The southern coast of the Arabian Gulf is a 640-kilometer-long crescent (400 miles) of coral reefs and islands, mud flats, sandy headlands and narrow tidal inlets. From earliest times fishermen, pearlers and coastal traders have sailed these shallow turquoise waters and sought haven in their sheltered creeks. Bedouin herdsmen roamed the towering dunes and desolate salt flats of the desert hinterland to the west, and farmers scratched subsistence from scattered oases and thirsty streambeds cutting down from the Hajar mountains of the Musandam Peninsula to the east. Across the peninsula, the jagged Mountains plunge towards a tropic, palm-fringed beach along the Gulf of Oman.
Political power in this region rested with the emirs of seven principal coastal towns and their hinterlands, the so-called Trucial States, linked since the early 19th century to Great Britain, which maintained control over their external affairs. Six of the city states - Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Sharjah, Ajman, Umm al-Qaiwain and Ras al-Khaimah - were situated on the Arabian Gulf side of the peninsula and the seventh, Fujairah, across the barren mountains on the Gulf of Oman. Five of the states also controlled separate territorial enclaves tucked among the mountain ridges or on the eastern coast, like pieces in a jigsaw puzzle. To further complicate the geographical picture, a small portion of the neighboring country of Oman occupies the extreme northern tip of the peninsula on the strategic Strait of Hormuz, isolated from the bulk of the nation, which lies south of Fujairah.
Until the middle of this century most of the people of the peninsula and its opposite coasts lived out their lives in what was essentially an isolated and underdeveloped backwater. The discovery of oil in 1959 changed all that. Only three of the states have petroleum resources in substantial amounts, but when the seven jointly obtained their independence in1971 they linked the promise of their futures together as the United Arab Emirates. Children born in the early sixties have grown up with the U.A.E. In less than three decades, this mostly desert federation, about the size of Maine or Scotland, with a total population of just over one million, has channeled its petroleum wealth and its energetic, free-wheeling entrepreneurial spirit toward building the infrastructure of a modern society: schools, hospitals, harbors, banks, hotels, factories and farms.
Two aspects of the U.A.E.'s impressive development strike the visitor from abroad. First there is the young federations's obvious, pervasive respect for Islam and the rich legacy of traditional ways. Second, there is a visible awareness of the transient nature of the federation's present bounty, evident in its determination to create an economy and new society which will outlive the oil reserves beneath its deserts and coastal waters.
Many of the photographs on the pages which follow are like double-faced mirrors, reflecting both the past and the future of the United Arab Emirate's seven federated coastal states.
William Tracy is a former assistant editor of Aramco World magazine, now writing a novel in California.