1971: independence of the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Qatar


There was not a shadow of a demonstration under the scorching Gulf sun, nor the slightest gunshot. On December 1, 1971, the British government officially ended its protectorate over the United Arab Emirates (UAE), an independence which shortly followed that of Bahrain and Qatar, almost three years after the announcement by the United Kingdom the withdrawal of its troops, followed by laborious and fruitless negotiations to unify the three future countries into a single federation. Reigning over weak and scattered populations, taking advantage of the first oil subsidies, and therefore little inclined to dispute, the rulers of the Gulf had so far perfectly accommodated themselves to the yoke of the occupier, protector in the face of communist subversion and especially of appetites. neighboring countries, Iran and Saudi Arabia in the lead.

The first oil shock is a game-changer

In the Emirates, which brings together Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Sharjah, Ras al-Khaimah, Fujairah, Umm al-Qaiwain and Ajman, the first shipment of black gold was exported as early as 1962. ‘a pearl famous all over the world but whose prices are collapsing because of the competition of those produced in breeding by the Japanese, against that of hydrocarbons. In 1968, the population of the United Arab Emirates peaked at 180,000, most of the inhabitants lived in traditional houses, health and public education services were still in their infancy, construction of the only airport had barely been completed and the first port infrastructures.

© AFP © Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

The first oil shock will radically change the situation when the United States, faced with the depletion of its reserves, no longer has the capacity to increase production and alone influence the price of a barrel. On April 18, 1973, during a special address to the US Congress on energy policy, President Richard Nixon set the tone: “Our demand for energy has grown so quickly that it now exceeds our available supply and, at current rate of growth, it will have almost doubled from what it was in 1970. In the next few years, we must accept the possibility of sporadic energy shortages and some increase in the price of energy. (…) The available domestic production of oil is no longer able to keep up with demand. “

Fabulous annuity

Six months later, in the context of the Yom Kippur war opposing the State of Israel to the Syrian and Egyptian Arab armies, the Organization of Petroleum Producing Countries (OPEC) proclaimed its independence and declared an embargo which caused prices to soar. From October 1973 to March 1974, the barrel went from 2.59 dollars to 11.65 dollars, a crisis which paradoxically made the business of the Texas and Californian oil lobby. According to Ahmed Zaki Yamani, Saudi Minister of Petroleum between 1962 and 1986, the principle of a sudden increase was even discreetly promoted by Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, eager to launch the exploitation of unconventional oil fields on the territory of the states. -unien, whether it concerns the reserves located in the Gulf of Mexico or Alaska, and, already, the famous oil shales whose massive exploitation will make it possible, forty years later, in Washington, to become again the first world producer of black gold ahead of Russia and especially Saudi Arabia.

For the United Arab Emirates, the income from their oil, which is so cheap to extract and refine, turns into a fabulous rent. With metronome regularity, Abu Dhabi publishes lavish advertising leaflets in the Western press celebrating the gains of independence and the exponential wealth of its population. “The growth rate of the GNP in 1980 was 21.6% and the annual income per capita, according to the World Bank, was of the order of 15 590 dollars in 1978”, welcomes the Embassy of the Emirates in the columns of the “World” (December 3, 1981), on the occasion of the tenth anniversary of the departure of the British troops: “Education is provided free of charge by the State, students enjoy a scholarship throughout the period of their studies. studies and any graduate will necessarily have his place in the country’s labor market, ”adds the diplomatic representation, while the country, like Qatar, is already running its economy thanks to a massive importation of labor. a foreigner who is forced to thank you.

Gulf kings and illegal hunts

According to figures from the International Organization for Migration, the immigrant population in 2015 was estimated at 88.4% of the total population of the United Arab Emirates (9.89 million inhabitants in 2020), mostly from India. (3.5 million), Egypt (935,000), Bangladesh (906,000), Pakistan (863,000), the Philippines (555,000) or Indonesia (260,000). A dynamic comparable to that of Doha, the capital of Qatar, whose total population (2.5 million in 2018) is only 10% national. A figure difficult to verify, as the country refuses to deliver any statistics on the exact number of its nationals, but which provokes frequent debates among the Gulf kings, worried about the acquisition of a real citizenship, assimilated to a danger identity, and above all would shake their absolute power.

From this perspective, everything is done to discourage a real integration of expatriates, and the monarchs sporadically organize real hunts for illegal immigrants, followed by massive expulsion campaigns. For example, on November 1, 2006, the entry into force of a law severely sanctioning workers without a residence permit in the United Arab Emirates had made it possible, in barely a month, to put out 170,000 people, for most of them from the Indian subcontinent.

The right to strike does not exist, unions are prohibited

As in Qatar, which, among other things, relied on these semi-slaves to build the infrastructure related to the 2022 World Cup, expatriates are not allowed to come with their families, the hopes of naturalization remain almost nil and mixed unions are discouraged or prohibited. Employment contracts are not renewable, and an unemployed person is required to leave the country immediately, when his passport has not been confiscated. Obviously, the right to strike does not exist and unions are prohibited.

© Reuters © Marwan Maamani / AFP

As for Bahrain, if it also exploits, but on a smaller scale, the approximately 50% of foreigners who make up its million inhabitants, the rapid exhaustion of its oil reserves – the country produces barely 180,000 barrels per day. – pushed the ruling Sunni family to transform the archipelago, made up of around thirty islands, into an offshore financial center devoid of corporate tax, VAT or income tax. And which specializes in “Islamic finance”, a label more than an accounting reality, since a bank is considered “Islamic” if only 20% of its assets comply with “Sharia principles”, which prohibits usury and interest rates.

The power of the shah wavers

True backyard of Saudi capital – Riyadh has even built a twenty-kilometer bridge connecting the peninsula to Bahrain – the archipelago remains under the permanent agitation of its Shiite majority, largely excluded from economic income. A phenomenon which will take on a new dimension with the second oil shock caused in 1978 by the popular demonstrations which quickly weaken the power of the Shah and the advent of the Islamic Republic of Iran, dominated by the Shiite clergy. In the midst of the Cold War, Washington had resolved to abandon the imperial state of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, whose disproportionate ambitions – in terms of nuclear control as well as industrial development – threatened to hatch, at the gates of the Soviet Union, a genuine working class synonymous with powerful trade union centers.

The collapse of Iranian oil production and the new astronomical rise in the price of a barrel are strengthening the positions of the United Arab Emirates, which is increasing their investments abroad. Under the leadership of Sheikh Zayed Ben Sultan Al Nahyan, Abu Dhabi boasts of devoting 20% ​​of its GDP to foreign aid and celebrates “Arabization, Islam and non-alignment” as “the main lines of its foreign politic “. To escape a too strong supervision of Saudi Arabia and especially to protect themselves from the Iranian threat, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates soon welcome important Western military bases, mainly United States.

Soft power

But it is Qatar that will make its most sensational entry on the international scene. In 1995, Emir Hamad Ben Khalifa Al Thani took advantage of his father Khalifa’s stay in Switzerland to overthrow him, with the firm intention of bringing the peninsula out of its diplomatic torpor. Thanks to massive investments in the gas sector, he added liquefied hydrocarbon to his gigantic oil revenue and founded the Al Jazeera television channel, the “Arab CNN”, as a new tool of power and external influence. Like Dubai and Abu Dhabi, it is also betting on sport as an effective tool for this new soft power, with the spectacular buyouts of football clubs from Paris Saint-Germain in France and Manchester City in the United Kingdom as a showcase.

The “Arab revolts” of 2011 symbolize the end of the old order. Fascinated, the Western media relay the images partly captured by Al Jazeera and which chronicle the planned fall of the former heavyweights of the Arab League in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya or Syria. Also swept away in the turmoil, Bahrain however manages to crush the protest inclinations of its Shiite majority thanks to the reinforcement of the Saudi tanks and to maintain the interminable reign of its Sunni ruling family, impervious to the departure of the British troops in 1971 as to the upheavals of the ‘story.

Bones of contention

Disunited, including to ward off the threat represented by Shiite Iran, the Sunni kinglets of Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar are therefore advancing in dispersed order, even if the limitless capital possessed by the latter two allows them to consider the future with serenity.

Other bones of contention remain, such as the treatment of the brotherhood of the Muslim Brotherhood, born in Egypt. The only organization capable of organizing subversion in the Arab world since the fall of the Soviet bloc, it remains under the active protection of Turkey and especially Qatar. A phenomenon that accelerated the strategic rapprochement of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, and the organization of a real sea and land blockade against Doha, of which the Emir was at the same time accused of having made remarks conciliatory towards Iran, Lebanese Hezbollah and Palestinian Hamas, the local emanation of the Muslim Brotherhood.

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