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?
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.