Flags of Arabia, Part 1: The Trucial States of the Persian Gulf

If you look at the flags of the Emirates and States of the Persian Gulf, you may note a common theme in those flags that appear above the line in the graphic: the prevalance of white in the flags of the “Trucial States.” Why?

flags of trucial states
Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Sharjah, and Umm al Quwain were four of the five original Trucial States. The other emirate of Ajman used Dubai’s flag. The other emirates that broke away from Sharjah, Ras Al Khaimah and Fujairah, used Sharjah’s flag.

In the early 19th century, British shipping lanes between Europe and India were occasionally attacked by pirates based in the Persian Gulf. The British raided the region several times in the early 19th century and eventually set up “truces” with the sheikhdoms of the Persian Gulf, by which they assisted the British in eradicating piracy. (Even through the early 20th century, British maps referred to the region as the “Pirate Coast.”) These truces slowly grew into protectorate relationships, with the British as the regional Leviathan, preserving peace, arbtirating disputes, and preventing the encroachment of the Ottomans and Saudis.

But how could the British distinguish friend from foe on the high seas? Ordinarily, it would have been all but impossible to understand what ship was a pirate and what was a mere merchant or fisherman. So the British included, as a condition of their first treaties with the Gulf Sheikhdoms, that they include the colour white in their flags. Typiclaly, the flags had been only red, a color long associated with the Arabs of the region. White is, of course, the “colour of surrender” in the Western world and on the Western-policed high seas, and by including it in the flag flown on ships, these ships could be guaranteed that they wouldn’t be fired upon by British naval ships chasing pirates.

This became an embraced theme in the region, such that when the Trucial States Council was established in 1952, it also used the same color in its flag. But when the UAE was established in 1971, while the emirs kept their local flag, their new federation took the pan-Arab colors, the second state in the region to do so after Kuwait’s adoption of the same a decade earlier. These colors were at the time associated with Arab nationalism, but after initial Hashemite links, had more recently been associated with strong, anti-monarchical republican associations. The history of these flags will be reviewed in the next post — stay tuned!

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 Flags of Arabia, Part 1: The Trucial States of the Persian Gulf

  1. Roy says:

    The Flags of the World website has more information about the Trucial States’ flags at

  2. The Persian Problem, Henry James Whigham (1903), Chapter VI, “Visit to the Pirate Coast”:


  3. Curzon says:

    Roy, that post is a great find– thanks.

  4. Curtis says:

    Bahrain’s flag is red and white. Qatar’s is purple and white. I can’t imagine how they got mislabeled above. Otherwise, an excellent post.

  5. Curzon says:

    You can’t imagine? Well, they basically look the same. Sorry.

  6. Alfred Russel Wallace says:

    Was the seven-pointed star in the Trucial States flag one point for each Sheikdom? [i.e were there always seven distinct emirates?]

  7. Pingback: ComingAnarchy.com » Flags of Arabia, Part 2: Flags of the Arab Revolt, the Hashemite Kings, and Pan-Arabism