December 2 is a national holiday in the United Arab Emirates, commemorating the day in 1971 when its six (later seven) component emirates, formerly known as the “Trucial States,” stopped being British protectorates and united into a single independent nation. Happy birthday, UAE!
There’s evidence of human activity in the area known today as the UAE at least as far back as the 3rd millennium BCE, but the modern emirates first began to take shape in the 17th century, when the Banu Yas confederation established control over what is today Abu Dhabi (the largest of the emirates both by population and geography), and the al-Qasimi federation gained control over the northern parts of the modern state. Today, branches of the Banu Yas rule Abu Dhabi (the Nahyan family), Dubai (the Maktoum family), and Ajman (the Nuaimi family), while branches of the Qasimis rule Sharjah and Ras al-Khaimah. The other two emirates, Umm al-Quwain and Fujairah, are ruled by the Muʿallah family and the Sharqi family, respectively.
This region was nominally a part of the Ottoman Empire from the 16th century, but when the empire started to decline one of the first things to go was its ability to project control over these relatively tiny Persian Gulf emirates. Starting in 1820, the British Empire, which was tired of having its Persian Gulf shipping inconvenienced by pirates working on behalf of the Qasimis, established “protectorates” over the emirates (kind of the way the mafia used to establish “protectorates” over neighborhood shops), grouping them under the label “Trucial States.” Initially there were five Trucial States; Dubai was added in 1835, Fujairah was added in 1952 in recognition of its secession from Sharjah, and an eighth, Kalba, was recognized as a separate state from 1936 until it was reabsorbed into Sharjah in 1951. An 1892 treaty strengthened ties between the Trucal States and Britain, obligating Britain to protect them from aggression in exchange for assurances that the emirs wouldn’t do business with any other European powers (i.e., France and Russia).
In the late 1960s, when the UK was finally drawing down the empire, it announced its plans to withdraw from the protectorate arrangement. In response, the Trucial States, along with Bahrain and Qatar, entered into negotiations on some kind of political union. The rulers of Abu Dhabi and Dubai reached the first union agreement, which may have been fairly easy since both belonged to different clans of the same al-Falasi tribe within the Banu Yas. Bahrain and Qatar never agreed to join the union, but six of the seven emirates were able to come to an arrangement that took effect on December 2, 1971, a day after their treaty of protection with Britain expired. Only Ras al-Khaimah held out, and thanks to some Iranian aggression around a handful of disputed Persian Gulf islands, they came around and joined the union in February 1972.
Nowadays the UAE is governed by a council made up of the rulers of the seven emirates, with the presidency reserved for the emir of Abu Dhabi (currently Khalifa b. Zayed Al Nahyan) and the vice presidency/premiership reserved for the emir of Dubai (currently Mohammed b. Rashid Al Maktoum). Those are the two dominant emirates, both politically and economically–Abu Dhabi has the country’s largest oil reserves and Dubai has used its own more modest energy wealth–in addition to some hefty subsidies from Abu Dhabi–to turn itself into one of the Middle East’s (heck, the world’s) largest business and tourism hubs (maybe you’ve heard something about that).
I can only talk about Dubai from personal experience, and while I can certainly see its appeal to one kind of tourist (how many places offer you the chance to spend the morning riding camels in the desert, the afternoon lounging around a world-class beach resort, and the evening browsing through one of the world’s largest jewelry markets?), it wasn’t really my cup of tea. I’ll take pyramids over a beach any day of the week. I’ve heard that Abu Dhabi is very beautiful, scenery-wise, so that’s something. Of course, and I don’t want to be a Debbie Downer on such an auspicious holiday, but all the emirates suffer from the same human rights issues that pervade throughout the Gulf: restrictions on basic freedoms like expression and religion, restrictions on women and LGBTQ folks, repression of political opposition, abuse of migrant laborers, and the (illegal, it should be noted) use of child jockeys in camel racing. But nobody’s perfect, right? Anyway, again, Happy National Day!