text and photo editing by Phoebus Voulgaris, Member of the International Affairs & Foreign Policy Research Team

UAE, nowadays, stands for the United Arab Emirates. However, at least at a conceptual level, this was not always the case as, during the late 1960s, when Great Britain decided to withdraw its military forces from The Gulf, a plan for a Union of Arab Emirates was born. This study aims to examine the causes for which that Union never came to exist and the manner in which that theoretical Union of 9 in reality became a federation comprising 7 United Arab Emirates. Moreover, the aforementioned process will be compared with the relevant european experience after the Second World War and try to reach some conclusions regarding the sustainability of the European Union in the presence of elements, whose existence or absence turned the ambitious Union of many into a more centrally-controlled federation of fewer participants.

In 1968, Great Britain, which since 1820 had made bilateral agreements with the Arab Emirates of  Qatar, Bahrain, Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Sharjah, Ajman, Fujairah, Umm al-Quwain and Ras al-Khaimah that essentially made them British Protectorates in exchange for security from threats hailing from the sea, such as piracy -and in this manner unofficially exerted influence in the area, guaranteed by its military presence, which in turn assured the borders of the protectorates as well (Anglo-Turkish Conventions 1913)- announced that it would pull out its forces from the Arabian peninsula after the emergency in Aden and counter-colonialist insurgency it entailed. This notice gave rise to security concerns regarding the gap that such an act would leave, especially since it is well known in international relations theory that such gaps create instability because all the states in the area compete to fill them. This case is rather remarkable, since it is one of the few times when the disengagement of a colonial power was unwanted by those who were under its influence. It can thus be ascertained that the people of the peninsula perceived Great Britain more like a security provider and less like a colonialist, something that is reinforced by the fact that they were indeed self-administered. Under those circumstances, Britain wished to create some kind of federal formation that would keep the regional system from losing its balance, but feared that its interference would lead to another failure like in the case of the Federation of South Arabia (Onley, 2008), and so their support was only verbal at best.

In the case of the Arab Emirates of the Gulf, when trying to understand the elements that led to the original plan for a Union, there exist a number of historical factors that need to be taken into consideration. Firstly, relations between them throughout their coexistence have been to a significant extent those of protector-protegé and there has existed an ever present fear of isolation, which made them more willing to take part in alliances. Moreover, the inhabitants of the peninsula, for the most part, share a common language (Arabic) and religion (with the exception of Bahrain the majority is Sunni muslim ) and a similar culture (deriving from religion) and threat perception (like pirates in the Gulf and Iran), however the allegiance of the people lies not with the nation, but in the leadership of their emirate (Friedman, 2017). Hence, the hypothesis of a common identity between them is only partly correct, generating a degree of favourable circumstances for a community of Emirates but at the same time not being enough to ascertain the existence of an unbreakable and clear bond between the people. Nonetheless, those notions, coupled with the insecurity produced by Britain’s programmed withdrawal from the area, led the aforementioned Arab Emirates to consider the formation of a Union. They opted for a Union and not a federation of United Emirates so as to retain their power and codify a system of balance of power in the West side of the Gulf. The problem with this scheme arose from the fact that there existed long-lasting rivalries between the Emirates, there was no political will for compromising solutions and at the same time every member of the prospective Union wished to have the leading role in it. Despite the lack of faith in their unification plan, and in between themselves, the proposed plan was really ambitious and its approach seemed to aim at an immediate formation of the whole structure of the Union including a Supreme Council, an Assembly and a permanent capital city(Friedman 2017). More specifically, such a modus operandi is evident from the fact that the Arab Emirates aimed to establish a constitution and have an assembly in which they would be represented. However the role of the latter was later changed to strictly consultational due to concerns that if it were any other way, given that representation was going to be proportionate to an Emirate’s population and Bahrain had the greatest one, it would control at least half of the assembly’s seats, something that wasn’t acceptable not only in terms of the interests of the other Emirates but also due to a claim that Iran had on Bahraini territory which could manifest into a threat if Bahrain were to play a central role in the Union. Another problem that needed to be discussed was the selection of a permanent capital. The discussions eventually proceeded rather slowly and in the meantime, Bahrain, which had sought to forge a Union with the other eight Emirates so as to gain support in its opposition to the aforementioned territorial claim of Iran, secretly managed to solve that dispute. As a result, it did not need to partake in the Union anymore and chose to promote its own independence, opting to wait only at the behest of the King of Saudi Arabia, out of respect for him. Nonetheless, due to the fact that there was no agreement towards a constitution, in 1971 Bahrain declared its independence and Qatar soon followed suit despite the pleas of Saudi King Feysal who believed that a Union of Arab Emirates without any of them would be controlled by Abu Dhabi. The prediction of the Saudi King came true when in December 1971 a federation of first 6 (and a year later 7) Arab Emirates was established, in which Abu Dhabi had used its wealth to acquire the allegiance of the other constituents and whose only remaining relatively competent rival, Dubai, was not strong enough to counter it. Thus was born the more centrally controlled UAE (Friedman, 2017).

The European experience greatly differed for a variety of reasons. First of all, in Europe there existed national differentiation and people had distinct national identities and interests. The strife of Europe had been a never ending one, with the countries in the continent enduring through many wars and conflicts. However, those disputes were annulled in the wake of the Second World War, when all European states were in a state of disrepair and had to be rebuilt (Nugent, 1989).

Along with having a common starting point, and no one having a surplus of power in the area, there were a number of other parameters which contributed to the establishment of European cooperation. Primo, the role of more than one “external federator”. Stalin is commonly named “the Father of Europe», as he represented the common threat of communism which led Europe to band together to resist it. Apart from him, there is also the undeniable role of the United States of America, which provided help for the reconstruction of the continent under the condition that greater interstate cooperation would be formed (Marshall Plan). Secundo, the new cooperation to-be, would be based on the common management of coal and steel that was in the valley of Ruhr (the heart of Germany’s industry), which was a rather ludicrous venture, and would later become institutionalised and well-known as the European Coal and Steel Community (Nugent 1989). Besides having positive and negative motives to promote its creation, the European experience was different from the Arabic one in another way as well. It chose an incremental approach, making constant, yet usually stumbling, small steps towards further integration. As such, at the start it focused on matters of so-called ”low politics» like economic cooperation that were not at the core of national interests and in which there could be concessions which would further the wellbeing of all member states and would, according to neofunctionalists, lead to a spill-over of cooperation in other fields as well (Nugent, 1989).

After seventy years, there have been some parameters that have changed, altering the foundations of the European Union. For starters the motives for participation in it have drastically changed. The Soviet Union and the threat of the imposition of a different model of economic and political being have ceased to exist and the security perceptions have become more diversified, with more and more policy areas being securitised and different prioritisation of them by member states. In the words of the CIA’s director in the 1990s: “We have slain the dragon” but now have to deal with a “bewildering variety of poisonous snakes” (Kilcullen, 2020). Moreover, the extent to which this plethora of phantom menaces can work to maintain cooperation is under no circumstances undisputable, especially since the security cooperation of the EU remains pegged to the unanimity of all member states. Aside from the negative incentives that have become less threatening to the entirety of the system, thus promoting a sense of complacency, the positive ones are also getting less compelling due to the fact that their effects are not always visible or appreciated. In other words the Union does provide funds for social cohesion and tries to take actions for the amelioration of all its member states, however they, having recovered their power, are more concerned about their specific national interests and tend to overlook, or deem as insufficient, such efforts. Nevertheless, the problem of the lack of positive motivation does not lie only with the perception of the states but also with the viewpoint of the people which in turn is generated by the inability of the Union to be truly United, something that became painfully obvious by the great divide between the EU member states during both the Eurozone crisis of 2009 (Priyanka, 2020) and the migrant crisis of 2015 (UNHCR, 2015), which according to the European Commission’s public opinion data, made 20% of EU citizens view the Union negatively for some years after the crises. Today that percentage is close to 15% which is still alarming (data before coronavirus outbreak 11/2019) (European Commission, 2020).

In times of rising Euroscepticism, the ashes of the Union of Arab Emirates have to be a lesson to the European Union. A wake up call so that it betters itself. This lesson isn’t a matter of life or death, meaning it won’t decide the continuation of the Union. Nonetheless, it will be important that it is understood so as to quell the existing concerns and make the EU a true Union and not just a cooperation of states. This study advocates that what brought about the demise of the Union of Arab Emirates is the fact that it was based only on security concerns that were not concrete, that the Emirates comprising it had deep routed rivalries and unequal power between themselves and that they all wished to be “first among equals”. This study also argues that another important factor was the lack of positive incentives for a cooperation of such a degree. In the two cases of Bahrain and Qatar there reached a point when they could no longer find justification in remaining in a Union where every Emirate wished to further its own interests and have a leading role. Those that have remained up to these days are Emirates that are too meager to fend for themselves and accept the primacy of Abu Dhabi so as to maintain their security. In the case of the European Union, as has already been stated, the threats after the end of the Cold War have become more variable and the positive incentives have been compromised by national interests. It is also evident that certain states hold more power than others and utilize it to promote their national interests, thus creating the feeling of a Union where there do exist some who are more equal than the rest in the influence they exert. Nonetheless, it would be unfair to claim that the EU hasn’t made efforts to create positive incentives. A great example in that regard is the Erasmus program which seeks to create a European Identity which may in the future be able to overpower the national interests and promote the interest of all the member states. Despite such examples, it seems that cooperation is more prevalent in cases of negative incentives, but even so such alliances tend to last as long as the perceived threat. In essence, so as to have a viable Union, in which states will want to partake, there is a need for the creation of positive incentives for cooperation which emphasize the common foundations upon which it is built and will in turn lead to an international empathy and understanding of the national interests of all member states and a sincere effort to forge a truly common policy.

In conclusion, the “Union that never was” seems to have followed a very different kind of approach to regional integration. It had many points in its favour, such as starting from a point of common identity and being ambitious in its plans, but at the same time it was unable to overcome its structural insecurities and rivalries and was based only on fear. In essence it only had negative incentives which were not compelling to all the participants. On the other hand, the EU during its first years was based on a concrete threat and had solid external backing which created a positive motivation for its establishment. These incentives proved sufficient until the fall of the Soviet Union. However, afterwards, the lack of a prominent opponent and the pivot towards the promotion of national interests led the Union to become more similar to a coalition of states. At the same time, it is undeniable that there have been strides towards a true Union, which provides positive justification for the member states’ participation. This study concludes that a Union can be sustainable only in the condition that its existence is perceived as a necessity by its members, yet it observes that such a notion is more profitable to all states when the motive is positive. The EU has been working to create such motives but there remains a lot of work as there exist an equal amount of practices that veer it towards a more nationalistic approach.


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