Fifty years ago last week, the inhabitants of the six small emirates on the western shore of the Gulf faced the new year with a mixture of excitement and apprehension. The region had for more than 150 years comprised what the British referred to as the Trucial States.
Over the previous year, however, life had changed dramatically — for the better.
Post-colonial Britain, strapped for cash, had abandoned its commitments east of Suez and left the subjects of its former protectorates to sink or swim.
Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Sharjah, Umm Al Quwain, Fujairah, Ajman and, shortly afterwards, Ras Al Khaimah, joined forces to form the United Arab Emirates.
It was a precarious start. Days before the UAE flag flew for the first time over Union House in Dubai on Dec. 2, 1971, Iran, waiting until the British garrisons had shipped out, seized the Arabian islands of Abu Musa and the Greater and Lesser Tunbs, now part of the new federation.
Those were nerve-racking days. Abu Musa is barely 60 kilometres from the UAE coastline and, after decades of being protected by British military might, the newborn nation found itself with little more standing between it and Iranian aggression than the Trucial Oman Scouts, the paramilitary police force founded and officered by Britain.
In the Gulf on New Year’s Eve 1971, no one could say for certain exactly what the year 1972 would bring.
Fifty years later, the UAE and the other Gulf states contemplate the arrival of 2022 and the withdrawal from the region of another global power grown weary of expending blood and treasure east of Suez.
Even before the inauguration of Joe Biden in January 2021, the incoming US administration had made no secret of its intention to “do less, not more” in the Middle East. The precipitous and ultimately chaotic withdrawal of the US from Afghanistan in August brought home to many exactly what that might look like.
But, in the same way that the withdrawal of Britain 50 years ago freed the emirates of the UAE to act for themselves, opening the door to an era of unparalleled economic and social development, the scaling back of American interests and influence presents political opportunities for a region.
There can be no doubt that the presence of the US military, rather like that of the British half a century earlier, has been a welcome comfort blanket about the looming threat of Iran.
UAE thrived beyond expectations
But after all, freed of Britain’s protection, the UAE thrived beyond expectations.
Now, freed of the weight of American influence and the politically expedient need to follow Washington’s lead as the US pursued its interests in the region, what might the Gulf states achieve on their own account?
A great deal, if the diplomatic developments over the past year are any indication.
On Dec. 6, the UAE’s top security adviser visited Tehran for talks with Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi.
It is worth noting that the UAE Armed Forces have become one of the best-trained and well-armed military machines in the Arab world. Just three days before the meeting the UAE had signed a $19 billion deal to buy 80 Rafale jets from France.
And the UAE-Iran rapprochement was no outlier. The visit followed a reported four rounds of talks between Saudi Arabia and Iran in Baghdad. In August, meanwhile, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Iran were all represented at a summit organised jointly by Iraq and France and at which the US was conspicuous by its absence.
On Dec. 13, Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett made a historic first official visit by an Israeli prime minister to the UAE.
What all this means for the wider region depends in part on the ongoing efforts in Vienna to revive the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran. Neither the UAE nor Saudi Arabia are party to the talks, despite their concern that any deal should seek also to end Iran’s disruptive support of armed militias throughout the region.
But what is clear is that the Saudis and the Emiratis, backed by the wider GCC, are determined to engage with Tehran diplomatically, on their own terms and in the wider interests of the region.
No one can say for certain exactly what the new year will bring. What is clear, however, is that the UAE has never been better placed to map its own destiny — and that it is equipped and resolved to do so.
Jonathan Gornall is a British journalist, formerly with The Times, who has lived and worked in the Middle East and is now based in the UK