Historian Heard-Bey On Why the UAE is a Federation

Skyscrapers on the Corniche in Abu Dhabi, UAE.

At the end of the 18th century, two competing tribal powers ruled the Arabian Peninsula. The Qawasim, on the coast north of Dubai Creek, controlled a large maritime trade network, while the Beni Yas held sway over the southern oases near Liwa. A century and a half later, the two powers joined to form the Arab world's only federation.

During "Why is the UAE a Federation?" a recent Research Seminar hosted by NYU Abu Dhabi's History program, historian Frauke Heard-Bey traced the development of the United Arab Emirates, from sheikhdoms and Trucial States into the modern country we know today.

Aiming to get students, faculty, and the broader Abu Dhabi community talking about the latest developments in historical research, the Research Seminar series was created as a complement to the University's Global History curriculum and Globalizing Histories, the History program's public lecture series.

"Our idea was to create a more focused conversation about current and innovative research in the field of history," said Martin Klimke, associate professor of History and head of NYUAD's History program. "The talk by Frauke Heard-Bey not only illuminated the connection between the global and local dimension of history, but also helped us connect the conversation to students from other area schools, including secondary schools and universities."

Indeed, a group of students from Al Bateen High School was present among the hundred-plus students, faculty, and members of the public who showed up for the talk, held at NYUAD's Downtown Campus.

Echoing the History program's focus on the importance of oceans in human history, Heard-Bey emphasized the role that the future Emirates' coastal location played in the development of the Arabian Peninsula. In the early 19th century, the British East India Company helped the Omani Sultanate in its naval skirmishes. The British eventually destroyed the fleets of all Gulf rulers and 11 local sheikhs, newly deprived of naval capabilities, signed a truce with the British in 1820.

The talk by Frauke Heard-Bey not only illuminated the connection between the global and local dimension of history, but also helped us connect the conversation to students from other area schools, including secondary schools and universities.

Martin Klimke, Associate Professor of History and Head of NYUAD's History program.

In addition to bringing regional stability, the Truce of 1820 helped protect the region's nascent pearling industry, allowing it to flourish. The pearling boom drew more and more inhabitants from the deserts and mountains of the interior to the coast.

But in the 1930s, the worldwide Depression, coupled with the invention of commercial pearl manufacturing, led to a decline in pearling income. By the 1950s, residents were decamping for Qatar and Bahrain, where oil had been found.

Limited aid money came from London, and a council of the Trucial rulers — then down to seven — began meeting in Dubai to allocate funds to various development projects. These meetings of the Trucial States Development Fund, argued Heard-Bey, presaged the current federal arrangement. The meetings, she explained, "brought the rulers together, and they could get a feel for what was needed where, and what everybody wanted."

The same council of seven rulers, joined by those of Bahrain and Qatar, convened in 1968 to discuss the possibility of a union following Britain's sudden withdrawal from the Gulf. Bahrain and Qatar elected to form independent states, but six Trucial rulers signed the United Arab Emirates into existence in 1971. The seventh, Ras al Khaimah, joined early the next year.

Two years before the UAE's formation, Heard-Bey began working at Abu Dhabi's Center for Documentation and Research. Over the next four decades, she authored dozens of articles and several books on the history of the Arabian Peninsula, including From Trucial States to United Arab Emirates: A Society in Transition.

Living in Abu Dhabi, Heard-Bey has also been an eyewitness to the UAE's remarkable transformation since its inception in 1971. The federation's success, she argued, comes from the preservation of local rulers' autonomy, in addition to the stream of oil revenues that began flowing in the 1960s.

The result is the prosperous, unified country of today. "Seen from the outside, the UAE is now a solid country," said Heard-Bey. While inside the UAE, people say they are from Ras al-Khaimah, Dubai, or Al Ain, "Outside, they are from the United Arab Emirates."