As we commemorate the UAE’s 46th National Day on 2nd December, find out how the founding father’s determination played a vital role in the final days leading up to the country’s unity
In June 1971, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, ruler of Abu Dhabi and chief negotiator for the founding of the United Arab Emirates, flew to London in low spirits.
Four years after mapping out plans to form an independent nation and with only six months left before the British officially departed the country (then known as the Trucial States), talks between the ruling sheikhs and tribal leaders from each territory had stalled.
“[Sheikh Zayed] told British officials that he was very, very disappointed that the negotiations were not going smoothly as he hoped and everything was failing,” recalls professor Fatima Alsayegh, chair of the history department at United Arab Emirates University in Al Ain and author of The UAE: From Tribes to Statehood.
The charismatic leader, who even then was known for his optimistic attitude, had all the right reasons to be worried.
When the UK announced in 1968 its decision to terminate its protectorate role over the Trucial States – composed of tribal confederations of Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Ajman, Sharjah, Umm Al Quwain, Ras Al Khaimah and Fujairah – the future was uncertain for all seven emirates.
“The scenario was either to have one federation or to have separate emirates operating on their own, or probably join other neighbouring countries like Saudi Arabia,” Fatima explains.
“That last scenario is actually scary because any interference from neighbouring nations can cause an imbalance in the whole structure of the region.”
Sheikh Zayed knew how vulnerable each of the emirates would be from possible invasion or outside influence when left to their own devices.
For him, there was strength in numbers rather than each of the emirates going their separate ways.
This was the motivation behind his vision to pursue the most ideal option: pick up from where the Trucial States left off and continue to function as one entity.
But while Dubai’s ruler, Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum, shared this vision, the other leaders were sceptical.
Much of this had to do with the tribal culture prevalent in the region where tribe leaders were over-protective of their possessions, territories and status.
“The years between 1968 and 1971, it was something of a [nightmare],” admits Fatima.
“There were lots of negotiations to create an entity of nine or an entity of seven or six. An invitation was even extended to Bahrain and Qatar to join. The transition wasn’t easy.
“Building the culture of accepting one person as a president, that was new for them. So everything was new and there were lots of difficulties – the ship was not sailing smoothly.”
During this time, Sheikh Zayed was studying other federations formed in the region as potential models, including one in Yemen and the short-lived United Arab Republic between Egypt and Syria.
“He convinced the tribal leaders that by joining the union, they would not lose their independence or autonomy. That was very important and that tilted the balance in the longstanding negotiations,” Fatima reveals.
“Distributing the wealth of Abu Dhabi to other smaller emirates convinced them that they would gain more than they would lose. Now, this was important in a time when the other emirates didn’t have economic resources.”
But just when it appeared that everything was ready to proceed, negotiations unexpectedly broke down again, and Sheikh Zayed found himself on a plane to London to vent out his frustrations.
In fact, the Trucial States’ transition to the United Arab Emirates was originally planned much earlier than what we are celebrating today.
“They were supposed to declare independence in March. Everything was ready including the national anthem; the constitution was already prepared,” reveals Fatima.
For Sheikh Zayed, the federation was beginning to look like a failure before it even began.
“The British asked him to go and try again. So Sheikh Zayed came to the sheikhs again and once more presented all the possible scenarios, both good and bad. At last, things finally started moving forward again.”
And so on 2nd December 1971, the United Arab Emirates – made up of Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Sharjah, Ajman, Umm Al Quwain and Fujairah – was officially born.
Ras Al Khaimah soon followed, joining the fledgling federation on 10th February 1972.
“It was the culmination of Sheikh Zayed’s vision and hard work. There were many times during the planning and negotiations when he felt that he was standing alone, that he was fighting a losing battle. But he never lost faith because this was his dream.”
A dose of history
Take a step back in time and learn more about the Trucial States, the formation of the UAE and Sheikh Zayed’s legacy with these activities and educational materials.
Farewell Arabia (1968)
This black and white documentary walks you through the early stages of change following the discovery of oil, as Sheikh Zayed and his advisors plan out the city and watch it grow from an empty desert to an oil-rich country. As the late ruler strives to maintain his tribal relationships and keep his majlis open for his people, he struggles to balance traditions while keeping up with rapid developments and distribution of wealth. Watch the video in full on YouTube.
The Trucial Scouts: Life and Times
This exhibition features tools, equipment and artefacts from the Trucial Scouts. Aptly set up in one of the country’s most historically significant buildings, Al Jahili Fort, the exhibition celebrates the role the brigades played in UAE history and heritage, as well as the lesser-known humanitarian work carried out in the 1950s and 60s. Until 28th April. Free. Al Mutawaa, Al Ain. Sat-Sun and Tue-Thu 9am-5pm, Fri 3pm-5pm. Contact: visitalain.ae
From Rags to Riches: A Story of Abu Dhabi
Written by Mohammed Al Fahim, this book has become somewhat of a rite of passage for those living in the UAE who want to learn more about its formation. The book highlights the rapid growth of the emirate, from its early days as a Trucial State to the modern metropolis we know today. Available at bookstores across the UAE.
Take a peek into the past at this ‘museum’ of sorts, which pays homage to the Father of the Nation. The centre displays memorabilia including the late ruler’s favourite hunting rifle, as well as old photographs and gifts the leader received from around the globe, including stuffed wild cats. Free. Al Bateen Wharf. Sun-Thu 8am-2pm, times subject to change. Contact: 02 665 9555, torath.ae
Al Ain Palace Museum
The palace of the late Sheikh Zayed and his family offers a glimpse into a former way of life. Built in 1937 and opened to the public as a museum in 2001, the private residence features a complex of courtyards and small buildings that formed majlis, kitchens, bedrooms and more. Free. Al Jahili area, near Al Ain Oasis, Al Ain. Sat-Sun and Tue-Thu 8.30am-7.30pm, Fri 3pm-7.30pm. Contact: 03 711 8388
WORDS Ferdinand Godinez