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United Arab Emirates

Ruling Families

Zayid ibn Sultan Al Nuhayyan, president of the United Arab Emirates and ruler of Abu Dhabi
Courtesy Embassy of the United Arab Emirates, Washington

In 1993 the most important political figures in the UAE were the senior members of the ruling families of the individual amirates--the Al Nuhayyan family of Abu Dhabi, the Al Nuaimi of Ajman, the Al Sharqi of Al Fujayrah, the Al Maktum of Dubayy, the Al Qasimi of Ras al Khaymah and Sharjah, and the Al Mualla of Umm al Qaywayn. The most powerful amir is Shaykh Zayid ibn Sultan Al Nuhayyan (b. ca. 1920), the ruler of Abu Dhabi and the president of the UAE (reelected to a five-year term in 1991). Shaykh Zayid ibn Sultan has ruled Abu Dhabi since 1966, when his older brother, Shaykh Shakhbut Al Nuhayyan (r. 1928-66), was deposed by the British.

The Al Nuhayyan 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 Nuhayyan shaykhs, who preferred to live in the interior oases. Even Shaykh Zayid ibn Sultan favored the beduin lifestyle as a young man, and for several years under his brother's rule he was governor of Al Ayn in the Al Buraymi Oasis. Beginning in the late 1960s, the oil-boom-induced transformation of Abu Dhabi into a cosmopolitan city prompted politically ambitious Al Nuhayyan members to settle in the capital, where many of them obtained positions in the expanding amirate and federal bureaucracies.

Shaykh Zayid ibn Sultan designated his son, Shaykh Khalifa ibn Zayid Al Nuhayyan (b. 1949), as crown prince. Khalifa ibn Zayid acquired progressively more responsibilities as he matured. In 1992 he served as president of Abu Dhabi's Executive Council (the amirate 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. Shaykh Zayid ibn 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 Zayid ibn Sultan's cousins were prominent in government, especially the sons of his cousin Muhammad ibn Khalifa Al Nuhayyan: Tahnun ibn Muhammad Al Nuhayyan was head of ADNOC; Hamdan ibn Muhammad Al Nuhayyan was deputy prime minister; and Sarur ibn Muhammad Al Nuhayyan was chief of the ruler's diwan (court).

Until his death on October 7, 1990, Shaykh Rashid ibn Said Al Maktum (b. 1912), as ruler of Dubayy and vice president and prime minister of the UAE, was the second most powerful amir. His eldest son, Shaykh Maktum ibn Rashid Al Maktum, succeeded him in all his offices. The Al Maktum are a branch of the same Bani Yas tribe that includes the Al Nuhayyan. The Al Maktum emigrated from Abu Dhabi to Dubayy's creek in the 1830s and established there the port that eventually became Dubayy. The late Shaykh Rashid ibn Said succeeded to the rule of Dubayy in 1958 following the death of his father, Shaykh Said ibn Maktum Al Maktum (r. 1912- 58). During the 1960s and 1970s, Shaykh Rashid ibn Said presided over the transformation of Dubayy into a wealthy oil amirate. Since the mid-1980s, however, his sons effectively have ruled the amirate because of Rashid ibn Said's serious and chronic illnesses.

Before taking over his father's offices, Shaykh Maktum ibn Rashid (b. 1941) was crown prince and had several other governmental responsibilities. Shaykh Maktum ibn Rashid's brother, Muhammad ibn Rashid Al Maktum, is UAE minister of defense and head of Dubayy's armed forces. Two other brothers also hold important positions in the Dubayy or federal administrations. In addition, several of Shaykh Rashid ibn Said's nephews and cousins are politically prominent.

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 (see Treaties with the British , ch. 1). 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 (b. 1942) of Sharjah became ruler in 1972, following the assassination of his brother, Shaykh Khalid ibn Muhammad Al Qasimi (r. 1965-72), killed in an unsuccessful coup to restore his cousin, Shaykh Saqr ibn Sultan Al Qasimi (r. 1951-65), whom the British had deposed. 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.

The ruler also has a reputation for initiating extravagant construction projects for the amirate. 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 amirate, 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 amirate's economy. Despite initial Abu Dhabi support for the pretender, the coup failed when Dubayy 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 (b. 1920) has ruled the amirate 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 (see Foreign Relations , this ch.). 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.

The rulers of the other three amirates 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.

Data as of January 1993

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