United Arab Emirates (UAE) History

Are you intrigued about the Middle Eastern countries? Have you visited any yet? Cyprus, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Iran, Israel, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, United Arab Emirates, Oman, and Yemen are all considered to be part of the Middle East. This post is about the United Arab Emirates, and you should consider it as your next vacation destination. The UAE is itself comprised of seven states. More on that later. Let’s dive into some fun facts and history about this great country.

Human occupation of the UAE has been traced back to 125,000 BC which makes it one of the world’s oldest civilizations. UAE’s history is rooted in trade and tied to Islam, which came to the region in 630 AD. The Emirates’ location between Europe and the Far East attracted merchants from India and China and was prized by Europeans, particularly the Portuguese, Dutch and British. The UAE is a federation of seven emirates which include Abu Dhabi, Ajman, Dubai, Fujairah, Ras al-Khaimah, Sharjah and Umm al-Quwain. Abu Dhabi serves as the capital of the UAE.  Each emirate has a vote on the affairs of the sovereign nation.  

The Ottoman Empire map showing its territory from 1300 to 1683

UAE history is similar to that of Oman. Portuguese, Iranians, Ottomans, Europeans and English all sought control of the area.   While these conflicts occurred over the years, the Bedouin made the sandy deserts of Abu Dhabi and Dubai their home. The town of Abu Dhabi became an important center. In the beginning of the 19th century, two Arab powers with the Bani Yas tribe, which controlled (Abu Dhabi and Dubai and the Al Qawasim tribe with its capital in Ras Al Khaimah. 

Al Qawasim fought the British fleets and ships in the Arabian Gulf and further afield in the Indian Ocean.  In the 19th century, the British signed a series of agreements with individual Emirates that resulted in an area known as “The Trucial States” which included all the current Emirates with the exception of Ras al-Khaimah which joined later.  Together, the six Emirates agreed not to cede any territory except to the United Kingdom and to refrain from engagement with any foreign government other than the United Kingdom without prior consent from the British. In return, the British promised to protect the coast from all aggression by sea and to assistance in the event of an attack by land.

UAE United Arab Emirates political map with capital Abu Dhabi, national borders, important cities, and bodies of water

The Trucial States was signed in 1819 and later ratified twice in 1853 and 1892. The Trucial States were a British Protectorate until 1971 when the British formerly withdraw from its obligations and the six emirates formed the UAE.  Ras al-Khaimah joined the federation shortly thereafter in 1972.

The UAE covers 32,278 square miles and is located on the Persian Gulf sharing land borders with Oman, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia. The seven emirates vary greatly in size with Abu Dhabi representing 85 percent of the land.  Each emirate is named after its capital city, and Abu Dhabi City is the permanent capital of the nation. The UAE area outside the cities remains mostly desert with a few oases. The Hajar Mountains run through the country but are treeless. UAE has a dry climate with very high temperatures and humidity in the summer.

UAE Map of desert and oil with camels and Sheikh Zayed White Mosque Abu Dhabi UAE

The population of the UAE is 9.4 million. Compare this with the 1960’s when the local population was estimated to be 86,000 in 1961. Oil production began in the 1960’s and triggered a rapid population growth. This led to improvements in the standards of living in order to attract foreign investment and foreign workers.  Today, the UAE is a multiethnic society, and Emirati nationals account for only about 20 percent of the population. 

Dubai History

Colorful sunset over Dubai Downtown skyscrapers and the newly built Tolerance bridge as viewed from the Dubai water canal. UAE

Human evidence of settlers in Dubai is from approximately 3000 BC. From the 5th through the 7th centuries AD, Jumeirah was a trade route station which linked Oman with Iraq. During the 7th century AD, Dubai was under the first known Muslim dynasty, the Umayyad.  The Umayyad was a political and religious empire which stretched from Spain to India.  Fishing and pearl diving sustained the area for a thousand years.  The first records of a town were made in1799 when the Bani Yas clan established it as a dependency of Abu Dhabi. 

Dubai became a separate Sheikhdom in 1833, when the Al-Maktoum dynasty of the Bani Yas clan began to rule. The invention of artificial pearls in 1926 and the Great Depression in 1929 caused a collapse in the international pearl market.  This only was exacerbated with two world wars which reduced demand significantly.  The emir Sheikh Saeed looked for an alternative source of income and brought both Indian and Iranian traders to settle without tax consequence.

In 1966, oil was discovered in Dubai, which changed the country beyond recognition and led to Dubai becoming the vibrant city it is today.  Dubai is one of the few cities in the Middle East that are very open to welcoming tourists. However, it must be noted that with the allowance comes the responsibility to be sensitive to the cultural norms of Islam.

Abu Dhabi History

Outside view of Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi, UAE

Abu Dhabi has been inhabited beginning approximately 3000 BC. History about the city is sparse until 1761 when the Bedouin of the Bani Yas tribe established a settlement in Abu Dhabi.  The name Abu Dhabi means Father of the Gazelle and the town was a sanctuary for wildlife.

Abu Dhabi is well known for pearl diving and trading.  Pearl divers were plentiful and would dive into deep water 30 or more times every day.  The divers were paid only when they surfaced with pearls.  It was hard work, but Abu Dhabi became somewhat of the pearl center of the middle East.

In the late 19th century, during the prime of the pearl trade, the city went through rapid expansion. In 1892, the Sultan of Abu Dhabi agreed to join the Trucial States and became a protectorate of Britain. After the Sultan’s death and during the rule of the next five rulers, Abu Dhabi’s prosperity declined, mainly due to the fall in the pearl industry. 

Oil exploration began in 1936 but was fraught with difficulties.  The desert was very difficult to traverse and to drill.  This led to offshore attempts in the 1950’s.  Oil was discovered in 1958 and export began soon after in 1962. The governor of Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, was a key player in the formation of UAE and became its first president.

Today, Abu Dhabi is attracting tourists. It is a sophisticated city with beautiful gardens, parks, mosques and high-rise buildings.  The emirate’s culture is strongly embedded within the Islamic traditions of Arabia, with many mosques scattered around the city amongst the modern architecture. 

Abu Dhabi consists of many nationalities and cultures, which are all welcomed as long as the proper respect is shown for the Islamic religion. It is known as the cultural heart of the UAE.  You will frequently see major sporting events held here with world-class athletes.  You’ll also see more Arabic style sporting events including camel racing and dhow sailing.  The official national language of Abu Dhabi is Arabic, although, English, Hindi and Urdu are also widely spoken in and around the city.

Islamic Culture

Madeline and Paul Mosque view Oman Muscat.jpg

Sensitivity to the Islamic religion and its rich culture extends to all of the middle East where Islam is prevalent.  When Madeline and I visited an Islamic Mosque, we were very careful to observe the rules of dress. Most tour companies and hotels will advise you about this. Women will need to cover their hair and shoulders. You can see Madeline covered in the picture above while I did not have to wear anything covering my hair.

Here are some basic tips we have learned that reflect your cultural awareness. When you are outside of your hotel, you should dress modestly, particularly in conservative areas and public places. Swimwear is acceptable at the beach or around the swimming pool, but visitors should cover up elsewhere. Shorts and T-shirts are suitable attire in many places but not in places of worship. When visiting mosques, religious sites or older parts of the city, both men and women should wear comfortable wearing loose-fitting clothes that cover shoulders, arms and legs. Women will usually be required to wear a headscarf when entering mosques.  

When greeting a member of the opposite sex who is Muslim, it is important not to offer to shake hands unless they extend their hand first – both men and women may prefer not to shake hands with the opposite sex due to religious reasons.

One should accept food and drink with your right hand. This is also the hand you should eat with. Never point your foot at anyone and avoid showing the soles of your feet.  When sitting formally across from someone, you should not cross your legs or point with your finger.  Both gestures are considered rude.

Alcoholic beverages are available in licensed bars and restaurants in Dubai and in your hotel.  Never attempt to rent a car after consuming alcohol. It is not acceptable to even have one drink and drive – there is no tolerance for this.  The use or possession of drugs is also strictly forbidden and there is zero tolerance.

Public displays of affection should be minimal – holding hands is acceptable but kissing and hugging in public is not. Any disrespect shown to Islam, or its leaders is strictly forbidden.  

These guidelines are normal in any Islamic region and are not hard to follow. Showing respect for your host country will be greatly appreciated.  Remember that you are an ambassador of the country named on your passport.  

I hope this brief history of the UAE, Abu Dhabi and Dubai will encourage you to visit this beautiful country. 

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