Oil, Mobility, and State-Building in the United Arab Emirates

By Matthew MacLean
Submitted to Session P4829 (Historical Perspectives on the Life Worlds of Middle Eastern Oil, 2017 Annual Meeting
Arabian Peninsula; Gulf; UAE;
19th-21st Centuries;
LCD Projector without Audio;
This presentation will examine the impact of oil on the state-building process in the Trucial States and United Arab Emirates, and the role of oil in popular responses to that process. Sources include the Arabic-language UAE press, correspondence from the British National Archives, oral histories, and fieldwork conducted over the past two years in the northern UAE.

The mobility made possible by oil challenged and disturbed older political arrangements and forms of spatial control. In the early and mid-twentieth century, travel on foot or by camel was subject to a variety of social and political norms enforced by tribes, villages, and neighborhoods. Long-range seasonal migrations, for example, were made possible by social and economic connections to people who could provide escorts on the way to date palm oases. Oil and more specifically the automobile challenged these arrangements. First, the need to define the limits of oil concessions led the British to demarcate borders where few had existed before, and where there was no assumption of a unitary, bounded sovereignty as ‘natural.’

On the ground, however, disputes over these borders were sparked not by abstract loyalties to distant ruling sheikhs but by travel by land rover, which violated social norms. Likewise, the resolution of border disputes was facilitated by the construction of new roads and tracks to carry diplomats and soldiers into contested areas. It was eventually agreed, that representatives of the “dawla” – the state, which was the colloquial word referring to British diplomats and the Trucial Oman Scouts military force – were allowed to travel by automobile anywhere in the Trucial States without hindrance. The automobile thus became an early symbol of state-building and sovereignty.

After independence and federation in 1971, oil again made possible new forms of social and political expression. Unlike explicit criticisms of the state and ruling sheikhs, critique of new infrastructure was always permitted. Talk of traffic jams and frequent car accidents became a lens through which the process of development and modernization was criticized more broadly. Petrol shortages in the northern UAE made visible the country’s uneven development and spatial inequality, and contributed to calls for a more equal distribution of wealth. Oil, the mobilities it makes possible, and the critiques arising from these shifts have thus been an essential social aspect of the UAE’s state-building process.