Man has occupied the land now known as the United Arab Emirates (UAE) for hundreds of thousands of years and, indeed, the area may have played an important role in the migration of early Man out of Africa into Asia. Over time the environment changed considerably. Around 7500 years ago, the climate was relatively benign and there is significant evidence of human occupation, but by approximately 3000 BC conditions had become much more arid, with the result that agriculture was confined largely to fortified oasis communities.
Commodity trading was established from an early stage and copper was transported from the Hajar Mountains to urban centres in the north as early as 3000 BC, from where it was exported to Mesopotamia. Camel caravan routes through the region from north to south also provided an alternative route to India. Ports such as Julfar (Ra’s al-Khaimah) eventually became flourishing entreports, thanks largely to the pearling trade.
In the sixteenth century, the arrival of the Portuguese in the Gulf caused major disruption for east-coast ports such as Dibba, Bidiyah, Khor Fakkan and Kalba. Yet by the beginning of the nineteenth century, a local tribe, the Qawaisim, had built up a fleet of over sixty large vessels and nearly 20,000 sailors – enough to provoke a British offensive to control the maritime trade routes between the Gulf and India.
By the early 1790s, the town of Abu Dhabi had become such an important pearling centre that the leader of the Bani Yas tribes, the sheikh of the Al Bu Falah (whose descendants, the Al Nahyan, are the present rulers of Abu Dhabi), moved there from the Liwa Oasis, some 150 kilometres to the south-west. A few decades later, members of the Al Bu Falasah, another branch of the Bani Yas, settled by the creek in Dubai, where they continue to rule today as the Al Maktoum family.
Pearl fishing continued to flourish, but eventually the First World War, the economic depression of the 1930s, and the Japanese invention of the cultured pearl caused the trade to decline – with a devastating impact on the region’s economy.
With the 1950s, however, came the discovery of oil, and on 6 August 1966, His Highness (H.H.) Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan became Ruler of Abu Dhabi. Thus began a period of intense planning and development, whereby Abu Dhabi, and eventually the entire UAE, began to catch up with the rest of the world in terms of modernization and economic strength. On 2 December 1971, a constitutional federation of six states known as the United Arab Emirates was formally established. This consisted of Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Sharjah, Ajman, Umm al-Qaiwain, and Fujairah. Sheikh Zayed was chosen as President and H.H. Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum, Ruler of Dubai, as Vice President. The seventh emirate, Ra’s al-Khaimah, joined the Federation in 1972.
There is no doubt that the prosperity, harmony and modern development which today characterize the UAE are, to a very great extent, due to the formative role played by the region’s founding fathers. In 2004, Sheikh Zayed was succeeded as UAE President and as Ruler of Abu Dhabi by his eldest son, H.H. Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan. The principles and philosophy that he brought to government, however, remain at the heart of the Federation and its policies today. Following the death of his brother, Sheikh Maktoum, in 2006, H.H. Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Ruler of Dubai, was chosen as UAE Vice President and Prime Minister.