"As an Emirati, it is normal that I should be more sensitive about an occupied part of the UAE than other Arab territories. Otherwise, one would be fooling himself,” said Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed, the Foreign Minister of the UAE, during a question-and-answer session of the Federal National Council referring to the Lesser and Greater Tunbs and Abu Musa.
Emiratis know little about these islands that were occupied by Iran in the short window of time between the British withdrawal from the Trucial Coast emirates on November 30, 1971 and the declaration of the United Arab Emirates on December 2. The day after the invasion Iraq, Libya, Algeria and South Yemen lodged an official complaint on behalf of the Arab countries regarding Iran’s occupation. Abdullah, an 80-year-old Emirati who was born and brought up on Abu Musa, told me that the Sharjah government sought assistance from Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser but he dismissed the matter. The occupation hasn’t received much international publicity since.
Abu Musa is today the only inhabited island among the three and the plight of our compatriots must be highlighted to nationals, expatriates and the international community. Abu Musa isn’t a desolate piece of land.
“I was born there. I was there in December 1971. I remember those days when the Iranian forces arrived,” said Ahmed, an Emirati in his 50s. “I studied in Abu Musa in a mixed school.”
Because of the occupation forces’ policy of discouraging children from attending the school that Ahmed attended, it enrols 150 students today. In the 1970s, it had as many as 400 pupils.
A boat named Abu Musa leaves Sharjah daily for the island. I see it everyday as I drive to work. But Ahmed told me that in the past two decades the Iranian occupation forces have been turning away young visitors, allowing only the elderly to visit. “They want us to forget about it,” said Ahmed.
For too long the issue did not receive the public and media attention that it deserved. So it is fascinating to see that when a dynamic personality like Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed speaks frankly about the matter, calling Iran’s continuous occupation of the islands “shameful” and comparing it with Israel’s occupation of Palestinian land, the UAE media and public quickly adopt the cause. On Thursday, the matter dominated the television, newspaper and radio scene in the UAE.
Emiratis are appalled by the harassment their compatriots on Abu Musa face from the Iranian occupiers, whose policy is geared towards encouraging them to leave once and for all. There is only one clinic there, one small supermarket, one telephone exchange and one school. Like Israel’s abhorrent ban on importing building equipment into Gaza, the residents of Abu Musa aren’t allowed to trade freely and import the necessary materials for maintenance and construction.
And while Jerusalem is a Pan-Islamic issue and Palestine a PanArab concern, the occupied islands are a Pan-Emirati cause. Abu Musa is our Jerusalem, and without a resolution, relations between the Iranian government and the UAE will always be strained.
Moving forward, the UAE could draw a lesson from the superb awareness campaign launched to promote the island of Bu Tina as part of the New Seven Wonders of Nature competition. Within a few months the beautiful crescent shaped island jumped from number 28 to number 11 as a result of a well-organised media campaign. The same modern methods could be used to promote awareness about the Iranian occupation of the three islands.
Emiratis also appreciate the peaceful policy that the UAE adopts towards our Iranian neighbours, repeatedly asking Iran’s government to reach a solution either through direct dialogue or international arbitration. Sadly, the Iranian side continues to drag its feet.
The issue of the occupied islands must be taught in schools, discussed in majlises, and featured on all UAE government and embassy websites. We must continue to urge the Iranian government to end this unlawful and unjust occupation by peaceful means.
Do your best to educate yourself and others about this just cause. Do it because it’s right. But as Sheikh Abdullah explained, there is another reason: we should be sensitive to it because we are Emiratis.
*This article first appeared in The National on Sunday 25th April 2010