Although Oman and the United Arab Emirates (a federation of Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Sharjah, Ajman, Rasal-Khaimah, Umm-al-Qaiwan and Fujairah) have been independent since the early 1970s,1 independence did not bring harmony. In the early 1950s, for example, Emirati, Omani and Saudi tribes fought a bitter battle over the Buraimi Oasis that left scars on the entire region. After independence, and especially after the 1981 creation of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), the two states improved relations considerably, periodic tensions notwithstanding. Their relations have evolved through a stream of epoch-making developments, especially between 1952 and May 1999, when an accord on the lingering disputes was finally concluded. This paper examines the long-term implications of this three-decade long feud and the foundations on which UAE-Omani political and economic ties are based.
In the second half of the 1940s, two major political changes took place in the Arab Gulf region. The first was the transfer of Britain’s Political Residency headquarters from Bushire on the Persian side of the Gulf to Bahrain on the Arab side. This transfer resulted in the severing of London’s longstanding connection with Persia, marking the renewed importance of the Arab Gulf emirates. The second was the transfer on April 1, 1949, of responsibility for the Political Residency from the government of India to the Foreign Office in London. This marked a new British attitude towards the lower Gulf.2 Amid abrupt political changes and substantial instability in the aftermath of World War II and the start of the Cold War, the lower Gulf sheikhdoms showed surprising stability and endurance. Savvy rulers only feared the intrigues of other members of their families. Due to the lack of political awareness among the masses, there were very few signs of popular demand for more “democratic” forms of government or organized political institutions that could deal with emerging political issues.
Until the 1930s, because of specific agreements with several rulers, the British refrained from interfering in the internal affairs of what were called the Trucial Sheikhdoms, so long as the peace at sea was kept. The attitude was one of benign neglect. As one official declared,
They could fight each other as much as they liked by land, and we did not hesitate to recognize a ruler who had acquired power by murder. The construction of an airport at Sharjah and the grant of oil concessions to an oil company forced us to modify this policy to some extent.3
British attitudes towards the Sultanate of Oman, on the other hand, were sharply different. Omani “independence” had been ensured after Britain and France undertook to respect a sovereign Sultanate in 1892. This fortunate development may well owe its character to the popular tenets of the Ibadi sect of Islam, which provided successive Omani rulers with strong domestic harmony, internecine disputes notwithstanding.4 Omani tribes, divided into two major groups – the Al-Hinawi, who sought the support of the sultan, and the Al-Ghafri, who sought the support of King Abdul Aziz Al Saud (1902-53) in central Arabia – united against outside foes. Periodic clashes resulted in devastating consequences. The stability of the sultanate was of major concern to the British government, eager to retain its air base at Masirah Island intact. Moreover, London was adamant to maintain and enhance its over-flight rights throughout the area.
Equally important, the British perceived their relationship with the sultan as a useful counterbalance to their various “relationships” elsewhere in the region. Indeed, London persuaded successive sultans to greet nascent emirates with less than full support, if not outright hostility. In part as a result of this legacy, and in part because of its own imperial history, Omani perceptions of the emirates before 1971, and the UAE after, have resulted in incident-prone ties. Between 1952 and 1999, the UAE-Oman relationship went through four distinct phases: 1952-71, tense relations dominated by the Buraimi crisis; 1971-79, political thaw; 1979-99, more relaxed political and economic exchanges; post-May 1999, a far more optimistic outlook, provided various actors abandoned past suspicions.
OMAN AND THE TRUCIAL STATES, 1952-71
Until the 1950s, neither the Trucial States nor the Sultanate of Oman (the “Tibet of Arabia”) had any sense of official political boundaries. In fact, Oman could be described as totally isolated. The sultan had no close ties with any of his Arab neighbors and seemed unwilling to make an effort to establish any. Although the sultan was the overall sovereign, a part of the interior, the highland, as well as the mountain area to the east, was under an Ibadi imam,5 the traditional head of the Ibadi state.6
The Trucial states were in no better condition. They were part of the British Empire and politically and economically deprived. The lack of any form of governmental system meant that the area would be unable to deal with serious issues such as boundary disputes.7 These conditions mirrored the area’s political status. Socially, it was inhabited by a number of nomadic pastoral tribes with cultural and social links derived from the Arabian heartland. Until oil was discovered, tribal conditions prevailed throughout. Communications between Oman and the Trucial states were tedious at best, taking days or even weeks to reach a destination. Trade relations between the two countries were usually stable.
The Buraimi Crisis
The Omani attitude towards the Trucial States was reflected in the Sultanate’s claims to many areas inside Trucial Oman. The issue with the most dramatic and far-reaching implications during the 1950s was that of the Buraimi Oasis.8 In fact, the 1950s was characterized by frontier disputes that escalated alarmingly, culminating in armed conflict and international intervention. At that time, Oman claimed boundaries with four of the emirates: Abu Dhabi over the Buraimi Oasis, Sharjah over Wadi Madha, Ras-al-Khaimah over Wadi al Quar and the mountain region, and Fujairah over some inland areas.
Importantly, Omani claims extended to various tribes that inhabited the Trucial States. Indeed, Muscat maintained that several tribes living on the border of both countries were its own subjects. The Naim, Al Bu-Shamis, Bani Qitab and Bani Kaab were all claimed to be Omani as well. Such claims effectively meant the territories they ostensibly held were Oman’s. Muscat further claimed that a number of “chiefs” had visited the sultan in Muscat, where they pledged their allegiance. In the event, the matter remained unsettled until oil explorations started, and the inland chiefs asked for their share of oil revenues. They approached both the sheikh of Abu Dhabi and the sultan of Oman, asking whether the British government would use its good offices to arrange a settlement of disputes.
The issue reached a dramatic stage when, in the early 1950s, London sought to introduce some administrative changes in the lower Gulf. One of these notable changes was the introduction of the Trucial Oman Levies (later to be renamed the Trucial Oman Scouts), a sort of armed force that aimed to keep inland peace. The force was established in 1950, and its first task was to intervene in the Buraimi crisis, where it confronted Saudi troops.9
For some years before 1937, Saudi ambitions had led it to claim land frontiers with the states of the lower Gulf as well as the Sultanate – even the Aden Protectorate – all considerably in advance of what could be accepted by the parties concerned. Still, the hope of an agreement had to be abandoned because no faction could maintain full control over the area. The boundaries were left undefined, though it was generally known that the sultan of Oman had no interest beyond the edge of the great sands of the Rub al Khali desert. Still, even if Omani ambitions did not include what is today Saudi territory, Muscat had long-term interests in the Trucial States. In this it clashed with Riyadh, which had well-known historical claims to the Buraimi oasis.
After World War II, the Saudi government revived its latent claims, but once again negotiations had to be abandoned. Saudi demands had increased beyond those that were previously rejected, resulting in a standstill. At the important January 1952 Damam meeting, Saudi Arabia, Abu Dhabi, Qatar, as well as the British political resident, Sir Rupert Hay, clashed.10 After several fruitless sessions, the conference had to be adjourned.
The failure to resolve the frontier dispute through negotiations between Abu Dhabi and Saudi Arabia and, on a parallel level, between Oman and Saudi Arabia meant that armed confrontation could not be ruled out. Shortly thereafter, Riyadh appointed Turki bin Abdullah bin Utaishan as its representative in Buraimi, dispatching him to the Oasis on August 31, 1952, to be accountable directly to the ruler of Al-Hasa.11 Bin Utaishan arrived accompanied by about 40 men including clerks, policemen and attendants, as well as fast-food supplies. He stayed at the village of Hamasa, the capital of the Oasis.
Despite this clear deployment, the Saudis maintained that their claim had a long historical background that had to be abandoned. In October 1952, without any warning, Bin Utaishan entered Hamasa (at the request of its shaikh, Rashid bin Hamad of the Al Bu Shams), proclaimed himself governor, and announced that he had come at the call of the indigenous population to “protect them.”12 In fact, the emissary asserted that he defined the area broadly, certainly including various villages spread throughout the settlement.
The sultan of Oman, Said bin Taymur (1932-70) and the imam both raised large tribal forces and marched on Buraimi.13 The two forces were strong enough to overwhelm the Saudis. However, the British consul general requested the sultan not to go any further.14 The sultan reluctantly retired, as did the imam, but the sultan asked the British government to join his protest with that of the sheikh of Abu Dhabi and demand the withdrawal of the emissary and his party. Moreover, the British requested that the Saudi government arrange the immediate withdrawal of Turki bin Utaishan and all his followers from the area, subject to their 1951 London agreement.
For reasons that remain undetermined, the demand was ignored, and, with every tribal leader supporting him, the Omani ruler proceeded to rally forces until some 6,000-8,000 had assembled at Sohar.15 Only the sheikh of Hamasa, Rashid bin Hamad, along with a minor sheikh, opposed the mobilization.16 Even the reclusive imam in Nizwa, Muhammad bin Abdullah Al-Khalili (1920-54), lent his support to the sultan.17 It was only after Riyadh had agreed to submit to arbitration and Britain had appealed to Oman to do likewise that the sultan disbanded his forces. All parties entered into an arbitration agreement providing for the withdrawal of forces from the disputed zone. A six-month period was agreed upon to allow concerned parties to prepare their respective “memorials.” Yet by the time the assembly was to meet in Geneva, so intolerable had the Saudi intrigues become – through bribery and intimidation – that the British member of the Tribunal had no alternative but to resign, followed by the neutral president.18 At no time did the Saudis deny the charges of corruption. Even Egypt joined the chorus of criticism, in part to enhance its nascent influence in the Arab world by attempting to induce the new imam to side with Riyadh. The imam, elected on the death of Muhammad bin Abdullah, had fallen prey to Egyptian intrigues. Against the background of these machinations, the sultan of Oman and the sheikh of Abu Dhabi denounced the arbitration agreement and reoccupied Buraimi. Moreover, along with the government of Aden, both announced a new land frontier running along the edge of the great sands, which they proposed to defend. Parallel to these developments, the sultan had to pay attention to restoring his authority in the interior, after the new imam – goaded by Egypt – gained popularity. In this instance as well, Saudi attempts to bribe poor tribal leaders to join their ranks colored developments even further. The sultan dispatched some of his forces to Ibri and, after the reoccupation of Buraimi, seized the important city of Nizwa. The fall of the imam’s capital essentially meant that the new imam, finding himself without support, had no choice but to resign. He “retired” to his home under the protection of the Al Hinai sheikh. As the sultan shared a tribal background with the imam, and foreign threats were looming, the two men decided to cooperate.
The Buraimi Resolution
The Saudi bid for Buraimi was based on the claim that it had exercised sovereignty over the area since the early nineteenth century. Britain, for its part, lodged a protest through its ambassador in Jeddah on September 14, 1952, claiming that the oasis was part of the territories of the sheikhdoms and the Sultanate of Oman, as embodied in various treaties. Moreover, London insisted that the arrival of Turki bin Utaishan was an outright violation of said treaties. The British memorandum demanded bin Utaishan’s immediate withdrawal. It was made clear that Britain was forwarding this demand on behalf of Oman, but there were no mention of the ruler of Abu Dhabi, implying to Saudi Arabia that “that particular spot, Hamasa, occupied by the Saudi representative, was Omani territory.”19
At this time, the Saudis were trying to strengthen their ties with several Omani factions. They were already in contact with Suliman bin Himyar, leader of the Ghafari faction, who since 1946 had been trying to change the status quo in the sultanate.20 In 1950, he had made two approaches to the British political resident asking for recognition of his own independent status; he repeated this in 1951. Bin Himyar contacted the Saudi wali, Turki bin Utaishan, and went to see King Abdul Aziz Ibn Saud.21 Later he began to issue his own passports and by early 1954 seemed to have gained some hold over the dying imam, who granted him authority to appeal to the Saudis and Egyptians for recognition of his putative “independence.” When Imam Muhammad bin Abdullah Al-Khalili died in Nizwa in the spring of 1954, the sultan of Oman seized the opportunity to reassert his authority throughout Oman. A combination of events – the election of pro-Saudi Imam Ghalib bin Ali Al-Hinawi22 and the arrival in the interior of the oil company’s team – prompted the sultan to mount a military expedition, with the help of the British, that occupied all the principal towns of Oman and united the whole country for the first time in a hundred years.23
Developments in Oman in 1954-55 were characterized by the search for oil, revealed through a careful reading of the so-called Buraimi documents captured in October 1955. They indicate, for example, that it was the task of the Saudi police detachment in Buraimi to act as intermediary between Riyadh and Imam Ghalib. They further illustrate how the Saudis showered the imam with gifts of money to secure his support and that of surrounding tribes.24 The objective of such a liberal policy was, ostensibly, to establish the imam as an independent sovereign actor. In May 1955, the new king of Saudi Arabia, Saud, ordered his envoy, Abdullah bin Jalwai, to strengthen his influence in Buraimi. In June, the monarch forwarded a personal message of support to the imam, asking the latter to dispatch a representative to his court. The same month, the imam received 1,000 rifles, 10,000 rounds of ammunition, and 20,000 Saudi riyals, certainly a considerable fortune at the time. Vigilant British agents spotted Egyptian operatives in Buraimi as well. Meanwhile, the imam’s forces succeeded in occupying Ibri, the chief center of the Duru tribes in October 1954. Increasingly, the imam became a political tool in Riyadh’s hands.
On November 12, 1954, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, governor of Al-Ain (the eastern province of Abu Dhabi) arrived in Ibri from Buraimi at the request of Edward Henderson, then representing the Petroleum Development, Trucial Coast (PDTC).25 Henderson’s aim was to check the authority of both Oman and Abu Dhabi. In October 1955, the British government refused the 1952 standstill agreement and resolved to take military action. On October 25, the Trucial Oman Scouts were to go into Buraimi. They would ask the Saudi contingent of 15 police and the Saudi governor to leave. In the House of Commons, Sir Anthony Eden declared on October 26, 1955, that the Oman Scouts, under the command of British officers, had occupied Buraimi and expelled all Saudis after exhausting other means at their disposal.26 Britain settled the conflict decisively at least for a time. It was a victory for British oil companies engaged in sustained competition with American counterparts. As the area lacked distinctly demarcated frontiers, it was not too difficult to exploit existing differences to one’s unobstructed advantage.
Meanwhile, London was aware that some sort of agreement had to be reached between the Trucial States and their neighbors, Oman and Saudi Arabia, to deescalate the potential for conflict. Ras-al-Khaimah, for instance, had lodged a formal complaint that Oman had established a border post at Aswad. Their object was to collect customs duties on all vehicles passing through Wadi al Quar to the Batinah coast, Kalba and Fujairah. The ruler of Ras-al-Khaimah, Sheikh Saqar bin Muhammad Al Qasimi, was much disturbed with this act of “aggression” by the sultan of Oman and regarded the post to be within Qawasim territory. This particular matter led the rulers of Ras-al-Khaimah, Sharjah and Fujairah to lodge a joint complaint with the British government about customs duties levied by Muscat at Aswad.27 Despite the complaints, Muscat refused to change its practices and, accordingly, the ruler of Sharjah refused the governor of Shinas entrance into his territories from Wadi Mudha. In turn, this action led the Omanis to voice their own opposition, maintaining that all of the villages of Wadi Mudha were in fact Omani. As such, the ruler of Sharjah had no claim over them, because most of their inhabitants were Shihuh tribesmen. The latter had given their allegiance to the sultan of Oman and allowed their affairs to be formally administrated by the Omani governor of Khasab further to the north.28 Muscat could at least claim a certain victory, but it was pyrrhic.
Despite Omani claims, the British were skeptical and, according to the political resident, “ c[ould] find nothing in any records here to show that the Sultan owns any territory in the Shamailiyah tract north of the Aswad-Khatam al Milaha boundary, or south of Baiah (Dibah) to el-Khatti.”29 Making matters worse, two of the villages hoisted Sharjah flags, further preventing a local solution.
During the period from spring 1956 to summer 1957, the British political resident in the Gulf issued several orders to solve border disputes among the Trucial States but refrained from judgment over other areas, including those between the Trucial States and the Sultanate. Still, the result of his many orders was a very strange map of the area, as almost every emirate had an attachment. The exception to this general rule was Umm al-Qaiwain.30
Although London had tried to solve border disputes among the emirates, it opted to leave their boundaries with Oman untouched. Meanwhile events in Oman were shifting. The imam had appealed to Saudi Arabia for help, aware that King Saud was still chafing at Britain’s role in the Buraimi crisis. Saudi Arabia provided the imam with military and financial assistance as he organized the Oman Liberation Army (OLA). In 1957, he led it into Oman. The sultan, desperate to maintain the new unity of his country, appealed to Britain for assistance. British forces went into action and the OLA was defeated.31
Meanwhile, between 1958 and 1960, with British assistance, rulers throughout the emirates, except for the Qawasim, had opened negotiations with the sultan of Oman to address existing differences and delineate borders to better exploit whatever oil resources existed in the area. Later on, negotiations between Ras-al-Khaimah and Sharjah on the one hand, and the Sultanate of Oman on the other, resulted in a final solution between these parties.32 Elsewhere, however, borders remained undefined. To be sure, Saudi influence diminished, but the hasty nation-building goal only placed several irritations on the back burner.
OMAN AND THE UAE, 1971-79
The 1970s was a period of massive political change in the whole Gulf region. A palace coup in 1970 brought Sultan Qabus bin Said to power in Oman, and the sultanate moved rapidly to make up for lost time after the self-imposed isolation by Sultan Said bin Taymur (1932-70). Meanwhile, in the UAE, 1971 marked the declaration of independence. A new chapter opened in the relations between the two new independent states. Whereas the previous period was dominated by tribal traditions, the 1970s – especially after increased oil revenues redefined priorities – created opportunities for both neighbors.
One of the more influential factors during this period was Saudi Arabia’s initial reluctance to recognize the UAE federation as an independent country. In King Faysal’s view, recognition necessitated a settlement of the outstanding border dispute between Abu Dhabi and Saudi Arabia. As a result, Riyadh opted to “assist” individual sheikhdoms separately, in clear violation of UAE sovereignty. This certainly disturbed Abu Dhabi, especially since several rulers envisaged their relationships with the kingdom as a form of guarantee against Abu Dhabi, the dominant emerging federal authority. In turn, Saudi officials perceived their role in the lower Gulf as a clear opportunity to extend the kingdom’s growing sphere of influence throughout the Arabian Peninsula. Therefore, Riyadh did not seek to create a working relationship with the UAE federal government. This, inevitably, irked Abu Dhabi. The initial non-recognition of the union constituted a source of anxiety for Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, the president of the UAE and the ruler of Abu Dhabi, because Saudi demands were unrealistic and, left unaddressed, a potential source of conflict. In the event, Riyadh claimed the annexation of extensive land holdings, some of which straddled large oil fields. It was not until August 21, 1974, when King Faysal and Sheikh Zayed signed an agreement in Jidda, that the first demarcation of frontiers between Abu Dhabi and Saudi Arabia was initialed. Immediately thereafter, Riyadh declared its recognition of the UAE as an independent state, designated its first ambassador, and promoted its liaison office in Dubai to a consulate.
This accord consolidated Sheikh Zayed’s own position within the federation, as it helped remove an old and difficult obstacle and ended, at least theoretically, several unilateral relations between individual emirates and Saudi Arabia. Few doubted that such “privileged” ties weakened the nascent union. Aware of how damaging these contacts were in the period between 1971 and 1974, Sheikh Zayed sacrificed some territory to Saudi Arabia’s ultimate advantage, to end the power struggle between the federal authority and local governments. Abu Dhabi opted to develop the fledgling federal entity into a unitary state, even if border disputes between the UAE and its neighbors were at their peak. Disputes with Saudi Arabia, Iran, Qatar and Oman constituted clear obstacles to the union, and all needed urgent attention.
The UAE-Oman Border
Prior to December 2, 1971, the sultanate considered the emirates part of its territory.33 As a result of historical bonds, and despite Sultan Qabus bin Said’s support for the establishment of the UAE, the struggle over territorial sovereignty left a negative impact on relations between the two countries at least until 1979. In fact, the period from 1971 to 1979 was marked by substantial swings in the policies pursued by both neighbors, with each other as well as with third parties. Muscat consistently refused, for example, to maintain full diplomatic relations with the UAE by failing to appoint an ambassador to Abu Dhabi. Even if this diplomatic démarche irritated Sheikh Zayed, Abu Dhabi offered unbridled support to Sultan Qabus in the latter’s civil war against the People’s Front for the Liberation of Oman and the Arab Gulf (PFLOAG).34 Abu Dhabi donated 28 armored cars – a huge part of the emirate’s limited arsenal – to put down the communist rebellion in Oman’s Dhuffar province. Not only did Sheikh Zayed provide Qabus with military hardware, he even agreed to station his own troops in northern Oman, thus allowing loyal Sultani forces to deploy south throughout the Dhuffar.
This clear sign of cooperation notwithstanding, relations between the UAE and Oman deteriorated as a result of the 1974 UAE-Saudi border agreement. Muscat lodged a strong protest because Sultan Qabus felt that the UAE president, Sheikh Zayed, had inadvertently signed over parts of Omani territory to Saudi Arabia. In a November 1976 interview, Sultan Qabus acknowledged his disapproval, stressing, “All we have asked for is to correct the mistake.”35 The Omani leader denied that the sultanate had threatened to withdraw its recognition of the UAE, adding that Muscat had not been a party to the agreement, even if they were fully aware of the dialogue that took place between the Saudis and the Emiratis. Oman’s “protest” prompted Ahmed Khalifa Al-Suwaidi, the affable UAE foreign minister, to travel to London, where he clarified various issues with the Saudi monarch, King Khalid bin Abdul Aziz (1975-82) who was in London at the time. Wishing to avoid a full-fledged confrontation in the region, Al-Suwaidi successfully persuaded the Saudi monarch that the map agreed upon in 1974 should be redrawn. Although this agreement temporarily brought to an end the longstanding border dispute, the concern remained and was the cause for a 1999 Omani complaint at the United Nations.
The border dispute between Oman and the emirate of Ras-al-Khaimah erupted once again on October 25, 1977, ironically the same day that the UAE minister of state for foreign affairs, Saif Ghobash, was assassinated. In a newspaper interview with Sawt-al-Khalij in January 1977, the ruler of Ras-al-Khaimah, Shyakh Saqar bin Muhammad Al Qasimi, announced that Sultan Qabus of Oman had laid claim to the disputed area belonging to Ras-al-Khaimah called “Muscat.” The UAE asked both Iran and Saudi Arabia to intervene but without any result. Oman had reasserted its claims to a 10-mile stretch of the coast of Ras-al-Khaimah up to the village of Rams. The area encompassed a major industrial complex, including a cement factory and a fishmeal plant at the port of Khur Khuair. Ironically, this was the same area where the Ras-al-Khaimah Oil Company announced the discovery and extraction of oil.36
There was also a plan to construct an oil refinery with the possibility of producing 100,000 barrels a day. The refinery was a joint venture between Ras-al-Khaimah and Kuwait. This explains why, once the dispute broke out, Ras-al-Khaimah dispatched a mission to Kuwait to seek the latter’s mediation. On January 21, 1978, the Omani foreign minister made a brief visit to the UAE. Ras-al-Khaimah, on the other hand, was making repeated efforts to claim territory and offshore rights from Oman.
Ras-al-Khaimah revealed that it had not started to explore for oil until the British had been consulted, since they were the ones who drew the current intra-federation borders. Unconfirmed reports from the UAE and Oman published by The Times of London on December 5, 1977, claimed that troops from both countries had moved to the disputed area. Reports of armed clashes surfaced, but a large number of Omanis serving in the UAE Defense Force (UDF) refused to confront Omani troops. In an attempt to contain the crisis, Sheikh Zayed flew to Muscat on December 29, 1977, where difficult talks were held. Further confrontations were avoided, and by the first half of April 1978, three separate delegations from the UAE had visited Oman, ostensibly to negotiate an acceptable settlement. On April 7, 1979, Ras-al-Khaimah and Oman – through the mediation efforts of Sheikh Rashid bin Said Al-Maktoom, the ruler of Dubai (1958-1990) – had agreed to adopt specific bases in the demarcation of their borders.37
Even if the crisis with Oman was defused, a Cabinet reshuffle in Abu Dhabi in the spring of 1979 claimed a major victim: Ahmed Khalifa Al-Suwaidi, the architect of the federation, foreign minister from 1971 to 1980, and the astute negotiator with Riyadh. Although his resignation was publicly blamed on his unwillingness to participate in the new government, it was most likely prompted by Saudi Arabia’s displeasure with the settlement of the dispute with Muscat. This illustrated how delicate Sheikh Zayed’s task was in governing the UAE and, equally important, how difficult it was to maintain the balance of power between Saudi Arabia and Oman.
If the 1970s were characterized by significant internal changes in several Gulf states, the 1980s left epoch-making scars. Two major wars – the Iraq-Iran War (1980-88) and the Gulf War (1991) – permanently altered the landscape. These two significant events produced divergent reactions among the Arab Gulf states, and affected bilateral relations among the members of the GCC.
The year 1979 marked the beginning of a new era in Omani-UAE relations. Out of necessity as well as habit, the two heads of state embarked on regular visits to each other’s countries. In the period between 1979 and 1983, Sheikh Zayed made more than seven visits to Oman. Sultan Qabus called on Abu Dhabi frequently as well. The strength of the relationship enabled Muscat to assume mediating capabilities, as was the case in the prolonged internal border dispute between Dubai and Sharjah. This was accomplished when the ruler of Sharjah, Sultan bin Mohammed Al-Qasimi, visited Oman in 1983, where he was persuaded by Sultan Qabus to reach a settlement with Dubai.
Meanwhile, the period from 1979 to 1985 witnessed several regional developments, including the February 1979 Iranian revolution, the 1980 Iran-Iraq War and the formation of the GCC in 1981, which inspired closer cooperation among the conservative Gulf states. The UAE and Oman adopted keener mutual collaboration efforts and cooperated to a far greater degree during this period than at any time in recent history. Still, part of the rapprochement was directly tied to Sheikh Zayed’s open alliance with Sultan Qabus, if for no other reason than to counteract the overwhelming power of Saudi Arabia.38 A further reason for Sheikh Zayed’s attempt to foster relations with Muscat was the fact that there were thousands of Omanis living in the UAE, including many serving in the UDF (around 38,377). The 1977 incident, when the split loyalties of Omanis serving as UAE troops was noted by Sheikh Zayed, provided further motivation. He vowed to restructure the armed forces as well as to accommodate the country’s natural strategic partner.
Despite increased top-level contacts between Oman and the UAE and the friendly statements made by both sides, differences between the two countries remained. In fact, Oman did not open an embassy in the UAE until 1987 (the first ambassador actually arrived in May 1992). A liaison office in Dubai looked after Omani commercial interests, but that was a far cry from what Sheikh Zayed sought. A further difference lay in the two countries’ perceptions of American involvement in the Gulf. Whereas the UAE president consistently declared his objection to granting any facilities in the area to the Americans, Oman signed an accord giving the United States access to its facilities on Masirah Island.39 In return, Washington granted Oman $50 million in military assistance, along with a few additional privileges.
Not surprisingly, Abu Dhabi was concerned with the political risks posed by Oman’s ties to the United States, along with the threat of increased Arab-radical or Soviet-backed activities.40 The UAE, mainly because of its rich ethnic and national mosaic, was obligated to be far more attuned to internal and regional tensions. Still, despite the lukewarm relationship on this level, cooperation in other fields such as education were reported between Muscat and Abu Dhabi. In May 1987, for example, an educational agreement was signed in which the UAE offered scholarships for Omani students to study at the UAE university in Al-Ain. A committee was formed for the exchange of ideas in the field of higher education. And on May 4, 1991, the Higher Joint Committee was set up to channel Emirati financial assistance to the sultanate. Matters of common interest to both sides, including water resources, oil, investments and education, were regularly discussed through specialized subcommittees.
By the late 1980s and early 1990s, the UAE-Oman relationship had entered a new era prompted by clear Omani financial needs. Although both sides failed to put an end to various border disputes, their relationship experienced a new vitality. “One nation, two countries” was the ebullient introduction of the largest UAE daily newspaper Al-Khaleej.41 The headline contained an element of truth, for more united Emiratis and Omanis than separated them.
After the 1991 visit by Sheikh Zayed to Oman, the Higher Joint Committee declared that its main object was to oversee the good relationship and mutual understanding between the two states.42 One of its first decisions was to allow citizens from both countries free movement, using identity cards instead of passports, starting in April 1992. Decisions to cooperate in many economic and educational projects were taken. Invariably, the thawing process was based on three specific pillars: historical ties, the special relations that the two countries enjoyed after 1971, and mutual interests. In reality, the establishment of the Higher Joint Committee came as a result of both countries’ realization that an intrinsic strategic bond tied them together.
Cooperation progressed at a steady pace throughout the 1990s. In the field of trade, both governments continued to attract foreign investments. In fact, the relationship between Oman and the UAE became a model for ties among other GCC states. Starting in 1992, the UAE became Oman’s largest trading partner within the GCC. Omani imports from the UAE stood at 5.8 billion dirhams ($1.6 billion), 90 percent of Oman’s imports from all GCC countries in 1992.43 In turn, such a figure meant that Oman was the UAE’s first trading partner among the GCC countries, while Saudi Arabia came in a distant second. The sultanate imported almost 909 million Omani riyals ($300 million) in 1992. Omani exports to the UAE reached almost 876 million riyals ($285 million) in the same year, almost 88 percent of its total exports to the GCC countries.
In May 1993, the Oman-Emirates Investment Company was formed, with participation from the private sector. An estimated 60 percent of shares were held by ordinary Omanis and Emiratis. The company is slated to become one of the biggest economic projects between the two countries, with a capital of $76 million. Since the mid-1990s, the two countries have concentrated on promoting tourism as well, with several projects initiated to promote cross-border tourism.44 During 1997 and 1998, the UAE-Oman relationship was further strengthened by the signing of several new agreements. The leading Omani newspaper, Al Watan, reported that the relationship between the two countries could be described as “brotherly and based upon mutual understating and historical ties.”45
The unanticipated May 1999 announcement that an accord on the lingering dispute was finally concluded between the UAE and Oman brought to an end a three-decade feud, opening the door for additional economic and political cooperation. Still, the historic border-demarcation pact that was signed during Sheikh Zayed’s three-day official visit to the sultanate in early May 1999 portended to dramatically alter the regional balance of power.46 The pact covered a section of the UAE-Oman border from Umm al Zumul to the east of Aqeedat, to the three-way border between the UAE, Oman and Saudi Arabia. The agreement, signed in Sohar on the Batinah coast, was based on the earlier 1959 and 1960 accords. If nothing else, it marked the culmination of nearly three decades of quiet diplomacy. Arab League Secretary General Dr. Esmat Abdel Magid welcomed the border demarcation accord, describing it as a major achievement, urging other Arab countries to follow suit. Much like his 1991 visit, which culminated in the setting up of the Joint Higher Committee, Sheikh Zayed’s latest accord with Sultan Qabus allowed for a maturation of the relationship, as the border pact was formally approved by Majlis Al Shura in Muscat (June 2, 1999). In a further move to foster ties with Abu Dhabi, the Omani government granted UAE citizens the right to own real estate in the sultanate, free of the usual constraints. A joint visa for access to both countries was also being prepared to promote trade and tourism.
Notwithstanding these positive developments, border clashes have not been eliminated. In May 2000, for example, reports of armed confrontation between Omani and UAE forces along the Ras-al-Khaimah border surfaced, to everyone’s great consternation.47 Still, despite this significant diplomatic incident, several other projects moved ahead in various fields, including tourism and investment. Both sides concluded that their destinies were inevitably and permanently tied, for better or worse.
The UAE-Oman relationship has been marked by tremendous changes and rapid developments. During the past three decades, unresolved boundary disputes have not hindered the two countries’ quest for greater economic cooperation, which eventually led to a better relationship. In fact, the various boundary disputes were typical of the phenomenon throughout the Gulf region and were more limited than most. Compared with the Saudi-Yemeni border disputes, for example, and given the staunchly independent minded sheikhs in the emirates, the UAE and Oman fared well. To be sure, Riyadh and Sanaa signed an agreement in 2000 ending half a century of tension, but the kingdom’s boundaries with Kuwait, Qatar and the UAE still pose grave problems. Similar tensions exist between Bahrain and Qatar.48
The 1999 UAE-Oman border pact distinguished itself in one specific aspect: the two countries enhanced their socioeconomic relations exponentially. The accord opened the door for cooperation in the fields of trade, tourism, investment and other areas.49 The UAE investment in Oman reached very high levels, with almost $5 billion invested in the last three decades.
Meanwhile, exchanges in privatization and nationalization programs provided both countries with a fair share of expertise. Both sides declared their desire for economic cooperation in technology, and both shared the same ideas about Gulf security. Abu Dhabi and Muscat held similar views on various issues, including a demand that the United Nations curtail its humanitarian sanctions against Iraq, expressing sympathy for the hardships the Iraqi people are forced to endure. In this context, the UAE foreign minister, in his opening speech to the fifty-fourth session of the U.N. General Assembly on September 21, 1999, emphasized that the security of the Arab Gulf was the collective and joint responsibility of the states of the region and called upon the government of Iraq “to complete its implementation of the relevant resolutions of the Security Council.”50 Omani officials agreed. As intrinsic interests crystallized, both Oman and the UAE placed their mutual welfare ahead of political rivalry.
1 Oman has a territory of about 300,000 square kilometers or 187,000 square miles that borders the Gulf of Oman.
2 Records of Oman, 1867-1960, R.W. Bailey, ed., London, Archive Editions, Vol.8, 1992, pp. 8-9.
3 Ibid, p. ixxxiii.
4 Most Omani, particularly those in the interior, are Ibadi, which are a branch of the oldest sect in Islam. The leadership in Ibadism is vested in an elected imam (the spiritual leader). Nizwa, in the interior, is the traditional headquarters of the Imamate.
5 Edward Henderson, This Strange Eventful History: Memoirs of Earlier Days in the UAE and Oman (London and New York: Quartet Books, 1988), p. 41.
6 See John Wilkinson, The Imamate tradition of Oman (London: Cambridge University Press, 1987), p. 149.
7 One of the first acts of Sayyid Said bin Taymur in Oman after his succession in 1932 was the abolition of the Council of Ministers established by his father. After 1932, Sayyid Said ruled personally with the assistance of two or three ministers, to whom he delegated very little authority. See Records of Oman, Annex B, p. 36.
8 Al Buraimi is an oasis consisting of nine villages: Hamasa and Sara belonging to Oman and Al Muajai, Al Muttrad, Al Qatar, Al Hili, Al Jahili, Al Jimi and Al Masudi belonging to Abu Dhabi; for more information see Aqud Al Jman fi iyam Al Saud fi Oman, Falih Handel, ed. (Dubai: 1997), p. 217.
9 The Buraimi oasis is geographically part of Oman and the UAE. Before 1800 and after 1870, the Buraimi oasis had no economic and social ties with Saudi Arabia. Once the Saudi occupied Buraimi in 1952, they set up lines of communications with Saudi Arabia.
10 See Sir Rubert Hay, “The Persian Gulf States and their boundary Disputes,” Geographical Journal, Vol. 120, 1954, p. 435.
11 Aqud Al Jman fi iyam Al Saud fi Oman, p. 6.
12 The sultan of Muscat regarded the sheikh’s action as an act of high treason; see also Records of Oman, Telegram from Muscat to Bahrain, 10-9-52, p. 253.
13 According to the Sib Agreement of 1921, the sultan of Oman and the imam could operate in concert militarily.
14 Edward Henderson, p. 155.
15 Records of Oman, report from Khan sahib Mohammad, dated 27-10-52, No. L10/47, p. 275.
16 Edward Henderson, p. 81.
17 For more information see J.E. Peterson, Defending Arabia (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1986), p. 85.
18 Edward Henderson, p. 155.
19 Abdullah Omran Taryam, The Establishment of the United Arab Emirates, 1950-1985 (London and New York: Croom Helm, 1987), p. 23.
20 To understand tribal politics in Oman, see J.E. Peterson, Oman in the Twentieth Century: Political Foundation of an Emerging State, (Washington DC: John Hopkins University, 1977), pp. 166-169.
21 King Abdul Aziz died in 1953 and was succeeded by his son King Saud bin Abdul Aziz.
22 Upon the death of the old imam, Muhammad, the paramount sheikhs of Hinawi and Ghafiri tribes had on their own initiative elected Ghalib as his successor. This did not seem a widely accepted election, more of a choice by the two key sheikhs rather than the choice of the people. It later became clear that Ghalib was a front for his tougher and more ambitious brother, Talib bin Ali, who wanted to declare the interior as an independent state.
23 Rosemarie Said Zahlan, The Making of the Modern Gulf States (London: Unwin, 1989), p. 111.
24 See Aqud Al Jman fi iyam Al Saud fi Oman.
25 Records of Oman, Telegram from Qatar via Bahrain Island, Persian Gulf, to the British Residency, Bahrain, December 6, 1954, p. 680.
26 Dale Eickelman, “The Writings of Western Travelers about Islamic Societies,” Symposium on the writings of travelers and missionaries in the Gulf region through the Ages, Obid bin Butti, ed. (Dubai: Jumah Al Majed Center Publications, 1996), p. 382.
27 Records of Oman, British Consulate, Muscat, September 1, 1954, to Saiyid Ahmed bin Ibrahim, minster of interior, Muscat.
28 Khasab is an Omani territory on the Arabian Gulf which commands the straight of Hormuz, the narrow entrance to the waters of the Gulf.
29 Records of Oman, British Consulate, Muscat, December 1, 1954, to British Residency, Bahrain.
30 See Julian Walker, “The Search for Oil ,” Symposium on the Writings of Travelers and Missionaries, 1996, p. 434.
31 Rosemarie Said Zahlan, p. 112.
32 Julian Walker, p. 434.
33 See Joseph A. Kechichian, Oman and the World, The Emergence of an Independent Foreign Policy (Rand, 1995), pp. 76-7.
34 Because PFLOAG was a direct threat to its oil and strategic interests, Britain became heavily involved in suppressing it. This involved the mobilization of contingents of RAF and Special Air Services (SAS).
35 Hassan H. Al Alkim, The Foreign Policy of the United Arab Emirates (London: Al Saqi, 1989), p. 48.
36 Ibid, p. 48.
37 Ibid, p. 50.
38 Ibid, p. 62.
39 Ibid, p. 63.
41 Al Khaleej, 1991.
42 Al Khaleej, November 3, 1991.
43 Al Khaleej, May 1, 1993.
44 Al Khaleej, November 1, 1994.
45 Al Watan, November 30, 1996.
46 Ibrahim Al Abed, Paula Vine and Peter Hellyer, United Arab Emirates YearBook 1999 (London: Trident Press for the Ministry of Information, 2000), p. 70.
47 Local interview, Ras-al Kaimah, April 25, 2000.
48 The dispute over Hawar Island between Qatar and Bahrain, which lasted for more than 50 years, was finally resolved in March 2001 by the International High Court of Justice. Hawar Island was given to Bahrain while other disputed areas were given to Qatar.
49 Al Khaleej, July 8, 2000.
50 United Arab Emirates YearBook 1999, pp. 72-3.