UAE-Saudi Arabia Border Dispute Review


In 1974, the UAE and Saudi Arabia signed the Treaty of Jeddah as an indication marking the end of border disputes over the dominion of the Khor al-Udaid, Al-Ain/Buraimi, and Zararah/Shaybah regions. The dispute remains unsettled after a public campaign by the UAE to renegotiate the Treaty as it had differences between what was agreed orally and the written document. The UAE noticed the discrepancies in 1975, probably due to a lack of experts on its side. This summary will examine the Treaty of Jeddah, the negotiations and context behind the signing of the Agreement between 1970 to 1974, and the process involved. It also analyzes the role played by Great Britain and their influence, reasons as to why Abu Dhabi signed the regrettable treaty, the outcome, and ways for the UAE to obtain a revision of the Treaty.

Historical Background of the Disputed Areas, 1800-the 1930s

Four traditional concepts defined territorial sovereignty: power was vested in people and not territories, dira (territory of nomads) had no fixed location and size, migration or hijara, and zakat payment. Tribes or factions showed their loyalty to ruling Sheikhs and would move if dissatisfied to stay independent or submit to another Sheikh. These theories were applied by Saudi Arabia in the 1930s in its assertion against Abu Dhabi upon the discovery of oil.

The British also acted as protectors of trade routes along the Gulf coast (Khor al-Udaid) and were less interested in inland regions (Al-Ain/Buraimi). This is demonstrated by their response to matters that affected their influence from competitors such as the Ottomans and other European powers. Additionally, archives in Great Britain recognized Abu Dhabi’s sovereignty over the Khor al-Udaid region since 1871 (Al Mazrouei, 2013). As of 1869, Saudi Arabia did not rule over Al-Ain/Buraimi. Also, Saudi did not contest over Khor al-Udaid between the 1820s and 1930s. Besides, Saudi’s territorial claims over certain Abu Dhabi regions are contestable since the Ottoman Empire challenged and expelled Saudis in 1871 after several attempts to settle at Al-Ain/Buraimi regions.

Saudi Arabia became independent in 1932, whereas Abu Dhabi remained under the influence and protection of the British until 1971. Moreover, Britain was involved in boundary-making decisions between Saudi, Transjordan, Iraq, and Kuwait during World War I. However, this did not include Saudi’s boundaries with Abu Dhabi and other southern and eastern territories under British protection. Furthermore, Britain only acted regarding issues that affected its sphere of influence in Abu Dhabi’s territorial control, as was the case of the Ottoman’s assertion on Khor al-Udaid. Britain acknowledged Abu Dhabi’s dominance over Khor al-Udaid against Qubaisat tribes.

The Anglo-Saudi Territorial Negotiations

This chapter focuses on the two main phases of the Anglo-Saudi territory negation between 1935 to 1949 and 1949 to 1955. The first part is marked by the introduction of two elements on the Arabian Peninsula. The first element was on oil discovery and the Americans Oil activities in Saudi Arabia. The second part is about the announcement of the expansion of the territory by Saudi Arabia beyond the blue lines and the violet lines. Furthermore, it covers the reason behind expansionist territorial claims.

In the first stage, between 1935 to 1949, the Standard Oil of California (SoCal) overtook the British on oil, which helped the company have the first concession. An analysis done by Stegner shows that the American approach to local development was superior to the British, and later, the British adopted almost the same approach (Al Mazrouei, 2013). In 1934 the boundary question arose and the British sent two document copies that belonged to America on Anglo-Ottoman Conventions in 1913 and 1914; the article had stated how the boundaries of eastern Arabia were defined (Al Mazrouei, 2013). The British rejected the proposal on Riyadh after it was responded to by the Hazah line.

The second phase after World War II was marked by a change of events. Americans were actively involved in Saudi Arabia, turning away the British, and military agreements were made between the Americans and Saudis. In 1952 several events led to the occupation of Hamasa in Saudi. In 1954, there was the agreement of arbitration, which collapsed in 1955. At the same time, there was a declaration of the Unilateral frontier (1955) (Al Mazrouei, 2013). However, between 1955 to the early 1970s, several activities happened. The activities include the relation of Anglo-Saudi in 1956-63, content on Anglo territorial negation in 1960-70, and the impact of the British withdrawal announcement in 1968 from the Gulf in 1971(Al Mazrouei, 2013). This period was characterized by border claims and expansions in the Gulf.

A Framework for UAE-Saudi Negotiation Behavior: A Case Study of

The UAE-Saudi Border Disputes, 1970-74

Several negation strategies were employed in trying to settle the conflict between 1970 to 1974. However, there were various ways used to reach a peaceful settlement (Al Mazrouei, 2013). These methods include nullification which brings a resolution and terminating disputes (Al Mazrouei, 2013). General annulment techniques cover large issues compared to tactics. According to Rabie and Carnevale, there are four approaches, which include control, step-by-step, comprehensive, and integrative (as cited in Al Mazrouei, 2013). However, five negating tactics are highlighted: cooperation, competition, compromise, accommodation, and avoidance.

According to the Arabs way of negotiation, the Treaty of Jeddah is an example of negation. The Arabic culture has a different way of understanding the term “concession,” which Arabian people use in mediation. In Arabic beliefs, the term may show a way of threatening one party, but when used with another term like a mutual concession, it is understandable. Another way of nullification is the third-party intervention that involves a neutral party that acts as a mediator under some conditions, like when one party feels they have inadequate skills. From 1970 to 1974, several factors affected the UAE-Saudi negotiation process including power, which, for a representative, is not considered a desirable quality (Al Mazrouei, 2013). Another factor is communication, where international annulments retract channels that are not convenient, and finally, the history that affects the perception and judgment of the cancellation.

The Anglo-Saudi Negotiations (1970-71), and the End of Britain’s

Dominance in the Gulf

In resolving the Abu Dhabi-Saudi border dispute and independence of Abu Dhabi, Great Britain acted as an honest broker though this later changed. King Faisal made a proposal that indicated his unwillingness to support any federation until the issues concerning the contested regions were settled. This offer led Shaikh Zayid to react by resisting the claims of Saudi Arabia, which were compared to Abu Dhabi. Later, Shaikh Zayid was given a time frame where he was to reply to demands by the end of June, a failure of which would result in action being taken.

The British reacted towards King Faisal’s proposal by talking about security measures concerning the oil fields. The king’s suggestions on Britain to stop Oil drilling in the fields in question were not met even after using deceit. The British companies continued drilling, claiming they would incur huge losses if operations were stopped (Al Mazrouei, 2013). A Dammam conference was conducted between Abu Dhabi and Arabia organized by Great Britain. They played a big role in the negation of the border dispute between Abu Dhabi and Saudi. Although Britain had done all this, it had an interest in the area of disagreement, and by so, it caused Shaikh Zayid to agree to King Faisal’s proposal in its favor.

The border dispute between Abu Dhabi and Saudi was connected to the context of the federation question and the US Twin Pillar policy. The Saudis employed several tactics during the negation process using the control strategy, accompanied by a contentious process. However, Abu Dhabi did not have a clear plan as they greatly depended on Britain in mediation. Abu Dhabi could not retaliate as it was weak. On 1st December 1971, the British military withdrew from the gulf, though they had not arrived at any settlement over the disputed areas.

UAE Independence and Progress towards a Settlement: From 2

December 1971 to the Treaty of Jeddah of 1974

The role of Britain played in the Gulf ended with its withdrawal from the formation of the UAE. In the Anglo-Saudi relation, Britain was acknowledged for its historical role in the dispute. After Great Britain’s departure from the Gulf, its control over Abu Dhabi was terminated. This resulted in Abu Dhabi forming a diplomatic relation with Saudi and Iran for the survival of the UAE.

The British withdrawal from the Gulf did not change how Saudi negotiated. King Faisal identified how vulnerable king Shaikh Zayid had become and exploited this weakness to his advantage. Saudi continued to use the control strategy and tactics on contentious issues. Saudi attempted to influence Dubai, Ras al-Khaimah, and Sharjah. From the archives in Britain, the evidence shows how Qatari rulers played a role in persuading Shaikh Zayid to accept the terms of King Faissal (Al Mazrouei, 2013). The British had little knowledge about the terms and interpretation of the treaty and the two Kings were not present in signing the agreement, resulting in misunderstandings. On the other hand, the Americans had some constraints as they had not seen the map on the border, so their description was general.

The treaty of Jeddah stated that Saudi Arabia and UAE would have an exchange of Ambassadors, a sign indicating that Saudi had finally agreed to be recognized diplomatically. In UAE, after the announcement of the treaty, there was confusion in understanding the truce by the Shaikh Zayid and al-Otaiba. This was an indication, which showed that the treaty did not satisfy everyone. A dinner was held on 9th September 1974 by the British and Saudi officers but was not attended by the Great Britain Ambassador, Mr. Helaissi, and Prince Fahd even after being invited.

UAE-Saudi Arabia Territorial Disputes, 1975-2012

Since 1975 the UAE was dissatisfied with the articles of the treaty. On a government basis, the treaty was taken as unfair since 1974. Still, publicly the discontent emerged after the sheikh’s death in 2004 highlighting Saudi Arabia’s position on the article of the treaty of Jeddah. In the Area of Khor al-Udaid and South of Liwa, the agreement had minimal effect.

For example, between 1974 to 1980, people moved freely across the border, and later in 1990, a direct road that connected UAE and Qatar was closed. In the South of Liwa, also known as Zararah or Shaybah, the Jeddah treaty did not exist until 1993 when drilling operations scheduled to start at that time were postponed on several occasions.

Shaikh Zayid was concerned about the existence of the UAE, which prompted him to sign the Jeddah treaty. The reason for the course of the Gulf on political history includes Shiite Revolution establishment in Iran and its Gulf states exports, the Mecca demonstration by Fundamentalist and finally sponsoring of Israel and Egypt by the US on Peace Accords at Camp David (Al Mazrouei, 2013). However, in the Treaty of Jeddah, there were several articles that were disputed. The Articles include articles 3 and 4 over Zararah oilfields, article 5 on the maritime boundary, and article 6 on the official map.

Moreover, the Jeddah treaty content had several issues, including ratification, use of language, the Al-Ain/Buraimi and Umm al-Zamul issues, and Article 7. The revival of the dispute comprised several chronological activities happening since 2004 (Al Mazrouei, 2013). The death of Shaikh Zayid in 2004 resulted in the adoption of a new strategy for negotiation. In 2005, an announcement of the causeway project to connect Doha and Abu Dhabi was made, which led to a protestation by the Saudi government in 2006. Also, 2008 was marked by the signing of the Joint Minute by Saudi and Qataris. In 2009 there was checking of IDs and truck inspection at the border, which raised high tension. And finally, between 2010 and 2011, a dispute immerged over the undefined offshore boundaries.


Britain’s role in demarcating boundaries in the Arabian Peninsula takes two approaches. First, Britain did not consider the prevailing political, economic, and social factors in setting borders and used military power to set the Saudi-Abu Dhabi boundary in 1955. Consequently, the decision was replaced by the 1974 Treaty of Jeddah. Secondly, the Saudi-UAE dispute was resolved after the independence of the UAE and when Great Britain retreated from the Gulf (Al Mazrouei, 2013). However, it is not based on facts, and the dispute has not been resolved.

The 1935-1955 Anglo-Saudi negotiations between Saudi and Abu Dhabi were based on the interests of British and American oil firms, which would benefit if the area had oil or gas. These companies include the Iraq Petroleum Company, the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, the Abu Dhabi Petroleum Company, and the US-owned Arabian American Oil Company (ARAMCO). Besides, the British only acted when necessary, participated in developing and prolonging the UAE-Saudi issue, and were involved in Anglo-Saudi discussions and concessions. However, the resolution was hindered by unclear circumstances, factors that favored Saudi, the US Twin Pillars policy, and a lack of a mutually-integrative approach.

It is difficult to reach a final settlement of the border dispute between the UAE and Saudi, except for a compromise. The UAE wants to negotiate Article 3 on Zararah/Shaybah and others that seem unacceptable, while Saudi Arabia insists on Article 5 on the Khor al-Udaid region. Different ways can be adapted to resolve the dispute. A non-stop road between UAE and Qatar to eliminate border formalities, ease the tension by amending the Treaty focusing on Zararah oil field and maritime borders, and reconsider Article 3 in favor of UAE for regional integration. Finally, there should be a map reached by mutual agreement since the UAE map contains areas of contention.


Al Mazrouei, N. S. M. S. (2013). UAE-Saudi Arabia Border Dispute: The Case of the 1974 Treaty of Jeddah [Unpublished doctoral thesis]. University of Exeter.

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