Last week the tiny Persian Gulf emirate of Ra’s al-Khaimah was catapulted into the international spotlight after the latest episode in a decade-long struggle for supremacy between two rival brothers and their respective backers. Although barren of oil and gas, the emirate’s chequered history has frequently drawn attention from near and far. As one of the seven constituent members of the United Arab Emirates federation, its stability has always been of concern to the UAE’s wealthiest emirates of Abu Dhabi and Dubai, especially given its large population of indigenous UAE nationals or ‘Emiratis’ in a country otherwise saturated by foreign workers. But more importantly, Ra’s al-Khaimah is also the closest emirate to Iran - just 60 km across the sea - and is near the supertanker shipping lanes of the Straits of Hormuz. As such it has become a focal point in the broader US-Tehran regional standoff.
Ruled by the patriarchs of the Qawasim (‘Al-Qasimi’) tribe, who were supported and protected by Britain from the 1820s until imperial withdrawal from the Persian Gulf in 1971, Ra’s al-Khaimah’s longest-serving monarch was Sheikh Saqr bin Muhammad Al-Qasimi. Saqr claimed the throne in 1948. He struggled to keep up with developments in Abu Dhabi and Dubai, and only joined the post-British UAE in 1972, some months later than the other six emirates. Having failed to find sufficient hydrocarbon reserves to retain full autonomy, Saqr had little option but to enter into a subservient relationship with his wealthier neighbours. Although Ra's al-Khaimah remained relatively poor in comparison to other parts of the UAE, Saqr faced little direct opposition during his rule, managing to incorporate the leaders of most of the emirate's tribes into various public sector positions, and distributing limited federal subsidies. His eldest son and crown prince since 1958, Sheikh Khalid bin Saqr Al-Qasimi, served as his deputy, while his younger sons assumed other roles in the ruler's court and the emirate's various government offices.
In 2003, after having allegedly burned an American flag at the head of an anti-Iraq war demonstration, Khalid was replaced as crown prince by Saqr's third eldest son, Sheikh Saud bin Saqr Al-Qasimi. A decree was supposedly signed by the ageing Saqr to support this change and, significantly, Saud had the apparent backing of other members of the ruling family. Promising a development programme to diversify the emirate's economy by establishing a real estate sector and a tourism industry, Saud was hoping to capitalize on nearby Dubai's successes, and even paid for a large supplement detailing his plans to be published in Foreign Affairs magazine. Even more importantly, Saud also had the backing of Abu Dhabi, as tanks belonging to the UAE Armed Forces drove from Abu Dhabi to Ra's al-Khaimah, and were positioned on various street corners. Khalid's supporters demonstrated in the streets, chanting his name and holding flags, but were fired on with water cannons and dispersed. Khalid was duly exiled, first crossing the border to Oman, and then living in the United States and Britain.
Ra's al-Khaimah's ill-conceived development programme began to flounder in 2008, and Saud was vulnerable to criticism in the wake of Dubai’s economic collapse. Still in exile, Khalid enlisted a US public relations company and a British solicitor to begin a campaign in the international media with the aim of persuading Abu Dhabi and the other UAE emirates that Saud was a liability and that Khalid should return.
The campaign focused on Khalid's legal entitlement to be crown prince. It was claimed that the 2003 decree signed by his father was never authenticated, and that a later 2004 decree was signed, overturning the 2003 decision. The campaign also focused on Saud's apparent connections to Iran, stating that his effective deputy - a Lebanese businessman - had major commercial interests, including factories in Iran. By 2009 the campaign was even claiming that Ra's al-Khaimah's port was being visited by Iranian customs officers, and that the emirate was being used as a conduit for nuclear materials destined for Iran. Connections were also highlighted in the media between Ra's al-Khaimah and Al-Qaeda, with claims being made that recent terror plots in the UAE - including a 2009 attempt to blow up Dubai's tallest skyscraper – were the work of a Ra's al-Khaimah-based cell.
This summer there were signs that Khalid's campaign was working. The Abu Dhabi ruling family had allowed him to return from his exile to visit his father, who was in a hospital in Abu Dhabi. Khalid was also allowed to stay in his wife's palace in Kalba, a town controlled by Sharjah, the UAE's third wealthiest emirate. And one of Khalid's daughters had married into the Sharjah ruling family only the previous year. Given Abu Dhabi's increasingly hawkish stance on Iran, some observers believed that it made sense for Abu Dhabi to crack down on any Ra's al-Khaimah links to Iran, whether real or fictional.
When Saqr died on October 27th, there were several hours of confusion. Khalid re-entered Ra's al-Khaimah and installed himself in his pre-2003 palace with over a hundred supporters and retainers. He had earlier been promised by the rulers of Abu Dhabi and Dubai that he could attend his father's funeral and had concluded that he would be peacefully and swiftly installed as ruler, with Saud remaining as crown prince. By mid-afternoon, however, a brief announcement was made by the Abu Dhabi-controlled Federal Ministry for Presidential Affairs congratulating Saud on becoming the new ruler of Ra's al-Khaimah. Tanks were deployed on the outskirts of Ra's al-Khaimah and most of Khalid's guards were arrested and remain detained for questioning. Khalid and his son were not permitted to attend the funeral.
With Khalid stating that he intends to meet with the members of the Supreme Council of Rulers (comprising the rulers of each emirate) in order to discuss the future of Ra's al-Khaimah, it appears that he is unwilling to drop his claim, even though he has now had to leave the emirate. This unresolved challenge will continue to undermine Saud and may provoke renewed instability in the future.
Saud may also be weakened if the emirate's economy shows no signs of recovery. At present its hotel occupancy rates and real estate prices remain low, much like in Dubai. The nature of the succession also provides Saud with little legitimacy. On a macro-level, it undermines the federal cohesiveness of the UAE, given that the succession process was decided unilaterally by Abu Dhabi, or rather by an increasingly powerful faction within Abu Dhabi which does not yet enjoy widespread support. Under the federal constitution, successions should remain internal matters for each constituent emirate. As such, the Ra's al-Khaimah succession should have been decided by a consultation exercise with the various tribes in the emirate, with no external interference from Abu Dhabi or the Abu Dhabi-dominated federal government.