How United Are the United Arab Emirates?

Why some emirates are more important than others.

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United Arab Emirates President Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed al-Nahayan

The Senate held several hearings this week to address the possible sale of American port operations to a company owned by the United Arab Emirates, and a scoop in today’s Washington Post reports that the Bush administration is reviewing a second business deal involving a Dubai-owned company. Some papers say the companies are Dubai-owned; others say they’re owned by the UAE. How does the UAE work, anyway?

It’s a federation of seven somewhat autonomous sheikdoms—Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Sharjah, Ajman, Umm al-Qaiwain, Ras al-Khaimah, and Fujairah. Under the country’s constitution, each emirate maintains principal control of its own oil revenues and other natural resources. They turn over a set percentage of their revenues to the federal government, which takes care of defense, diplomacy, education, public health, banking, and several other concerns for everyone. But that’s the extent of it: The constitution gives each emirate explicit and exclusive control over any matter not specifically assigned to the federation. For example, a conservative emirate like Sharjah has the right to institute its especially strict code of decency, which prohibits bathing suits, midriffs, and skirts above the knee.

The UAE only came together in 1971. For more than a century the emirates had been under the protection (and effective control) of the United Kingdom, via a maritime truce signed in 1853. As the Brits prepared to pull out, the “Trucial States”—which included Bahrain and Qatar—struggled to work out a collective government under the leadership of Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al Nahyan, the ruler of Abu Dhabi. Negotiations broke down, and both Bahrain and Qatar jumped ship in the months leading up to the end of the truce. (Ras al-Khaimah only joined the UAE in 1972.)

A Supreme Council of Rulers leads the federation and elects its leaders. Each of the seven sheiks gets one vote on the council, but their votes aren’t given equal weight. Important matters require agreement from at least five of the sheiks, including the rulers of the two wealthiest emirates, Abu Dhabi and Dubai.

Since Abu Dhabi and Dubai generate almost all of the UAE’s revenues, their leaders are given the highest positions in the federal government. The Supreme Council has always elected the leader of Abu Dhabi as president and commander in chief, and has made the leader of Dubai vice president and prime minister. (The first president, Zayed, was re-elected at five-year intervals up until his death in 2004. His son has since taken over the post.)

The Supreme Council also appoints five judges to the Federal Supreme Court, which evaluates constitutional questions regarding federal laws. The judiciary can also step in when there’s a conflict between an emirate and the federal government or when two emirates have a disagreement.

Abu Dhabi and Dubai were at odds during the first years of the federation. The ruler of Dubai agreed to join the UAE in 1971, but he didn’t want to make the constitution permanent. A power struggle between the two led the Supreme Council to call off its meetings for a time in 1979, and the sheiks ended up leaving the “interim” constitution in place for almost 40 years. (They would extend its life in five-year increments.) In 1996, they finally deleted the word “interim” from the text and designated Abu Dhabi as the official capital of the UAE.

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