The United Arab Emirates has a long history, recent finds on the eastern side of the Hajar Mountains and in western Abu Dhabi having pushed the earliest evidence of Man in the Emirates back by hundreds of thousands of years. At this time, it is believed, the UAE may have played an important role in the migration of early Man out of Africa into Asia. Prior to this, the earliest known human occupation for which there is significant evidence dated from the Neolithic period, 5,500 BC or 7,500 years ago, when the climate was wetter and food resources abundant. Even at this early stage, there is proof of interaction with the outside world, especially with civilisations to the north. Commencing around 3000 BC as the climate became more arid and fortified oases communities focused on agriculture, these contacts persisted and became wide-ranging, probably motivated by trade in copper from the Hajar Mountains.
Foreign trade, the recurring motif in the history of this strategic region, seems to have flourished also in later periods, facilitated by domestication of the camel at the end of the second millennium BC. At the same time, the discovery of new irrigation techniques (falaj irrigation) made possible the extensive watering of agricultural areas that resulted in an explosion of settlement in the region.
By the first century AD overland caravan traffic between Syria and cities in southern Iraq, followed by seaborne travel to the important port of Omana (perhaps present-day Umm al-Qaiwain) and thence to India was an alternative to the Red Sea route used by the Romans. Pearls had been exploited in the area for millennia but at this time the trade reached new heights. Seafaring was also a mainstay and major fairs were held at Dibba, bringing merchants from as far afield as China.
The arrival of envoys from the Prophet Muhammad in 630 AD heralded the conversion of the region to Islam. By 637 AD Islamic armies were using Julfar (Ra’s al-Khaimah) as a staging post for the conquest of Iran. Over many centuries, Julfar became a wealthy port and pearling centre from which great wooden dhows ranged far and wide across the Indian Ocean.
The Portuguese arrival in the Gulf in the sixteenth century had bloody consequences for the Arab residents of Julfar and east coast ports like Dibba, Bidiya, Khor Fakkan and Kalba. However, while European powers competed for regional supremacy, a local power, the Qawasim, was gathering strength: at the beginning of the nineteenth century the Qawisim had built up a fleet of over 60 large vessels and could put nearly 20,000 sailors to sea, eventually provoking a British offensive to control the maritime trade routes between the Gulf and India.
Inland, the arc of villages at Liwa was the focus of economic and social activity for the Bani Yas from before the sixteenth century. But by the early 1790s the town of Abu Dhabi had become such an important pearling centre that the political leader of all the Bani Yas groups, the sheikh of the Al Bu Falah (Al Nahyan family) moved there from the Liwa. Early in the nineteenth century, members of the Al Bu Falasah, a branch of the Bani Yas, settled by the creek in Dubai and established Maktoum rule in that emirate.
Following the defeat of the Qawasim in 1820, the British signed a series of agreements with the sheikhs of the individual emirates that, later augmented with treaties on preserving a maritime truce, resulted in the area becoming known as ‘The Trucial States’.
The pearling industry thrived in the relative calm at sea during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, providing both income and employment to the people of the Arabian Gulf coast. Many of the inhabitants were semi-nomadic, diving for pearls in the summer months and tending to their date gardens in the winter. However, their meagre economic resources were soon to be dealt a heavy blow.
The First World War impacted severely on the pearl fishery, but it was the economic depression of the late 1920s and early 1930s, coupled with the Japanese invention of the cultured pearl, that damaged it irreparably. The industry eventually faded away just after the Second World War, when the newly independent Government of India imposed heavy taxation on pearls imported from the Gulf. This was catastrophic for the area. Despite their adaptability and resourcefulness, the population faced considerable hardship with little opportunity for education and no roads or hospitals.
Fortunately, oil and the visionary leadership of Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan were on the horizon. Born around 1918 in Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Zayed was the youngest of the four sons of Sheikh Sultan, Ruler of Abu Dhabi from 1922 to 1926. As Sheikh Zayed grew to manhood, he travelled widely throughout the country, gaining a deep understanding of the land and of its people. In the early 1930s, when oil company teams arrived to undertake preliminary geological surveys, he obtained his first exposure to the industry that was to make possible the development of today.
In 1946, Sheikh Zayed was chosen as Ruler’s Representative in Abu Dhabi's Eastern Region, centered on Al Ain, 160 kilometres east of the island of Abu Dhabi. He brought to his new task a firm belief in the values of consultation and consensus and his judgements ‘were distinguished by their acute insights, wisdom and fairness’.
The first cargo of crude oil was exported from Abu Dhabi in 1962. On 6 August 1966, Sheikh Zayed succeeded his elder brother as Ruler of Abu Dhabi. He promptly increased contributions to the Trucial States Development Fund and with revenues growing as oil production increased, Sheikh Zayed undertook a massive construction programme, building schools, housing, hospitals and roads.
When Dubai’s oil exports commenced in 1969, Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum, de facto Ruler of Dubai since 1939, was also able to use oil revenues to improve the quality of life of his people.
At the beginning of 1968, when the British announced their intention of withdrawing from the Arabian Gulf by the end of 1971, Sheikh Zayed acted rapidly to initiate moves towards establishing closer ties between the emirates. Along with Sheikh Rashid, who was to become Vice President and later Prime Minister of the newly formed state, Sheikh Zayed took the lead in calling for a federation that would include not only the seven emirates that together made up the Trucial States, but also Qatar and Bahrain.
Following a period of negotiation, agreement was reached between the rulers of six of the emirates (Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Sharjah, Fujairah, Umm al-Qaiwain and Ajman) and the federation to be known as the United Arab Emirates (UAE) was formally established on 2 December 1971 with Sheikh Zayed as its President. The seventh emirate, Ra’s al-Khaimah, formally acceded to the new federation on 10 February 1972. Sheikh Zayed was re-elected as President at five-year intervals until his death 33 years later in November 2004.
The new state emerged at a time of political turmoil in the region. A couple of days earlier, Iran had seized the islands of Greater and Lesser Tunb, part of Ra’s al-Khaimah, and had landed troops on Abu Musa, part of Sharjah. Foreign observers predicted that the UAE would survive only with difficulty, pointing to disputes with its neighbours and to the wide disparity between the seven emirates. Sheikh Zayed was more optimistic and the predictions of those early pessimists were shown to be unfounded. Nevertheless, there is little doubt that the prosperity, harmony and modern development that today characterises the UAE is due to the long-term vision and formative role played by the UAE’s founding fathers.
Sheikh Zayed was succeeded as the UAE's President and as Ruler of Abu Dhabi by his eldest son, H.H. Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan in 2004. The principles and philosophy that he brought to government, however, remain at the core of the state, and of its policies, today. H.H. Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Ruler of Dubai, was chosen as Vice President of the Federation following the death of his brother Sheikh Maktoum in 2006.