While the country doesn’t appear rich in physical history, the earliest significant settlements in the UAE date back to the Bronze Age. In the 3rd millennium BC, a culture known as Umm al-Nar arose near modern Abu Dhabi. Umm al-Nar’s influence extended well into the interior and down the coast to today’s Oman. There were also settlements at Badiyah (near Fujairah) and at Rams (near Ras al-Khaimah) during the 3rd millennium BC.
The Persians and, to a lesser extent, the Greeks, were the next major cultural influences in the area. The Persian Sassanid Empire held sway until the arrival of Islam in AD 636 and another religion, Christianity, made a brief appearance in the form of the Nestorian Church, which had a monastery on Sir Baniyas Island, west of Abu Dhabi, in the 5th century.
During the Middle Ages, the Kingdom of Hormuz controlled much of the area, including the entrance to the Gulf, as well as most of the Gulf’s trade. The Portuguese arrived in 1498 and by 1515 they had occupied Julfar (near Ras al-Khaimah) and built a customs house, where they taxed the Gulf’s flourishing trade with India and the Far East. However, the Portuguese stayed on in the town only until 1633.
The rise of British naval power in the Gulf in the mid-18th century coincided with the rise of two important tribal confederations along the coast of the lower Gulf. These were the Qawassim and the Bani Yas, the ancestors of the rulers of four of the seven emirates that today make up the UAE.
The Qawassim, whose descendants now rule Sharjah and Ras al-Khaimah, were a seafaring clan based in Ras al-Khaimah. Their influence extended at times to the Persian side of the Gulf. This brought them into conflict with the British, who had forged an alliance with the Al-Busaid tribe, the ancestors of today’s rulers of Oman, to guarantee that the French could not take over their all-important sea routes to India. The Qawassim felt that the Al-Busaid had betrayed the region, and launched attacks on British ships to show that they weren’t going to be as compliant. As a result, the British dubbed the area ‘the Pirate Coast’ and launched raids against the Qawassim in 1805, 1809 and 1811. In 1820 a British fleet destroyed or captured every Qawassim ship it could find, imposed a General Treaty of Peace on nine Arab sheikhdoms in the area and installed a garrison. This was the forerunner of a later treaty, the Maritime Truce, which was imposed by the British in 1835 and increased their power in the region. In 1853 the treaty was modified yet again, when it was named the Treaty of Peace in Perpetuity. It was at this time that the region became known as the Trucial Coast. In subsequent decades, the sheikhs of each tribal confederation signed agreements with the British under which they accepted formal British protection.
Throughout this period the main power among the Bedouin tribes of the interior was the Bani Yas tribal confederation, made up of the ancestors of the ruling families of modern Abu Dhabi and Dubai. The Bani Yas were originally based in Liwa, an oasis deep in the desert, but moved their base to Abu Dhabi in 1793. The Bani Yas divided into two main branches in the early 19th century when Dubai split from Abu Dhabi.
From 1853 until the discovery of oil, the region was a backwater, with the sheikhdoms nothing more than tiny enclaves of fishers, pearl divers and Bedu. Rivalries between the various rulers occasionally erupted into conflict, which the British tried to subdue. During this time the British also protected the federation from Saudi Arabia, which had ambitions to add the territory to its own.
After the collapse of the world pearl market in the early 20th century, the coast had sunk into poverty. However, the sheikhs of Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Sharjah had already discussed oil exploration in the area, with Abu Dhabi’s Sheikh Shakhbut granting the first of several oil concessions in 1939. The first cargo of crude left Abu Dhabi in 1962 and Dubai, which had been busy cementing its reputation as the region’s busiest trading centre, exported its first oil in 1969. With the British hinting at an oddly timed exit from the Arabian Gulf in 1971, Abu Dhabi’s ruler, Sheikh Zayed, set about negotiating with other sheikhdoms in the Trucial States to create one nation.
The British had set up the Trucial States Council (the forerunner to today’s ruling council) in 1951, and with the announcement of their imminent departure, the original plan (announced in February 1968) was to form a federation including Bahrain, Qatar and the Trucial Coast. With some tough negotiating by Sheik Zayed and some odd boundaries formed (such as the Omani enclaves, and Fujairah split between Fujairah, Sharjah and Oman), as well as Bahrain and Qatar deciding to drop out, the new country came into existence when six of the emirates united on 2 December 1971; Ras al-Khaimah joined the following year. While critics said the UAE wouldn’t last, and with doubts about its future after the death of Sheikh Zayed in 2004, the UAE remains the only united Arab states in the region.