Most people would quip that history only began in the United Arab Emirates after the discovery of oil. Although this nation may indeed be young, these lands actually have a rich history as a trade centre spanning back centuries.

Early 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. Its 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 same period.

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 Christianity made a brief appearance in the form of the Nestorian Church, which had a monastery on Sir Bani Yas Island, west of Abu Dhabi, in the 5th century.

During the Middle Ages, the Kingdom of Ormus controlled much of the area, including the entrance to the Gulf, as well as most of the regional trade. The Portuguese arrived in 1498 and by 1515 they occupied Julfar (near Ras Al Khaimah). They built a customs house and taxed the Gulf’s flourishing trade with India and the Far East, but they ended up staying only until 1633.

British Rule

The rise of British naval power in the Gulf in the mid-18th century coincided with the consolidation of two tribal factions along the coast of the lower Gulf: 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 whose 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 prevent the French from taking over their all-important sea routes to India.

The Qawassim felt that Al Busaid had betrayed the region, and they 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 peace treaty on nine Arab sheikhdoms in the area and installed a garrison.

This was the forerunner of another treaty, the 1835 Maritime Truce, which greatly increased British influence in the region. In 1853, the treaty was modified yet again and renamed the Treaty of Peace in Perpetuity. It was at this time that the region became known as the Trucial States. 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. In the early 19th century, the Bani Yas divided into two main branches when around 800 of its members moved north and took charge of a tiny fishing settlement along the Dubai Creek. This laid the foundation for the Al Maktoum dynasty that rules Dubai to this day.

Black Gold

Until the discovery of oil in the first half of the 20th century, the region remained a backwater, with the sheikhdoms nothing more than tiny enclaves of fishers and pearl divers. Rivalries between the various rulers occasionally erupted into conflict, which the British tried to thwart. During this time the British also protected the federation from being annexed by Saudi Arabia.

After the collapse of the world pearl market after the Japanese discovery in 1930 of a method of artificial pearl cultivation, the Gulf coast sank into poverty. While Abu Dhabi threw in its lot with the exploration for oil, Dubai embraced the concept of re-export. This exporting involved the importing of goods (particularly gold), which entered and exited Dubai legally but which were sold on to other ports abroad tax free.

The wealth generated from trade in yellow gold in Dubai was quickly trumped by the riches earned from black gold in Abu Dhabi. The first commercial oil field was discovered at Babi in Abu Dhabi in 1960 and, six years later, Dubai struck it lucky, too. The discovery of oil greatly accelerated the modernisation of the region and was a major factor in the formation of the UAE.

The Road to Unification

In 1951, the British set up the Trucial States Council, for the first time bringing together the rulers of the sheikhdoms of what would eventually become a federation. When Britain announced its departure from the region in 1968, Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan took the lead in forming alliances among the seven emirates that made up the Trucial States.

On 2 December 1971, thanks to Sheikh Zayed's persistence, the United Arab Emirates was created. It consisted of the emirates of Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Ajman, Fujairah, Sharjah and Umm Al Quwain; Ras Al Khaimah joined in 1972. Impressively, given the volatility in the region, the UAE remains to this day the only federation of Arab states in the Middle East. In fact, if anything, the financial bailouts by oil-rich Abu Dhabi of Dubai during the 2009 economic crisis tightened the bond and demonstrated the emirates’ commitment to – and interdependence on – one another.