Dec. 2, 1971, giving them the name United Arab Emirates. In February 1972, Ras al Khaymah joined the federation after initially opting out. First president of the union was Emir Zaid ben Sultan, of Abu Dhabi, the richest of the seven emirates, followed by Emir Rashid ben Saeed of Dubai, the second wealthiest.
The oil reserves of Abu Dhabi and Dubai are large. There are no such laws in the remaining emirates. As a result of the agreement, the union became part of the Arab Nation. In no way was it democratic, and there was constant rivalry among the Emirates. The union was initially governed by a council of 15 members, which was then reduced to seven—one seat for each unelected emir. Six thousand six hundred and eighty-nine Emiratis, including 1,189 women, are elected to 2-year terms by the seven emirs. Twenty members are appointed by the seven emirs. In the Emirates, free elections and political parties are not allowed.
The Iranian forces landed on Abu Musa Island in the Persian Gulf and the two Tunb islands at the entrance to the Persian Gulf two days before the emirates declared their independence. Ras al Khaymah Emirate controlled those islands. Iran’s Shah claimed that the islands were wrongfully given to the Emirates by Britain 150 years ago. To protect oil tankers traveling through the Straits, he claimed, he was retaking them. There was no way the emirates could endanger oil shipments, but Iran could. This was not rational reasoning: the Shah’s reasoning was more expedient than rational.
However, Iran’s troop landing was arranged with Sheikh Khaled al Kassemu of Sharjah Emirate in exchange for $US 3.6 million over nine years and a promise that if oil was discovered on the island, the proceeds would be split between Iran and Sharjah. After the arrangement was arranged, Sharjah’s ruler was slain in a coup attempt. One day before the island gained independence, Britain explicitly allowed Iranian troops to take over.
As Britain timed the occupation to coincide with an international crisis, the emirates were relieved of the burden. Relations between Iran and the Emirates were hampered for decades by the dispute over the islands. There is still Iranian control over the islands.
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