The Etihad museum’s intimate take on the unification of the UAE

The newly-opened Etihad Museum offers a unique insight into the formation of the United Arab Emirates, giving viewers a glance into the lives of the ruling Sheikhs that goes beyond any history book

According to recent legend, the unification of the UAE – a remarkable display of harmony whereby the seven emirates decided to join forces to form one country – was decided by a handshake that took place in Argoub El Sedirah, a remote desert location between Abu Dhabi and Dubai.

“It’s true,” agrees Marwa Khalfan Saleem Al Dhahli, our tour guide for the morning.

“[The late] His Highness Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, Ruler of Abu Dhabi and His Highness Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum, Ruler of Dubai, decided to meet halfway between their emirates to decide how to unite their Trucial States – which is what the Emirates were referred to back in those days – as one country. They met in a simple tent in the desert, and were even served tea by Sheikh Rashid’s son, the only witness to the event –who now, of course, serves as the Ruler of Dubai.”

The events leading up to and after this decision are the focus of the Etihad Museum in Dubai, just recently opened on Jumeirah Road. The museum aims to paint a picture of the formation of the UAE more richly textured than ever before, and as such has sourced rare items for its collection – everything from a khanjar dagger worn by the Ruler of Ajman, Sheikh Rashid Bin Humaid Al Nuaimi, to rupees used as currency in some emirates back in the 1960s.

The late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, Ruler of Abu Dhabi
The late His Highness Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, the former Ruler of Abu Dhabi, greets the crowds on the day of unificationImage: Oscar Mitri

It also has the advantage of a historical backdrop; the Union Agreement was signed in the museum’s grounds at Dubai Guesthouse, now known as Union House. Pictures of that day, the 2nd of December in 1971, show reporters hanging over the balcony trying to get their shot, and members of the public crowding round the square, eager to catch a glimpse of their new flag (whose design was opened up to public submissions). Today, the original flag still stands, as well as another, 123-m high version.

During the 1960s, against a backdrop of increased interest in the oil industry, the Emirates began to assert their independence. This was seen particularly in Sheikh Zayed, who had, a display at the museum states, “…eagerly awaited the opportunity to bring the Emirates together, starting with the federalist approach deeply ingrained in his thinking and philosophy.”

That change began to come about in 1968. The British announced that they would be discontinuing treaty relations established in the 19th Century and withdrawing military forces from the region in three years time, due to the global economic recession and a rethinking of their policies.

In 1971, six of the seven emirates (Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Sharjah, Ajman, Umm Al Quwain and Fujairah) combined – with the seventh, Ras Al Khaimah, joining the federation just two months later, on 10 February 1972.

Highness Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum
The private offices of Highness Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum, Ruler of Dubai. Not open to the general public, the offices have been left untouched since the 1970s

The constitution, which is on display at the museum, describes its aim “to provide better lives and higher international stature for all UAE citizens”. Quickly drawn up in 1971, it was finalised in 1996.

For both the citizens and leaders of this new country, the possibilities that their new flag represented were limitless. No longer would they have to show passports to cross from emirate to emirate. Interactive displays inside the museum show the transformation of the Emirates, noting the improvements in transport links, infrastructure, security, and trade.

On watching a short Arabic film in one of the darkrooms that depicts the meeting between Sheikh Rashid and the late Sheikh Zayed, Marwa becomes emotional. “Instead of all these papers today, look at what they achieved with a simple handshake,” she says. “One nation, one heart… one soul.”