- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 7, 2004

While Pax Britannica still provided the Persian Gulf with a security blanket in the early 1960s, the ruler of Abu Dhabi was an illiterate Scrooge who kept the sheikdom’s early oil royalties in cash in scores of steamer trunks.

When the British decided it was time to modernize, Sheik Shakbut Bin Sultan was given his walking papers in 1968 and replaced by his younger brother, Sheik Zayed Bin Sultan al-Nahyan. But Abu Dhabi’s embryonic treasury was already depleted; mice had found their way into the rotting trunks and chewed their way through dollars, pounds and marks.

When this reporter first met Sheik Zayed for an interview in 1971, we were one of several people waiting in line for an audience at the ruler’s weekly Majlis. The palace was a wreck of peeling paint and leaking pipes. A mouse was running up and down the sheik’s gallibiya as he listened to a Palestinian official ask him for $250,000 “for our liberation struggle.”

An aide produced a Barclay’s Bank checkbook and wrote a check for the requested amount. Several other special pleaders waited patiently for their turn to bend Sheik Zayed’s ear and each was rewarded with a new check from a different Western bank. No sooner did we publish this story than the British overseers dispatched a London Treasury official who took over dozens of different bank accounts to create a modern department of finance. As Abu Dhabi slipped its British moorings, it had only two college graduates and some $200 million a year in oil revenue (which is now $100 million each and every day, as it pumps 2.25 million barrels at $50 a barrel).

In 1968, Prime Minister Harold Wilson had announced Britain planned to withdraw from all obligations and responsibilities east of Suez by 1971. The fabled British-officered Trucial Oman Scouts stayed to defend the Trucial States, just beginning to emerge with fabulous untapped oil reserves.

British Colonial Office agents nursed the Trucials into a federation that became the independent United Arab Emirates. The British were the architects; Sheik Zayed, a desert prince, the builder of a federation of seven feuding sheikdoms: Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Sharjah, Ajman, Umm al-Qaiwain, Ras al-Khaimah and Fujairah. Total population: 3.5 million, 85 percent expatriate workers.

As recently as 1972, Dubai was the Gulf’s principal smuggling port for illicit gold exports to India, ruled by a merchant sheik named Rashid, who laughed when told his government was known as Ali Baba and the 40 honest thieves. Rashid and his numerous wives and children looked down on the falcon-hunting desert sheiks. But Sheik Zayed’s oil-rich Abu Dhabi prevailed and today both Dubai and Abu Dhabi are glass city-states of skyscrapers that rival Manhattan’s.

The UAE is now taking delivery of 80 F-16s from Lockheed Martin — mostly flown by foreign contract pilots, notably Pakistanis — that are designed as a deterrent against would-be predators on the other side of the Gulf. Abu Dhabi holds 10 percent of the world’s oil reserves and 5 percent of its natural gas. The late shah of Iran proclaimed his self-appointed role as guardian of the Gulf after Britain’s exit.

Recently, Sheik Zayed, in his 90s, died after almost 40 years in the driver’s seat. His 58-year-old eldest son, Sheik Khalifa, now takes over the mantle of Abu Dhabi. And the presidency of the UAE. Sheik Khalifa’s half-brother Sheik Mohammed, longtime chief of staff, is now also the crown prince.

The six other sheikdoms quickly accepted Sheik Khalifa as UAE president. With Abu Dhabi responsible for 95 percent of the UAE’s output, at least five of them, with little or no oil, see no alternative to the federation. Dubai, now Beirut’s successor as the Hong Kong of the Middle East, may be tempted to try it solo. Its ruling Makhtoum clan is now Europe’s reigning horse-breeding family. And its sheiks, in top hat and striped pants, are always present in the royal enclosure when Queen Elizabeth attends the races at Ascot.

The Makhtoums’ holdings range from hotels in New York and London to high-tech companies the world over. Dubai’s free-wheeling lifestyle and the world’s only city with a downtown golf course is a favorite for Arabs looking for relief from Islam’s strictures. It accepted Sheik Zayed as the federation’s Founding Father. Sheik Khalifa has been the acting president in recent years as his father was almost blind when he died. Dubai is now his biggest challenge.

Arnaud de Borchgrave is editor at large for United Press International and for The Washington Times.

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