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?
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!