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Soon after assuming power on 6th August 1966 as the Ruler of Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Zayed underscored the importance of union and remarked: “In harmony, in some sort of federation, we could follow the example of other developing countries”. The significance of unity and the need to work in co-operation with the other emirates was thus ingrained in Sheikh Zayed’s thinking very early in his career. Although he was fully aware that federation was a novel concept in the region, yet he had a firm conviction that it could be implemented on the basis of common ties that bound the different emirates, and the history and heritage that they shared together for centuries. To translate his ideals of union, co-operation and mutual support into practice, Sheikh Zayed began to devote a large part of his emirate’s income from oil to the Trucial States Development Fund long before the inception of the UAE as a federal state.

In 1968 the British Government, under the pressure of adverse economic conditions, announced the termination of all its treaties protecting the Trucial States and its intention to withdraw from the Gulf by the end of 1971. This sudden decision while threatening to create a military and political vacuum in the area, also helped to reduce the obstacles and difficulties that had hindered the earlier attempts at union of the emirates. The very prospect of ending the special relationship that had existed between Britain and the Trucial States for one hundred and fifty years, clearly sounded the signal for some form of association more formal and more binding than was represented by the Trucial States Council. As a result of these new forces set in motion, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, Ruler of Abu Dhabi, along with Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum, Ruler of Dubai, promptly initiated the move towards establishing a federation. This federation was meant to be the nucleus of Arab unity and to protect the potentially oil-rich coast from the ambitions of the more powerful neighboring countries.

The initiative taken by the Rulers of the two leading emirates resulted in a meeting on 18th February 1968, at al Semha on the border between Abu Dhabi and Dubai. This was a historic meeting where Sheikh Zayed and Sheikh Rashid agreed to merge their respective emirates in a union and jointly conduct foreign affairs, defense, security and social services and adopt a common immigration policy. Other administrative matters were left to the jurisdiction of the local government of each emirate. This momentous agreement came to be known as the Union Accord and may be considered as the first step towards uniting the Trucial Coast as a whole. In order to further strengthen the federation, Sheikh Zayed and Sheikh Rashid also invited the Rulers of the five other Trucial States and Bahrain and Qatar to join in the negotiations for the formation of the union.

From 25th to 27th February 1968, the Rulers of these nine states convened a constitutional conference in Dubai. For over three years the eleven-point agreement, conceived in Dubai, served as the basis for intensive efforts to shape the constitutional and legal framework for this ‘Union of Arab Emirates’, comprising these nine member states.

There were countless meetings on many levels of authority. The key issues were agreed in the meetings of the Supreme Council of Rulers, formed by the nine Heads of State. There were formal discussions by the Deputy Rulers and by various committees, involving civil servants from these emirates as well as external advisers. In the summer of 1971, it became clear that Iran no longer lay claim to Bahrain and the Ruler of Bahrain, Sheikh Isa bin Salman Al Khalifah, declared the island states’ independence on 14th  August 1971. Qatar followed suit on 1st September 1971.

The authorities in the seven Trucial States next worked on an alternative to the ‘Union of Arab Emirates’. Already the Rulers of the six Trucial States viz., Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Sharjah, Ajman, Umm al Qaiwain and Fujairah, (with Ras al Khaimah still hesitating) had decided to form the United Arab Emirates in a meeting held in Dubai on 18th July 1971. The foundation of an independent, sovereign state was formally proclaimed on 2nd December 1971, and after Ras al Khaimah joined on 10th February 1972, the federation was complete with the inclusion of all the seven former Trucial States. This newly founded federal state became officially known as Dawlat al Imarat al Arabiyya al Muttahida or the United Arab Emirates (UAE). A Provisional Constitution, based on an amended version of the earlier draft constitution of the nine Gulf States, was agreed upon as its formal basis. It defined as its highest objective, the common good of the UAE as a whole. The Provisional Constitution consisting of 152 articles, divided into a Preamble and 10 parts, specified the powers which were to be allocated to the new federal institutions, while all others were to remain the prerogative of the local governments of the individual emirates. The five central authorities outlined in the Constitution are:

The Supreme Council constituted by the seven Rulers; it is the highest policy-making body of the state and is vested with the ultimate legislative and executive powers.

The President and Vice President of the federal state. 

The Council of Ministers or Cabinet.

The Federal National Council (FNC); it is a consultative council comprising forty members drawn from the emirates on the basis of their population with eight deputies each from Abu Dhabi and Dubai, six each from Sharjah and Ras al Khaimah, and four each from Fujairah, Ajman and Umm al Qaiwain.

The Judiciary; it is structured into a hierarchy of courts at the apex of which is the Federal Supreme Court.

The Ruler of Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, was elected by his fellow Rulers as the first President of the UAE, a post to which he has been successively re-elected at five-year intervals. The then Ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum, was elected as Vice-President, a post which he held until his death in 1990, when his eldest son Sheikh Maktoum bin Rashid was elected to succeed him. In a historic meeting on 20th May 1996, the Federal Supreme Council approved a draft amendment that made the country’s Provisional Constitution the permanent Constitution of the UAE, and named Abu Dhabi as the capital of the state.

The UAE embarked on its political career as a federation of seven regional states of very different sizes, natural resources, population and wealth, but with a common history and heritage. Abu Dhabi, is the largest in terms of area, and is also blessed with the richest oil reserves. The federal institutions are very largely financed by Abu Dhabi. Dubai was even in 1971, the best connected of the city-states and continues to grow as the hub of the region’s trade and business. Some of the other emirates have always been endowed with relative wealth of water and arable land. But despite these disparities, the UAE’s impressive record of progress has been possible because of the success of the federation and its leaders working in a spirit of harmony and co-operation for the achievement of common goals.

The central authorities undertook as their primary duty, the utilization of the wealth of the country’s natural resources for the benefit of the UAE as a whole. This contributed in a large measure to the success and permanence of the federation. The Rulers of the UAE, which today ranks among the top oil and gas producers worldwide, used its oil wealth with remarkable vision and foresight to improve the lives of its people, and create an infrastructure that supports a growing list of non-oil industries and activities. From the very outset, it has been the firm conviction of Sheikh Zayed that “Money is of no value unless it is used for the benefit of the people”. The social services provided by the federal ministries, especially free education, housing, healthcare and social aid for the Emiratis, paved the way for a rapid and phenomenal growth and development throughout the country. And finally with the advent of modern technology, the UAE has been transformed from one of the least developed countries to a modern nation state within less than three decades. 

Another important factor contributing to the political stability enjoyed by the UAE since its formal inception, is the carefully planned and successfully implemented foreign policy of its leaders which is primarily aimed at “promoting conciliation and defusing confrontation and conflict”. The cornerstone of the UAE’s foreign policy is to protect the sovereignty of the country and the independence of its citizens within the broader framework of Gulf security. Another key component of this policy has been to gradually expand the country’s political horizons and develop relations with international powers and work in co-operation with international organizations.

Thus soon after its emergence as a full-fledged state, the UAE joined the Arab League and the United Nations. It was one of the driving forces behind the foundation of the Islamic Conference Organization (ICO) in the 1970s. The establishment of the Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC), comprising the UAE, Oman, Qatar, Bahrain Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, at a summit held in Abu Dhabi in 1981, and the promotion of relations with other Arab countries, are reflections of the UAE’s determination to bolster solidarity with the rest of the Arab World.

The role of the President of the UAE, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan, needs to be particularly emphasized in this connection as his stature has grown internationally in tandem with the status of the country on the world stage. Over the years, he has emerged as the mentor and mediator for the younger statesmen not only in the GCC, but also within the Arab World and for many a developing country. It is also largely due to his humanitarian approach derived from his firm faith in Islam, that a host of poor countries and communities worldwide have benefited from the financial and material assistance given in the name of the UAE by the Ruler of Abu Dhabi. Furthermore, the UAE’s military organization is the only non-Nato force helping with peacekeeping in Kosovo. It is not surprising therefore, that the spectacular generosity of this small country has drawn the attention of the world by helping to alleviate the misery of the victims of natural or man-made calamities at home and abroad.

Even individually, all the emirates and notably Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Sharjah, are drawing international attention by offering wide-ranging economic opportunities, sports and leisure facilities, cultural activities and also by creating awareness for the protection of the environment and wildlife, and by promoting tourism. The remarkable advancement of the Emirati women in every sphere of life constitutes another important yardstick for measuring the progress of the country as a whole. Accorded equal status and opportunities by the Constitution, women of the UAE today are making their presence felt in society in a pronounced way. The UAE Women’s Federation established in Abu Dhabi in 1975 by Sheikha Fatima bint Mubarak, wife of the President, along with its branches in all the other emirates, deserves credit for playing a major role in the emancipation of women. However, what is even more noteworthy is that despite overall modernization, the architects of UAE’s development consider the preservation and continuation of their traditional culture and time-honored heritage to be of utmost importance.

The success of the UAE’s political system lies in the fact that it represents a unique combination of the traditional and modern with an inherent commitment “to consensus, discussion and direct democracy”. The sacrifices and achievements of its founding fathers, contributed to the emergence of this modern nation in place of the erstwhile independent and backward emirates. The UAE is the only federal state in the Arab world that has not only survived, but has succeeded in evolving a distinct national identity through the passage of time. On the occasion of the celebration of twenty-five years of success of the federation, Sheikh Zayed had remarked with satisfaction, “that which has been accomplished has exceeded all our expectations, and that, with the help of God and a sincere will, confirms that there is nothing that cannot be achieved in the service of the people if determination is firm and intentions are sincere”. The Federation of the UAE is, and will continue to be, a source of pride for the present and future generations of Emiratis.