The Bizarre Emirati Borders

Consider the borders of the emirates of the UAE. Abu Dhabi, the capital of the federation, is a gigantic block from the south stretching up towards the north. It holds more than 85% of the total land of the country. Dubai, the next Emirate to the north of Abu Dhabi, is the second largest and occupies 5% of the land of the UAE. Dubai’s territory is basically unified in a neat block, with the only exception being the Oman border town of Hatta.

The remaining five emirates occupy less than 10% of the land, and their borders are a collosal mess, containing enclaves, narrow bands of territory, and disputed tracks of wasteland that look chaotic. It’s a wonder this messy border situation survived — but has was it created and why does it still exist, almost 40 years after the UAE was founded?

northern emirates map
NOTE: This is a dated satellite map, and does not contain the two Palm Islands, The World, and other artificial islands created off the coast of Dubai.

Not surprisingly, the -blame- reason lies with the British. While the Sheikhdoms were protectorates, the British only visited the ports and had little interest in the desolate interior of the Arabian peninaula. But as the protectorate relationship was scheduled to end, Britain knew the risk of the Emirs fighting over land if the borders were left undefined — Abu Dhabi and Dubai fought a border war in the interior in the 1940s, which the British arbitrated and established a neutral zone, and Sharjah’s hegemony over the north had broken down as new emirates within Sharjah’s original territory rose and fell. To avoid these types of problems, the British sent the Trucial Oman Scouts out in Landrovers and on camels to conduct a detailed map survey and tribal census, during which time they mapped the interior and asked the rulers of each settlement village to which Emir (or Sultan, in the case of Oman) they owed their allegiance. You can read one account of mapping the desert during this time here. They used this survey to draw the borders that became the basis for the UAE borders.

After Abu Dhabi and Dubai, the remaining five Emirates are Sharjah, Ajman, Fujairah, Umm Al Quwain, and Ras al-Khaimah. Their borders are drawn on the map above and described below:
* Sharjah is the Emirate with the oldest ruling family and was once the dominant power in the northern region. Over the 19th century, many of the towns in its territory establish their own emirates, including Ras al-Khaimah and Fujairah. Perhaps because of its historical power, it has five enclaves peppered in the east, as local chiefs may have owed a historical loyalty to the Sheikh of Sharjah, or not known (or trusted) the new masters. Or there may have an tribal hierarchy issues at play — the new Emirs in Ras al-Khaimah or Fujairah may have seen like peers rather than superiors. Sharjah also includes Nahwa, the enclave of the Omani enclave, and claims three islands in the Persian Gulf that were occupied by Iran in 1971.
* Ajman, the smallest geographic Emirate yet with a large population, is a city sandwiched between Sharjah and Umm Al Quwain, and has a total population of about 300,000 people in its main city. However, outside its primary borders are two loyal agricultural villages, which together have a total population of under 15,000 people. The southern town is claimed by Oman and a portion of it is under joint Ajman-Oman control.
* Umm Al Quwain is, with Abu Dhabi, the only neat emirate without exclaves, and has very few people for its size, only 68,000 people yet in three times the territory as Ajman.

Both Ajman and Umm Al Quwain are close to Sharjah, but have been independent for more than a century, remaining so by keeping relatively good relations with Sharjah. The other two emirates declared independence from Sharjah and the borders are more complicated because of that.
* Ras al-Khaimah is in the north of the country and became independence from Sharjah in the 18th century, yet briefly fell under its indirect control for more than a decade in the early 20th century. Its territory is split into two neat pieces, with a southern portion in the mountains. It has a dispute with Iran over the control of one island.
* Fujairah, like Ras al-Khaimah, has its territory split in two, and is the only one of four regions that broke away from Sharjah at the turn of the 20th century that remains independent.

The survey was relatively successful. A year after the UAE was established in 1971, feuding tribes of Sharjah and Fujairah fought and killed 22 people before soldiers of the federal government imposed a ceasefire. Abu Dhabi and Dubai resolved their border dispute in 1979. These types of violent clashes could have been much worse had borders not been mapped and the loyalties of the locals carefully considered in demarcating the borders of the Emirates. So the messy borders are complicated, but not as troublesome as you might suspect.

About Curzon

Lord George Nathaniel Curzon (1859 - 1925) entered the British House of Commons as a Conservative MP in 1886, where he served as undersecretary of India and Foreign Affairs. He was appointed Viceroy of India at the turn of the 20th century where he delineated the North West Frontier Province, ordered a military expedition to Tibet, and unsuccessfully tried to partition the province of Bengal during his six-year tenure. Curzon served as Leader of the House of Lords in Prime Minister Lloyd George's War Cabinet and became Foreign Secretary in January 1919, where his most famous act was the drawing of the Curzon Line between a new Polish state and Russia. His publications include Russia in Central Asia (1889) and Persia and the Persian Question (1892). In real life, "Curzon" is a US citizen from the East Coast who has been a financial analyst, freelance translator, and university professor; he is currently on assignment in Tokyo.
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8 Responses to The Bizarre Emirati Borders

  1. Chief Wiggum says:

    I’ve read that in Africa, the european powers carved up the states in such a way as to deliberately lump feuding or hereditary enemies into the same state to weaken the political structure and make them more dependent on the former colonial power. African leaders have made similar charges. In the decades following the departures of the colonial powers however, to my knowledge no borders have been changed.

    I imagine it would be quite a challenged to create a state anywhere where there are no feuding or hereditary enemies in the same polity. Africa would look like Germany before Bismarck.

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  3. Thoughtless Miscreant says:

    Sharjah’s border situation is even more complicated than it first appears, since it contains several short-lived Emirates that failed to “make the cut” during the period of British arbitration.

    -The bit of Sharjah that juts out between Umm Al-Quwain was the emirate of Hamriyah. It was reincorporated some time after 1922.
    -The bit that juts out between Dubai and Ajman used to be split in two. The southwestern part contained the city of Sharjah itself, and the much smaller northeastern part was the emirate of Heera. It was reincorporated some time after 1942.
    -The exclave in the far northeast, between Oman and the northern part of Fujairah, was the emirate of Dibba. It was reincorporated in 1951
    -The exclave in the far southeast, between Oman and the southern part of Fujairah, was the emirate of Kalba. Its separate existence was apparently recognized by the British in 1936, but it was reincorporated in 1952.

    These four emirates were obscure, short-lived, and small, so unfortunately there’s almost no information about them online besides the names of the rulers.

    On another note I just want to say how much I enjoy reading this blog. I found it a few months ago through Strange Maps and it’s been in my RSS feed ever since. Great stuff.

  4. Curzon says:

    Thoughtless, thanks for fleshing that out, and I’m amazed you have such detailed knowledge — do you live in the UAE? Interesting perspective on “failing to make the cut,” I think more accurately that Sharjah faced a weird power sharing arrangement from about 1840-1919 that created a vacuum where lots of areas went independent, but they were able to reassert control and most of the nascent emirates were unable to have their independent status continued by a worthy heir and they were reincorporated back into Sharjah. Hamriyah was truly a miniscule emirate, being barely more than a port town. I have a future post on the collapse of Sharjah’s hegemony in the north and the creation of the trucial states.

  5. Bob Harrison says:

    And I thought the -stans had complicated borders!
    I’m fairly certain we have numerous basing agreements with various Emirates, Dubai and Fujairah come to mind, but does anyone know how exactly UAE foreign policy is made? Does Abu Dhabi call the shots or can any individual Emir grant basing rights to whomever they please?

  6. Curzon says:

    Basically Abu Dhabi calls the shots, as for all intents and purposes the northern five emirates have no foreign policy and are subsidized by Abu Dhabi.

    There are exceptions when it comes to Oman and Persia. Dubai was close with Iran during the Iran-Iraq War, while Abu Dhabi and basicaly the rest of the Arab World backed Iraq, and Dubai basically acted as Iran’s funnel to the rest of the world. There have also been issues when Oman and Iran have interfered with certain emirates internal affairs and have used other emirates against each other, or, alternatively, certain emirates have taken that opportunity to advance their provincial interests. I will write about this in the future as well…

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  8. mike kaelin says:

    We drove thru UAE in 2006 and 2008. The roads are well-maintained. You hardly ever know what emirate you are in, unless you read Arabic or can spot the Emirate Ruler’s picture on billboards along side the highway.
    You better slow down for camels, because if you hit one you owe the ruling family big bucks.
    Question: Does Sharjah and Fujairah share a neutral zone in the SEly mountains adjacent to Oman.?
    Interesting: Dibba is divided between Oman (Musandam), Sharjah, and Fujairah.
    Question: What is the current status of the Abu Dhabi-Dubai Neutral Zone.? There are substantial natural gas reserves in this zone, and some oil.