The Rebellious Emirate of the UAE: Ras al Khaimah
The UAE’s embrace of Israel does not enjoy universal support in the seven emirates that make up the oil-rich federation.
Israel may view the United Arab Emirates as one of its few allies in the Arab World. However, the UAE’s embrace of Israel does not enjoy universal support in the seven emirates that make up the oil-rich federation. One of the constituent emirates, Ras al Khaimah – sometimes referred to merely as “RAK” – has had a stormy relationship with the chief emirate in the unequal federation, Abu Dhabi. Israel and the Donald Trump administration may believe that the UAE is part and parcel of the Washington-Jerusalem security bulwark against Iran, but Ras al Khaimah has always marched to its own beat from the very inception of the UAE in 1971. Ras al Khaimah initially balked at becoming a member of the UAE and was technically independent between December 2, 1971, the date that Britain gave independence to the UAE – what was formerly known as the Trucial States – and RAK’s rather reluctant incorporation into the UAE on January 10, 1972.
Ras al Khaimah has been the subject of a complicated “Game of Thrones” accession battle, common on the Arabian Peninsula, between the current emir, Sheikh Saud bin Saqr Al Qasimi, and his older half-brother, Sheikh Khalid bin Saqr Al Qasimi. On June 14, 2003, the long-reigning Sheikh Saqr bin Mohammed Al Qasimi replaced Sheikh Khalid, the then-Crown Prince, with Sheikh Saud. Upon Sheikh Saqr’s death on October 27, 2010, Sheikh Saud ascended to the throne of Ras al Khaimah. Sheikh Saud is a graduate of both the American University of Beirut and the University of Michigan and is seen as generally friendly to the United States. Sheikh Khalid, on the other hand, was not so subservient to Washington and opposed the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. Khalid had led a protest march against the U.S. invasion and he even burned an American flag in solidarity with the government of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. Khalid also authorized Ras al Khaimah Radio to broadcast anti-U.S. programs. To enforce Sheikh Saqr’s dismissal of his son as Crown Prince in 2003, the UAE, with the encouragement of the Central Intelligence Agency stations in Ab u Dhabi and Dubai, as well as the Pentagon, sent armored military vehicles into RAK to enforce the new line of succession and quell protests that saw thousands go to the streets in support of the ousted Crown Prince.
Sheikh Khalid, who had been Crown Prince since 1958, never recognized his dismissal as RAK’s legitimate Crown Prince and, therefore, the emirate’s rightful ruler. Khalid cites a 2004 Royal Decree by his father that Khalid, not Saud, was the rightful heir apparent to the throne of Ras Khaimah. Khalid had served as RAK’s de facto foreign minister, having had made official visits to Washington to meet with U.S. Presidents Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and Bill Clinton. Khalid was also known to favor democratic reforms for the UAE, including women’s rights, something that was not popular with the ruling royal families of Abu Dhabi, Dubai, or Saudi Arabia.
Khalid is also very much opposed to Iran for its continued occupation of the Great and Lesser Tunb islands in the Gulf. On November 30, 1971, just prior to the formation of the UAE, Iran, then under the rule of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, militarily occupied the strategic Tunbs, which were possessions of Ras al Khaimah. Britain, which was responsible for the defense of Ras al Khaimah, made no move to defend the islands since its defense treaty with Ras al Khaimah expired on December 1, 1971, the eve of the formation of the UAE, which Ras al Khaimah initially balked at joining. The Iranians also occupied the island of Abu Musa, a possession of the Emirate of Sharjah, which is governed by a branch of the same Qasimi family that rules Ras al Khaimah. The Qasimis of Sharjah are just as prone to playing a “game of thrones” as the royal family of RAK. On June 24, 1965, Sharjah’s Sheikh Saqr III bin Sultan Al Qasimi was deposed from his throne by the British political agent in Dubai, Glencairn Paul. Saqr infuriated the British by inviting the Arab League to open an office in Sharjah and aligning his policies with Arab nationalists, including President Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt. Saqr went into exile in Bahrain and, subsequently, Cairo. Saqr was succeeded by is cousin, Sheikh Khalid bin Mohammed Al Qasimi. On January 24, 1972, while the UAE was in its infancy, Sheikh Saqr returned to Sharjah from Egypt with a unit of mercenaries. Saqr and his military force invaded and occupied the Sharjah royal palace. A UAE military force arrived from Dubai and took Saqr into custody, however, Sheikh Khalid was killed in action.
Khalid was succeeded by his brother, Sheikh Sultan bin Muhammad Al-Qasimi. In June 1987, Sheikh Sultan was briefly deposed by his brother, Sheikh Abdel-Aziz bin Mohammed al-Qasimi. Sheikh Sultan, who was visiting in London, quickly returned to Sharjah to reclaim his throne with the support of the six other UAE emirs. In 1999, Sultan’s eldest son, the Crown Prince, died from a heroin overdose in London at the age of 24. In 2019, Sheikh Sultan’s youngest son, Khalid bin Sultan Al Qasimi, the owner of the British Qasimi clothing store chain, died in London at the age of 39.
Sheikh Khalid of Ras al Khaimah has bitterly recalled that RAK’s protest to Britain over the Iranian invasion of the Tunbs and Iran’s killing of four RAK policemen on Greater Tunb was ignored. However, to Ras al Khaimah’s delight, it was Saddam Hussein’s Iraq that protested Iran’s invasion of the islands by severing diplomatic relations with both Iran and Britain. Khalid and his RAK supporters have long suspected that the UAE government in Abu Dhabi concluded a secret agreement with Iran to cede Abu Musa and the Tunbs to Tehran after 20 years of joint Iranian-UAE control and that the agreement came into force in 1992 when Iran expelled the Arab residents of Abu Musa and Greater Tunb.
Sheikh Khalid has reportedly spent $3.7 million on an international array of lobbyists, private investigators, and attorneys in an attempt to convince the world that he is the legitimate ruler of Ras al Khaimah and that his half-brother, Saud, is an illegal pretender. Khalid claims that Iran violates international sanctions by using the port of Ras al Khaimah and its semiautonomous Ras al Khaimah Free Trade Zone, which lies directly across the Gulf and the strategic Straits of Hormuz from the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas, as a smuggling nexus for contraband goods destined for Iran. Israel, which is opening a new embassy in Abu Dhabi, is certain to dispatch a Mossad unit to Ras al Khaimah, if it has not already, to monitor a suspected Hezbollah and Hamas travel route from RAK to and from Iran via Iran’s Kish island on the Gulf.
The Ras al Khaimah Investment Authority (RAKIA) is not a sovereign wealth fund but a licensing and promotion business aimed at encouraging foreign investment in RAK. That has not prevented Sheikh Khalid and his supporters from seeking to identify and sue for transfer of ownership Emir Saud’s foreign assets. This has resulted in a virtual war playing out in courtrooms in New York, London, and Paris between Saud and his two brothers, Saud , as well as Sheikh Faisal Bin Saqr al-Qasimi, the former chairman of the large RAK-based Julphar Gulf Pharmaceutical Industries and a graduate of Eastern Michigan University. Emir Saud has had no problem abusing INTERPOL and its Red Notice warrants to seek the arrests and extradition to the UAE of those associated with either Sheikh Saud or Sheikh Faisal.
Ras al Khaimah and the Qasimi royal family continue to be the wild card in UAE politics and in the relationships with the other royal families of the region. The Qasimis are the longest reigning royal family on the Arabian Peninsula and that includes the Sauds. The Iranians and Israelis will be certain to take advantage of the maverick stance of RAK and the Qasimis vis-à-vis Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Sharjah, Qatar, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the newly-resurgent royal families of South Arabia’s former princely states.