The Trucial States, which became the United Arab Emirates in 1971, originally consisted of six sheikhdoms on the southern coast of the Persian Gulf: Abu Dhabi; Ajman; Dubai; Ras al-Khaima; Sharjah; and Umm al-Quwain.

All the independent Arab rulers in this coastal area had previously signed trade and protection agreements with the British Government (CAB 24/72/76). Treaties between the British government and the rulers were concluded in the years 1820, 1839, 1853, and 1892. Under the terms of these treaties the native governments agreed to keep the peace and to refer their disputes with one another to the arbitration of the British Government, who were represented by a Political Resident. They also agreed to abstain from relations with European nations other than Great Britain, to not receive representatives of such countries without British consent, and to neither lease territory nor grant concessions to any foreigners except British subjects. In return, the British Government committed to protecting the native governments against any unprovoked foreign aggression (FO 881/8805X). It was as a result of these treaties that the Sheikhdoms became known collectively as the Trucial States (FO 881/8805X).

Cementing this relationship, under the Anglo-Turkish Conventions of the 29 July 1913 and the 9 March 1914, the Arabian coast of the Persian Gulf was recognised by the Ottoman Empire as a British sphere of influence (MFQ 1/56).

Domestic affairs

MFQ 1/56

Sketch map of the Persian Gulf and Arabia 1919 MFQ 1/56

The Trucial States were not militarily affected by the First World War; as a result, the British representative was able to concentrate on maintaining friendly relations between and within those states. During the First World War the British Political Resident was Khan Bahadur Isa bin Abdul Latif, based at the Residency in Sharjah. He reported to the British Political Resident and Consul General for the Persian Gulf at Bushire, in Southern Persia, who in turn reported to the Viceroy of India and the India Office.

In 1914 the Trucial Coast suffered an outbreak of plague, particularly affecting Sharjah, Ajman, Dubai and the island of Abu Musa. In Sharjah alone, over 1,000 people died (FO 371/2075). Latif reported that ‘it will be a long time before the coast recovers’ (FO 371/2426). In the same year, a severe storm sank about 50 pearl boats and drowned about 100 divers, prompting Latif to comment that ‘it can truly be said that these Arabs have been afflicted, in the course of 1914, with every species of disaster that could possibly overtake them’ (FO 371/2426).

Before the war, the British India Steam Navigation Company (BISNC) ran a weekly service from Bombay to Bushire via Dubai. Almost all the trade on the Trucial Coast was carried out in Indian currency and by Indian merchants, and the population relied heavily on cereals, cotton, sugar, beverages, coal, wood and metals imported from India. The principal exports of dates and pearls went exclusively to the Indian market.  With the outbreak of war, the British Government requisitioned all steamships belonging to the BISNC. Although they were still technically operated by the company, the ships were used to transport Indian troops and as hospital and supply ships for the campaigns in Mesopotamia, East Africa, Egypt, Palestine and France. Latif reported that ‘Dubai, the distributing port for the Trucial Coast, and Lingah, the backup port, were neglected. As this coast depends on these steamers for its supply of cereals, it was at one time gravely threatened by famine’ (FO 371/2426).

It was not until 1916 that the situation began to improve. Demand on its ships decreased and the BISNC reinstated its regular sailings, which had been carried out by sailing vessels hired by the company in the interim. Latif reported that ‘The pearl market improved and the 1916 pearl catch was quite up to the average and perhaps rather above it’. (FO 371/3269).

In March 1916 the tribal chief, or Headman, of Hamriyah Port in Sharjah revolted against the authority of the Sheikh of Sharjah, with assistance from the Sheikh of Umm-ul-Qawain and local Bedouin. The Sheikh of Sharjah was unable to suppress the revolt which damaged trade and threatened the lives and property of British residents in Sharjah. The British Commodore in the Persian Gulf dispatched HMS Philomel and HMS Clio to the scene and on 30 March 1916 a peace agreement was signed on board HMS Clio in the presence of Captain Hall Thompson of the Royal Navy and the Residency Agent (FO 371/3269).

In March 1917 the Foreign and Political department of the Government of India reported to the Secretary of State for India, suggesting that the naval patrol of the Trucial Coast should be re-established as soon as circumstances permitted, but that no troops should be stationed in the Trucial States unless the situation changed. They wrote: ‘we are doubtful of the expediency of the recommendation by the Sub-Committee on Arms Traffic, that a British officer should be permanently stationed at or near Dubai. The presence of a British officer could hardly fail to act as an irritant on the Trucial Sheikhs and tribesmen and arouse their suspicions regarding our intentions, and we should prefer not to resort to this measure until the need for it is actually demonstrated’ (CAB 24/46/44).

With early success in Mesopotamia, the British Government briefly contemplated moving the administration of the Trucial States to Basrah, in Lower Mesopotamia, but this suggestion was rejected by Mark Sykes of the Mesopotamian Administration Committee, who reported back on 19 March 1917, recommending that ‘The Arab tribes on the West and Southern shores of the Persian Gulf from the Southern borders of Kuwait to and including Muscat should remain as now under the Indian Government, i.e. under a British Resident at Bushire’ (CAB 24/8/30).


FO 371/3269 file 37512

Trucial States administrative report 1916 FO 371/3269 file 37512

In 1919, at the Paris Peace Conference, the existing treaties between the British Government and the Trucial Sheikhs were formally recognised by the Allied Powers, establishing the area as a sphere of British influence (FO 608/101/10). This granted the British Empire political and economic exclusivity in the area. In 1922 the Trucial Sheikhs agreed that they would not sign contracts for oil concessions with any company without the consent of the British Government, although oil was not discovered in the Trucial States until 1931. In 1952 Fujeirah joined the Trucial States and in 1971 these states severed their ties with the British administration and collectively became known as the United Arab Emirates (FO 93/195/1).

Key documents

ADM 344/1229

Drawing of Fort Rasul-Khima, United Arab Emirates ADM 344/1229

  • Memorandum respecting the settlement of Turkey and the Arabian Peninsula CAB 24/72/6
  • Paper 198935 Annual Report from Persian Gulf Political Residency FO 371/2426
  • Paper 37512 Annual Report of the Persian Gulf Political Residency, 1916 FO 371/3269
  • Treaties existing between the British Government and Trucial Chiefs, 1906 FO 881/8805X
  • Sketch map of the Persian Gulf and Arabia. Also shows the lines of Anglo-Turkish convention, 29 July 1913. Published by the War Office 1919 MFQ 1/56