A replica of a ship belonging to the Dutch East India Company at the Port of Amsterdam Image Credit: Amsterdam History Museum

At first glance it might be surprising to claim that the Netherlands and the UAE share a range of similarities despite different cultures and being located on different continents. But history and current trade and cultural relations enjoyed by the two nations prove this is indeed the case.

Though small in size, both countries boast a relatively long shoreline, making them gateways to their respective regions. The Netherlands, with its maritime industry and large seaports, is seen as an economic portal to Europe, while the UAE with its huge container trade facilities is recognised as a gateway to the Arab world and a hub for trade with Asia and Africa.

Furthermore, the Netherlands’ ties with the Arab world reach back to the 17th and 18th centuries. This period, considered the Dutch “golden era”, saw the nation become a great economic power, thanks to lucrative trade routes.

Establishing trade posts
In 1602, the Netherlands established the Dutch East India Company (Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie or VOC) to trade mainly silk and precious metals in exchange for spices from Asia and India. Its network of commercial operations in this part of the world soon stretched from the Red Sea and the Arabian Gulf to the South China Sea and the Japanese coast, with trade ventures across Asia.

Several trade posts were opened in the Arab region. One important trade route for spices stretched from Batavia (today’s Jakarta in Indonesia) via Surat on India’s western coast, to Mocha, at that time the leading sea port on the Arabian peninsula (today Al Mucha in Yemen).

The Dutch established their first Arab trading post in Mocha, but soon used other trans-shipment points, together with the British trade fleet, in Aden, Al Hudaida and Al Luhayya (all in Yemen), Muscat (Oman), Jeddah (Saudi Arabia), or, on the African side of the Red Sea coast, through Massawa (today in Eritrea), Sawakin and Aydhab (both today in Sudan).

The year 1622 marked the advance of Dutch commercial interests into the Arabian Gulf when the Portuguese, after a dominance of 150 years in the region, lost their strategic base in Ormuz (today Bandar Abbas in Iran) to a joint force of Persian and British warships.

Ormuz, an important Middle Eastern port at the time, controlled all trading routes from the Arabian Gulf to India and East Africa. After the Portuguese were expelled, Dutch and British merchants gained commercial foothold in Bandar Abbas, Basra (Iraq), Khor Fakkan and Julfar/Ras Al Khaimah in the UAE.

The Dutch started massive trade operations within the Gulf region in spices, cotton, textiles, sugar, copper, and iron, in exchange for silk and pearls. They also opened trade posts in Shiraz, Busher and Kerman, in Iran, in the 17th century.

Increasing prominence
Constant conflicts with the British over trade licenses and taxes in the Arabian Gulf region came to an end when the British lost their Gulf bases following the end of the first Anglo-Dutch war in 1654. The Dutch VOC took over the majority of the trade operations in the Gulf with great commercial success. It was the golden age of Dutch mercantile operations in the region.

By 1669, the VOC was the richest company the world had seen thus far, with more than 150 merchant ships, 40 warships, 50,000 employees, a private army of 10,000 soldiers, and — as it was the first corporation in the world to issue stocks — an annual dividend payment of 40 per cent.

However, Dutch commercial influence weakened in the mid-18th century after conflicts with the British and the French reignited, and a constant increase in levies by local trading partners in the Gulf led to deteriorating relations with local authorities.

Dutch merchants reduced the presence at their trading bases and shifted economic activities to the Island of Kharg (today part of Iran), where they established a fort and a trading post for indigenous pearls. However, due to a conflict in interest with the local population, the Dutch were expelled from Kharg in 1766, which ended their physical presence in the region. But trade operations continued for a few decades, mainly through Muscat.

Trade was always considered the most important factor for relations between the Netherlands and the UAE, and these ties continue to become stronger today.
It has been acknowledged by Arab historians that the Dutch presence in the Gulf has led to a radical transformation of commercial structures and also contributed to the region’s historiography, with documents compiled by the Dutch being considered of high significance for the history of the UAE as well.

These documents, for example, shed light on the history of Ras Al Khaimah, tribal conflicts, social life and on geographical details of regions such as Musandam, the Tunb, Abu Musa and Sirri islands. The first detailed cartography, for instance, of Dibba, Khor Fakkan and the coastline between Khasab and Muscat, originated from Dutch seafarers and explorers.

The long historical relations between the two nations are reflected today through thriving trade relations and cultural and academic exchange. Excellent trade relations are reflected by a large number of Dutch companies and Dutch expatriates in the UAE.

Moreover, in 2002, the UAE opened an embassy at the Hague, the seat of the Dutch government. In 2007, a historic agreement for the avoidance of double taxation was signed, which came into force in 2010.

Khalid Ali Al Bustani, Executive Director of International Finance Relations Sector at the Ministry of Finance in the UAE, said in a ministerial note on the occasion in June last year: “The Netherlands has a favourable economic environment for long-term economic growth due to its transparency, economic diversity and status as a leading hub for global capital. Our strong relationship with the Netherlands is evident from the hundreds of Dutch companies operating in the UAE, and the presence of thousands of Dutch nationals who live and work here.”

In return, the Netherlands opened the Netherlands Foreign Investment Agency in the UAE in 2008.

The Dutch embassy in the UAE organised the celebration of the 400th anniversary of the Dutch East India Company in 2002 in Abu Dhabi. Similar cultural exchanges and events take place annually, leading “to the strengthening of ties through cultural events and promote our trade relations as more people learn about each other,” as the Netherlands Business Council in the UAE — a networking platform for business people — puts it in its comment on bilateral relations between the two nations.

Other regions of cooperation include, for example, academic exchange between Dubai Knowledge Village and Dutch educational organisations, or investments by major UAE enterprises such as Taqa in the Netherlands.

Dutch East India Company founded.
1602-22 Dutch merchants establish trade posts on the Red Sea coast of the Arabian Peninsula to support thriving trade between India, East Asia and Europe.
1622 First trade hub established in the Gulf (Bandar Abbas).
1622-52 Dutch trade expands, with important trade posts in today’s Iran, Iraq, the UAE and Oman.
1654-1753 “Golden era” of Dutch trade in the Gulf region.
1753 Conflict with British and French interests emerge. Relations with local authorities deteriorate due to heavy taxation on traded goods. Dutch retreat to Kharg Island to establish new trade post.
1766 Dutch expelled from Kharg Island. End of Gulf presence.
1800 Dutch East India Company is dissolved.