The Formation of the Federation

Soon after assuming power on August 6, 1966 as the Ruler of Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan underscored the importance of the union and remarked, “In harmony and in some sort of federation, we could follow the example of other developing countries”. The significance of the union and the need to work in cooperation with the other Emirates was thus ingrained in Sheikh Zayed’s thinking early on in his career. Although he was fully aware that federation was a novel concept in the region, he had a firm conviction that it could be established based on common ties between the different Emirates and the history and heritage that they had shared together for centuries. To put his ideas about the union, cooperation and mutual support into practice, Sheikh Zayed earmarked a sizeable part of his Emirate’s income from oil to the Trucial States Development Fund long before the inception of the UAE as a federal state.

In 1968, the British Government, under pressure from adverse economic conditions, announced its intention to the terminate all its treaties protecting the Trucial States and to withdraw its forces from the Gulf by the end of 1971. This sudden decision, while threatening to create a military and political vacuum in the area, also helped to reduce the obstacles and difficulties that had hindered the earlier attempts to unify the Emirates. The very prospect of ending the special relationship that had existed between Britain and the Trucial States for one hundred and fifty years set in motion the process of achieving some form of association more formal and more binding than that represented by the Trucial States Council. Because of these new forces that had been mobilized, Sheikh Zayed, Ruler of Abu Dhabi, along with Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum, Ruler of Dubai, promptly initiated the first move towards establishing a federation. This federation was intended to be the nucleus of Arab unity and to protect the potentially oil-rich coast from the ambitions of more powerful neighboring countries.

The initiative taken by the Rulers of the two leading Emirates resulted in a meeting, on February 18, 1968, at Al Sameeh on the border between Abu Dhabi and Dubai. This was a historic meeting where Sheikh Zayed and Sheikh Rashid agreed to merge their respective Emirates into a union and to jointly conduct foreign affairs, defense, security and social services and to adopt a common immigration policy. Other administrative matters were left to the jurisdiction of the local government of each Emirate. This momentous agreement became known as the Union Accord and may be considered as the first step towards uniting the Trucial Coast as a whole. In order to strengthen the federation further, Sheikh Zayed and Sheikh Rashid invited the Rulers of the five other Trucial States as well as Bahrain and Qatar to join in the negotiations for the formation of a union.

From February 25 to 27,  1968, the Rulers of these nine states convened a constitutional conference in Dubai. For over three years, the eleven-point agreement, conceived in Dubai, served as the basis for intensive efforts to set up the constitutional and legal framework for this ‘Union of Arab Emirates’, comprising of these nine member states. Several meetings at various levels were held. The key issues were agreed upon in the meetings of the Supreme Council of Rulers, formed by the nine rulers of the Emirates. There were formal discussions by the Deputy Rulers and by various committees regarding the appointment of civil servants from these Emirates as well as external advisers. In the summer of 1971, it became clear that Iran no longer lay claim to Bahrain and the Ruler of Bahrain, Sheikh Isa bin Salman Al Khalifa, declared the island state’s independence on August 14, 1971. Qatar followed suit on September 1, 1971.

Next, the authorities in the seven Trucial States worked out an alternative to the ‘Union of Arab Emirates’. The Rulers of the six Trucial States, Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Sharjah, Ajman, Umm al Quwain and Fujairah (with Ras al Khaimah the seventh state still undecided), had decided to form the United Arab Emirates at a meeting held in Dubai on July 18, 1971. The foundation of an independent, sovereign state was formally proclaimed on December 2, 1971. When Ras al Khaimah joined on February 10, 1972, the federation was complete with the inclusion of all of the seven former Trucial States. This newly founded federal state became officially known as Dawlat al Imarat al Arabiyya al Muttahida, or the United Arab Emirates (UAE). A Provisional Constitution, based on an amended version of the earlier draft constitution of the nine Gulf States, was formally adopted. It defined as its highest objective, the common good of the UAE as a whole. The Provisional Constitution consisting of 152 articles, divided into a Preamble and 10 sections, specifying the powers that were to be vested in the new federal institutions, while all other powers were to remain the prerogative of the local governments of the individual Emirates.

The five central authorities outlined in the Constitution are:
1.    The Supreme Council consisting of the seven Rulers - it is the highest policy-making body of the state and is vested with the ultimate legislative and executive powers.
2.    The President and Vice President of the federal state.
3.    The Council of Ministers or Cabinet.
4.    The Federal National Council (FNC) - it is a consultative council comprising forty members drawn from the Emirates on the basis of the size of their population with eight deputies each from Abu Dhabi and Dubai, six each from Sharjah and Ras al Khaimah, and four each from Fujairah, Ajman and Umm al Quwain.
5.    The Judiciary: consists of a number of courts, with the Federal Supreme Court on the top.

The Ruler of Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, was elected by his fellow Rulers as the first President of the UAE, a post to which he was successively re-elected at five-year intervals. The former Ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum, was elected as Vice President, a post that he held until his death in 1990 when his eldest son, Sheikh Maktoum bin Rashid Al Maktoum, was elected to succeed him. In a meeting held on May 20, 1996, the Federal Supreme Council approved a draft amendment that made the country’s Provisional Constitution the permanent Constitution of the UAE and named Abu Dhabi as the capital of the federation.

The UAE embarked on its political agenda as a federation of seven regional states of different sizes, natural resources, population and wealth, but with a common history and heritage. Abu Dhabi is the largest in terms of area and is blessed with the biggest oil reserves. The federal institutions are largely financed by Abu Dhabi. Dubai was,  until 1971, the Emirate most associated with the concept of the city-state and continues to grow as the hub of the region’s trade and business. Some of the other emirates have always been endowed with relative wealth of water and arable land. However, despite these disparities, the UAE’s impressive record of progress has been possible, because of the success of the federation and the collaboration and harmony among its leaders who have been working hand in hand to achieve common goals.

The central authorities undertook, as their primary duty, to harness the wealth of the country’s natural resources for the benefit of the UAE as a whole. This contributed in a large measure to the success and continuity of the federation. The Rulers of the UAE, which today ranks among the top oil and gas producers worldwide, used its oil wealth with remarkable vision and foresight to improve the lives of its people and to create an infrastructure that supports a growing number of non-oil industries and activities. From the very outset, Sheikh Zayed firmly believed that “money is of no value unless it is used for the benefit of the people”. The social services provided by the federal ministries, especially free education, housing, healthcare and social support given to the Emiratis, paved the way for a rapid and phenomenal growth and development throughout the country. Finally, with the advent of modern technology, the UAE has been transformed from a developing country to a modern nation state within less than three decades.

Another important factor contributing to the political stability enjoyed by the UAE, since its formal inception, is the carefully planned and successfully implemented foreign policy of its leaders, primarily aimed at “promoting conciliation and defusing confrontation and conflict”. The cornerstone of the UAE’s foreign policy is to protect the sovereignty of the country and the independence of its citizens within the broader framework of Gulf security. Another key component of this policy has been the gradual expansion of the country’s political horizons, the forging of good relations with international powers and the cooperation with international organizations.

Thus, soon after its emergence as a full-fledged state, the UAE joined the Arab League and the United Nations. The UAE was one of the driving forces behind the foundation of the Islamic Conference Organization (ICO) in the 1970s. The establishment of the Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) comprising the UAE, Oman, Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, at a summit held in Abu Dhabi in 1981, reflects the UAE’s determination to foster cooperation and solidarity with the rest of the Arab World.

In this connection, we must throw light on the role of the late Sheikh Zayed, the founding father of the UAE,  especially as his stature had grown internationally in tandem with the enhanced status of the country on the world stage. Over the years, he emerged as a mentor and mediator not only in the GCC, but also within the Arab World and developing countries. A host of poorer countries and communities worldwide received financial and other forms of material aid provided by him in the name of the UAE. This was largely due to his humanitarian approach derived from his unshaken faith in Islam. Furthermore, the UAE armed forces were the only non-NATO force to help with peacekeeping operations in Kosovo. Therefore, it is not surprising that the spectacular generosity of this small country has drawn the attention of the world in terms of helping to alleviate the suffering of the victims of natural or man-made calamities.

The Emirates in general and Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Sharjah in particular have drawn international attention by offering wide-ranging economic opportunities, sports and leisure facilities, cultural activities and also  by creating awareness for the protection of the environment and wildlife and the promotion of tourism. The remarkable advancement of the Emirati women in every aspect of life constitutes another important yardstick for measuring the progress of the country as a whole. Accorded equal status and opportunities by the Constitution, women of the UAE today are making their presence felt in society in a pronounced way. Sheikha Fatima bint Mubarak, Sheikh Zayed’s spouse, who takes credit for playing a major role in empowering women, established the UAE Women’s Federation in Abu Dhabi in 1975, along with its branches in all of the other Emirates. Furthermore, it is noteworthy that, despite overall modernization, the architects of UAE’s development take into consideration and recognize the importance of the preservation and continuation of their traditional culture and architecture as well as their time-honored heritage.

The success of the UAE’s political system lies in the fact that it represents a unique blend of the traditional and modern forms of government, with an inherent commitment “to consensus, debate and direct democracy”. The sacrifices and achievements of its Founding Fathers contributed to the emergence of this modern nation that replaced the previously separate emirates. The UAE is the only federal state in the Arab world that has not only survived, but also succeeded in creating a distinctive national identity with the passage of time. On the occasion of the celebration of the twenty-fifth anniversary of the successful federation, Sheikh Zayed noted with satisfaction and pride, “Our accomplishments have exceeded all our expectations. They have been achieved with the help of God and our sincere and strong will, and confirm that there is nothing that cannot be achieved for the benefit of the people if we have the firm determination  and sincere intentions”. The Federation of the UAE is, and will continue to be, a source of pride for the present and future Emirati generations.