The most important political figures in the UAE are the senior members of the ruling families of the individual emirates--the Al Nuhayan family of Abu Dhabi, the Al Nuaimi of Ajman, the Al Sharqi of Al Fujayrah, the Al Maktum of Dubai, the Al Qasimi of Ras al Khaymah and Sharjah, and the Al Mualla of Umm al Qaywayn.
AL Nuhayan Family
The Al Nuhayan originally were beduin of the Bani Yas tribe and were based in the Al Liwa Oasis. An ancestor of the current ruler migrated to the island of Abu Dhabi in the late 1770s and established a commercial port there. Prior to 1966, Abu Dhabi remained a small town and residence site of the ruler, but it had not attracted most Al Nuhayan shaykhs, who preferred to live in the interior oases. Beginning in the late 1960s, the oil-boom-induced transformation of Abu Dhabi into a cosmopolitan city prompted politically ambitious Al Nuhayan members to settle in the capital, where many of them obtained positions in the expanding amirate and federal bureaucracies.
The most powerful emir is Shaykh Khalifa bin Zayed al Nahyan, the ruler of Abu Dhabi and the president of the UAE (elected to a five-year term in 2004). Shaykh Khalifa bin Zayed has ruled Abu Dhabi since 2004, when his father, Shaykh Zayed bin Sultan al Nahyan, passed away. Before his father's death, Shaykh Khalifa bin Zayed had been designated the crown prince of Abu Dhabi. He acquired progressively more responsibilities as he matured. In 1992 he served as president of Abu Dhabi's Executive Council (the emirate equivalent of the Council of Ministers) and as head of the Department of Social Services. In addition, he was deputy commander in chief of the federal Union Defense Force. After Shaykh Khalifa bin Zayed succeeded his father, he designated Shaykh Mohammed bin Zayed al Nahyan as crown prince of Abu Dhabi.
Shaykh Zayid ibn Sultan al Nahyan ruled Abu Dhabi from 1966 to his death in 2004. Until his death, he was the first and only president of the UAE. Besides the current emir, Shaykh Khalifa bin Zayed, Shaykh Zayed bin Sultan had more than forty-five other children, although most of them were not involved actively in politics; one son was a colonel in the Union Defense Force air force. Several of Shaykh Zayed bin Sultan's cousins were also prominent in government.
Al Maktum Family
The Al Maktum are a branch of the same Bani Yas tribe that includes the Al Nuhayan. The Al Maktum emigrated from Abu Dhabi to Dubai's creek in the 1830s and established there the port that eventually became Dubai.
Until his death on October 7, 1990, Shaykh Rashid ibn Said Al Maktum, as ruler of Dubai and vice president and prime minister of the UAE, was the second most powerful emir. He succeeded to the rule of Dubai in 1958 following the death of his father, Shaykh Said ibn Maktum Al Maktum. During the 1960s and 1970s, Shaykh Rashid ibn Said presided over the transformation of Dubai into a wealthy oil emirate. Since the mid-1980s, however, his sons effectively ruled the emirate because of Rashid ibn Said's serious and chronic illnesses.
Before taking over his father's offices, Shaykh Maktum bin Rashid Al Maktum was crown prince and had several other governmental responsibilities. When his father died in October 1990, Shaykh Maktum bin Rashid succeeded him in all his offices. When he died in January of 2006, he was succeeded by his brother Muhammad ibn Rashid Al Maktum.
Muhammad ibn Rashid Al Maktum, was crown prince, the UAE minister of defense, and head of Dubai's armed forces before he succeeded his brother in 2006. Two other brothers also hold important positions in the Dubai or federal administrations. In addition, several of Shaykh Rashid ibn Said's nephews and cousins are politically prominent.
Al Qasimi Family
Two branches of the Al Qasimi tribe rule Sharjah and Ras al Khaymah. The Al Qasimi, based at Ras al Khaymah, emerged as a major maritime power during the eighteenth century; the Al Qasimi control of trade in the Persian Gulf area led to conflict with Oman and eventually with Britain, which was consolidating its colonial empire in India. Following several naval battles, the British finally defeated the Al Qasimi in 1819, burning their ships and the town of Ras al Khaymah. Because of this history, the Al Qasimi inherited a historical hostility toward the British.
The Al Qasimi family of Sharjah is the larger of the two ruling houses. Shaykh Sultan ibn Muhammad Al Qasimi of Sharjah became ruler in 1972, following the assassination of his brother. Shaykh Sultan ibn Muhammad has a reputation for being relatively progressive and for being an enthusiastic supporter of strengthening the powers of the federal government. He also has a reputation for initiating extravagant construction projects for the emirate. Since assuming power, Shaykh Sultan ibn Muhammad had amassed a debt estimated in 1987 at US$920 million, creating discontent among some members of the royal family and precipitating a coup attempt in June 1987. While Shaykh Sultan ibn Muhammad was out of the emirate, his elder brother, Shaykh Abd al Aziz Al Qasimi, issued a statement through Sharjah's news agency that Shaykh Sultan ibn Muhammad had abdicated because he had mismanaged the emirate's economy. Despite initial Abu Dhabi support for the pretender, the coup failed when Dubai called a meeting of the SCU. Through mediation it was decided to return Shaykh Sultan ibn Muhammad to power, but to give Shaykh Abd al Aziz a seat on the SCU and the title of crown prince. Somewhat chastened, Shaykh Sultan ibn Muhammad initiated administrative and financial reforms, but he had the last word when, in February 1990, he removed his brother from the post of crown prince, revoked his brother's right to succeed him, and exiled him.
The Al Qasimi family of Ras al Khaymah is smaller than the branch in Sharjah. Shaykh Saqr ibn Muhammad Al Qasimi has ruled the emirate since 1948. As do his cousins in Sharjah, he has acquired a reputation for being sympathetic to Arab nationalist issues. He is a contemporary of the former ruler of Sharjah, Shaykh Saqr ibn Sultan, and, like him, tends to be suspicious of the British. In 1971 he refused to accept Britain's compromise for resolving Iran's claims to Tunb al Kubra (Greater Tumb) and Tunb as Sughra (Lesser Tumb), two tiny islands in the Persian Gulf. Shaykh Saqr ibn Sultan has designated his son, Khalid ibn Saqr Al Qasimi, as crown prince; Khalid ibn Saqr was educated in the United States.
Other Ruling Families
The rulers of the other three emirates have limited influence within the UAE. Ajman, Al Fujayrah, and Umm al Qaywayn are relatively small, poor, and dependent on their wealthier neighbors for development grants. Shaykh Humayd ibn Rashid Al Nuaimi has ruled Ajman since 1981. Shaykh Rashid ibn Ahmad Al Mualla has ruled Umm al Qaywayn since 1981 as well. In Al Fujayrah, where a majority of the population claims membership in the dominant Al Sharqi tribe, Shaykh Hamad ibn Muhammad Al Sharqi has ruled since 1974.
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