UAE National Day: 26 most important milestones in the country’s 50-year history

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As the United Arab Emirates celebrates its 50th National Day, we look back at some of the federation’s most historic moments that paved the way for its transformation from relative obscurity to a household name known for its ambition and record-breaking prowess.

December 2, 1971: The United Arab Emirates is formed

On the very first National Day, founding father Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan united six tribal families to form the UAE.


An agreement between the six ruling families was signed in what is now known as Dubai’s Union House.

Discussions about forming a union had been ongoing for several years prior to the official founding of the nation.

When a treaty with the British ended on December 1 1971, the fledging federation was ready to hoist its flag for the first time.

The United Arab Emirates was welcomed into the Arab League on the day it was founded.

December 9, 1971: The UN recognizes the UAE

Days after its founding, the UAE became a member state of the United Nations.

February 10, 1972: Ras al-Khaimah joins the union

Some two months after the official founding of the UAE, the ruling family of the northernmost emirate Ras al-Khaimah decided to

October 5, 1972: Mina Rashid opens

Dubai’s then-ruler Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed al-Maktoum inaugurated Mina Rashid almost a year after the unification.

The opening of the port was an early step in building Dubai’s status as an international trading hub.

It was a significant improvement over the creek – providing deep water berths for cargo ships.

Sheikh Rashid enlisted the services of British engineering firm Halcrow to design and build the port.

May 6, 1976: Seven emirates unify their armed forces

Although a Union Defense Force had been set up soon after founding in December 1971, introducing federal authority over the armed forces, each emirate was responsible for training their own soldiers up until 1976.

In May of 1976, the separate forces were unified and officially renamed the United Arab Emirates Armed Forces.

February 26, 1979: Jebel Ali’s port opens

Seven years after Mina Rashid was inaugurated, Sheikh Rashid inaugurated the Port of Jebel Ali, which to this day remains the world’s largest manmade harbor and one of the busiest ports globally.

The inauguration of Jebel Ali, 35 kilometers from Dubai’s city center, solidified the young emirate’s position as a vital trading hub between the Eastern and Western worlds.

February 26, 1979: Dubai World Trade Center inaugurated

On the same day as the ambitious port project was officially opened, Britain’s Queen Elizabeth inaugurated the newly-built Dubai World Trade Center.

One of the first skyscrapers in the city, the World Trade Center symbolized Dubai’s ambition to become a powerful player in global business.

May 5 1981: UAE co-founds Gulf Cooperation Council in Abu Dhabi

The heads of state of Gulf neighbors Bahrain, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Oman signed a charter to form the GCC in 1981.

The economic agreement recognized the shared culture of the Gulf states and included, at one point, plans for a common currency.

January 2, 1982: Abu Dhabi International Airport opens

Linking the capital to the rest of the world, Abu Dhabi’s airport opened in the early 80s.

Dubai had opened its own airport in 1960, before the formation of the union.

Sharjah, meanwhile, had operated an airport since the 1930s, and opened its current international airport in 1976.

October 25, 1985: First Emirates flight takes off

Although it is now known as one of the world’s biggest airlines, Emirates’ humble beginnings were an inaugural flight to Karachi on plane rented from Pakistan International Airlines.

October 7, 1990: Dubai mourns ruler’s death

The emirate went into mourning after its leader and the UAE’s Prime Minister Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed al-Maktoum passed away.

Sheikh Rashid led the emirate through its founding and was responsible for a number of major projects, setting Dubai on the path to becoming the metropolis it is today.

He was succeeded by his son Sheikh Maktoum, who served until his death in 2006.

December 1, 1999: Burj al-Arab opens

The world’s first seven-star hotel and an enduring icon of Dubai’s luxury tourist attractions, the Burj al-Arab, opens.

June 2001: Construction begins on Palm Jumeirah

An ambitious building project to create an artificial island off Dubai’s coast begins.

The first residential units on the Palm Jumeriah were handed over in 2006.

March 3, 2003: Al Arabiya begins broadcasting from Dubai

Al Arabiya begins broadcasting its news channel from Dubai’s newly-developed Media City.

May 11, 2003: First Etihad flight takes off

Abu Dhabi’s flag carrier Etihad launched its first ever flight with a ceremonial trip from Abu Dhabi International Airport to Al Ain.

November 2, 2004: Founding father Sheikh Zayed dies

The nation fell into mourning on November 2 2004 when its founding father Sheikh Zayed passed away.

Sheikh Zayed was a beloved figure among UAE residents, respected globally for his efforts to unite the seven emirates and celebrated locally for his reputed generosity and deep involvement in ruling over his people.

His son, the current President of the UAE, Sheikh Khalifa succeeded him.

August 28, 2005: Mall of the Emirates and Ski Dubai open

Symbolic of the flurry of development that took place in the 2000s, the Mall of the Emirates with its Ski Dubai indoor ski slope opened in August of 2005.

At the time is was hailed as the largest mall in the world, while Ski Dubai

16 to 20 December, 2006: The UAE’s first election

For the first time, UAE citizens were allowed to choose members of their governments for the first time.

Elections were held to decide the posts of half of the 40 seats of the Federal National Council (FNC).

November 4, 2008: Dubai Mall opens

Surpassing the previous record for the world’s largest mall, Dubai’s Emaar opened Dubai Mall in November of 2008.

August 9, 2009: Dubai Metro inaugurated

Another historic achievement for the UAE was cemented when Dubai inaugurated its metro system in 2009, which was at the time the Arabian Gulf’s first urban rail system.

January 4 2010: Dubai opens the world’s tallest building

The ultimate symbol of the 2000s building boom, Dubai made headlines around the world again with its Burj Khalifa – the world’s tallest building.

The tower is an architectural marvel, standing at 829.8 meters tall, and remains the tallest manmade structure in the world to this day.

November 27, 2013: Dubai wins Expo 2020 bid

Dubai won its bid to host the World Expo 2020, which would be the first ever held in the Middle East.

July, 2014: UAE announces Mars mission

Not content with breaking records on earth, the UAE’s President Sheikh Khalifa announced that Emirati scientists would develop a craft that would travel to Mars.

July 20, 2020: Mars mission launches

In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, the Emirates Mars Mission brought hope to the UAE when it launched the aptly-named Hope probe on July 20, 2020.

It set off from a launch site in Japan and entered the red planet’s orbit in February of 2021, where it remains, collecting data about the atmosphere.

September 15, 2020: Abraham Accords signed

A historic deal between the UAE, Bahrain, the US, and Israel was signed in September of 2020.

It was the first time an Arab country had recognized Israel since Jordan had in 1994.

November 11, 2020: Sweeping legal reform

A raft of sweeping legal reforms was announced in November of 2020, amending rules across a broad range of areas.

Some traditional restrictions on societal norms were eased, paving the way for a more modern state.

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