The United Arab Emirates (UAE) is a relatively young nation state. From the sixteenth century portions of the modern-day state were controlled by a range of other colonial actors – first the Portuguese, then the Ottoman Empire, and finally the British, all of who aimed to control and benefit from trade in the region. In the nineteenth century the British signed a series of agreements with rulers (sheiks) in the region aimed at guaranteeing peace and ending piracy, beginning with the 1820 General Treaty of Peace. This lengthy process effectively resulted in the British controlling the territory which today makes up the United Arab Emirates. In 1952, seven sheikdoms formed the Trucial States Council, a discussion and coordination forum. In the late 1960s it became clear to the British government that it could no longer afford to maintain its defense commitments in the region and consequently announced the end of the treaty relationships with the sheikdoms which had formerly been under British protection.
In late 1971, two nations which today are regional neighbors of the UAE – Bahrain and Qatar – gained independence after their treaty agreements with the British came to an end. In this context, in December 1971 the rulers of Abu Dhabi and Dubai agreed to form a union between their two emirates, prepare a constitution, and subsequently invite the rulers of five other emirates to join the union. On 2 December 1971, Abu Dhabi, Dubai, and four other emirates agreed to form a union known as the United Arab Emirates. The seventh emirate, Ras al-Kaimah, joined the union in early 1972. In 1976 the President of the UAE Sheikh Zayid bin Sultan al Nahyan enacted reforms which led to further centralization as the federal government gained control over areas such as immigration, public security, and border control. The Constitution of the UAE, which came into effect on 2 December 1971, was permanently accepted in May 1996.
The United Arab Emirates is composed of 7 emirates (constituent monarchies). The UAE is a federal, presidential, absolute monarchy. According to tradition, the (hereditary) ruler of Abu Dhabi is the President and Head of State, while the (hereditary) ruler of Dubai is the Prime Minister and Head of Government. The Federal Supreme Council consists of the rulers of all seven emirates, and in theory this council elects the President and Prime Minister to serve five year terms. In practice, however, the president and prime minister are always the rulers of Abu Dhabi and Dubai respectively.
The federal legislature of the UAE is the unicameral Federal National Council, which is composed of 40 members. Half of these members are appointed by the rulers of their respective emirates and hold all of the Council’s political power. The other half are elected to two year terms by an electoral college whose members are appointed by the emirates, and have an advisory capacity only.
The Federal Judiciary of the UAE is a constitutionally independent body including the Federal Supreme Court. The Federal Supreme Council appoints the five judges headed by a president to the Supreme Court.
Each of the constituent emirates which make up the union has its own (hereditary) ruler, and it is they who are responsible for dictating governance reform within their territory. While the federal government maintains control over foreign affairs, security and defense, education, public health, and communications policy, each emirate maintains considerable powers, including the crucial authority over oil rights and revenues.
Although the UAE is a decentralized federation in practice, this decentralization has not negatively affected the country and it has enjoyed a significant degree of stability since independence. The UAE government has indicated support for stronger legal and legislative authority for the Federal National Council. The constitution, which mixes aspects of traditional and modern rule, represents a compromise between those emirates that favor centralization, and those which prefer individual autonomy. Despite an apparently broad array of federal powers, the constitution provides for a loosely bound federation in practice.