The largest, wealthiest, and most powerful of the seven shaykhdoms that make up the United Arab Emirates (UAE); also, the capital city.
Abu Dhabi's 28,000 square miles (75,520 square kilometers) make up 87 percent of the federation's area, and its 1.3 million inhabitants comprise about 40 percent of its population. Its terrain is mostly flat and rocky, with areas of dunes in the interior, and salt flats and numerous islands along the coast. Abu Dhabi City, the capital of the emirate and the country, occupies one of these islands. In the eastern part of the emirate lies its second most important city, al-Ayn, which grew from a small village within the Buraymi Oasis. In the western part of the emirate slight rainfall collects in depressions to create the arc of oases called al-Liwa. Abu Dhabi possesses 90 percent of the UAE's approximately 100 billion barrels of oil reserves and 60 percent of its significant gas reserves.
The al-Nahayyan section of the Banu Yas tribal confederation has dominated the political history of the region for more than 200 years. According to the founding legend of the emirate, a hunting party of the Bani Yas followed a gazelle across a shallow ford to an island in the Persian (Arabian) Gulf. After the discovery of water around 1761, a small settlement was established, which was named Abu Dhabi, "Land of the Gazelle." Shakhbut bin Diyab, ruler of the Bani Yas, had a small fort built over the settlement's well, and he moved his seat of power to the island from al-Liwa. The coral block, adobe, and timber fort was the largest structure in Abu Dhabi for most of the town's history and was first mentioned in a written source in 1791. Because of its proximity to rich oyster banks in the Gulf, in the nineteenth century Abu Dhabi was host to many pearling ships. Before the discovery of oil, the principal means of livelihood for the emirate's inhabitants were diving for pearls in the summer and engaging in animal herding and oasis agriculture (mainly in al-Liwa and al-Ayn) during the rest of the year. The rulers of Abu Dhabi signed a series of treaties with Britain in the nineteenth century that put them under the Empire's protection.
The wholesale transformation of the emirate began in the 1960s with the advent of increasing revenues from oil exports. Under the rule of Zayid ibn Sultan al-Nahayyan, which began in 1966, a modern infrastructure and a large range of social services were established. Following the 1968 British announcement of impending withdrawal of military and political protection, Zayid convinced the rulers of the other emirates who were part of Trucial Oman, as the British protectorate was known, to form the UAE. Because of the prestige of its ruling family, and especially the magnitude of its oil and gas revenues, Abu Dhabi dominates the UAE politically and economically. These economic endowments helped to fund the construction of modern international airports, universities, hospitals, museums, towering hotels and office buildings, and a modern communications and transportation infrastructure where only fifty years earlier there were simple palm-frond huts and dusty paths.
see also al nahayyan family; ayn, al-; buraymi oasis dispute; dubai; raʾs alkhayma; rub al-khali; sharjah.
Peck, Malcolm C. The United Arab Emirates: A Venture in Unity. Boulder, CO: Westview Press; London: Croom Helm, 1986.
Malcolm C. Peck
Updated by Anthony B. Toth