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General Maritime Treaty 1820

Origin of United Arab Emirates' flags

Last modified: 2021-07-23 by rob raeside
Keywords: general maritime treaty 1820 | united arab emirates | trucial coast | trucial oman | trucial sheikdoms | pirates' coast | white pierced red | no.1 flag | no.2 flag | panel (red) | bordure (white) |
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[White pierced red or no. 2 flag as appeared on the General Maritime Treaty 1820] 1:1  image by Santiago Dotor

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Until the 19th century the Gulf emirates' monochrome red flags were undifferentiated, but then they added white borders, hoists, stripes, script, etc.. Moore and Ross 1986 says that in 1820 the British asked Gulf Emirs who were friendly to them and entered into special treaty relationship with them to put white onto their traditional red Muslim flags. There was, however, no standard way to display this white and it was up to the locals to find a way. In most cases, there wasn't even a standardization, it seems, at any single point in time, much less over time. This explains the white on the flags of the states, as well as on the hoist of the flags of Qatar and Bahrain (both of which were invited to join the United Arab Emirates when it was formed in 1971 but declined). Fujayrah never entered a treaty relationship with the British, so its flag remained plain red. That treaty was the "truce" that changed the Pirate Coast to the Trucial Coast (or Trucial Oman as it was sometimes misleadingly called).
James Dignan, Josh Fruhlinger, Ed Haynes
and Ole Andersen, 1995-1997

Flag books often refer to the General Maritime Treaty of 1820 which instituted the red and white flags of some arab states in the Persian Gulf. I have just found a copy of that treaty in C.R. Low, History of the Indian Navy. Here are the articles which relate to flags:

The following is a translation of the general Treaty of peace with the arab tribes of the Persian Gulf, dated the 8th of January 1820.
"In the name of God, the merciful, the compassionate! Praise be to God, who hath ordained peace to be a blessing to his creatures! There is established a lasting peace between the British Government and the Arab tribes, who are parties to the contract, on the following conditions:
Art. 3. The friendly (literally the pacificated) Arabs shall carry, by land and by sea, a red flag, with or without letters in it, at their option; and this shall be in a border of white, the breadth of the white in the border being equal to the breadth of the red, as represented in the margin
[of the original document], the whole forming the flag known in the British Navy by the title of 'White pierced Red'; and this shall be the flag of the friendly Arabs, and they shall use it, and no other.
Art. 4. The pacificated tribes shall all of them continue in their former relations, with the exception that they shall be at peace with the British Government, and shall not fight with each other; and the flag shall be a symbol of this only, and of nothing further.
Art. 10. The vessels of the friendly Arabs, bearing their flag above described, shall enter into all the British ports, and into the ports of the allies of the British, so far as they shall be able to effect it, and they shall buy and sell therein; and if any shall attack them, the British Government shall take notice of it."

The length of each side of the square in the centre of the flag is the same as the width of the border around it. To put it another way, the square in the centre is one ninth of the square flag.
The treaty was signed by different tribes on various dates between mid-day on Saturday 8th January and 15th March 1820. The Chief of Khor Hassan near Bahrein refused to sign on the grounds that he was subordinate to the Persian Government. This was allowed on the understanding that the Governor of Bushire (Bushehr) was responsible for his conduct.
David Prothero
, 25 October 1998

The Treaty of 1820 only prescribes one flag for the sheikhs. The flag, called white pierced red, was to be used by all sheikhs, but there was a rivalry between the tribes in the Gulf region. The most important was the Qawasim tribe, ruling most of the area. (Qawasim is the plural. The singular is Qassim, hence the Qassimi dynasty. The people belonging to it are Qawasim.) This tribe was also the leading one in piracy, so the treaty was in fact a treaty between the British and the Qawasim to stop piracy. Their sheiks ruled in Sharjah, Ras al-Khaimah, Fujairah (Sheikh Sultan bin Saqr of Sharjah, who signed the treaty in 1820, had been sheikh of Ras-al-Khaimah until 1809!).
So other tribes looked upon this flag as the Qawasim-flag. Norie 1848 has the flag as the flag of the Wahabees which is not correct, as the Wahabees were at war against the Qawasim. But from his note you can see that this flag was seen as the flag of one tribe. As the treaty was one against piracy on land the plain red flag was kept in use (I have several photographs from books that show plain red flags!), and at some times (war against other tribes, etc.) the red flag was flown even at sea.
A plain red flag was also used by Muscat. Muscat had quite friendly relations to all of the tribes, but not to the Qawasim. So it seems natural that the other tribes preferred the plain flag. For example: Abu Dhabi officially readopted the plain red flag in 1833/34 and returned to the white bordered flag after the new sea-treaty of 1835. On land they kept the plain red flag (until 1958!!!). At sea Abu Dhabi introduced a new flag between 1905 and 1930, the same time as Dubai: red with a white strip. The flag at sea was changed in 1958 to the present one, some years later this flag became also the flag on land.
You see there was one flag in the beginning: the white pierced red. That flag was not acknowledged by all tribes, so later there were two types of flags: the Qassimi-flag (red with a white border around) and the flag of the other tribes (at first plain red, later red with a white strip).
This is a very short version of the United Arab Emirates flags' history. The long version would also include reasons for the flags' dimensions and explanations why the similarity between the flags of Bahrain and Qatar is no "accident" (their origin lies in a third flag once well known in the Gulf region).
A little bit more: sometimes one can read that "the treaty of 1820 was signed by the seven states". That is not correct. There were no states, the treaty was signed by sheikhs who ruled tribes and sections of tribes. And there were more than seven. As the British did not know about the importance of each sheikh they made a treaty with "as many as they could find". I counted twelve sheikhs who signed the treaty between January and March 1820. At some times there were other flags in use than red ones, but that will need some more research, before talking about.
Ralf Stelter, 2 April 1999

In the Persian Gulf a flag flown from a pole set in the ground is, or was, of greater significance than a flag flown from a building. In 1927 the British Political Resident wrote that, "Persians and Arabs consider that a flagstaff in the ground with a national flag flying conveys some claim to the ground in which the flagstaff is embedded", and added that Sheikh Muhammerah in Bushire allowed consuls to fly their national flag only from the top of a house.
David Prothero, 1 May 2000

I still have some doubt as to when was the No. 1 and No. 2 classification established or when did the no. 1 flag appear, since David Prothero's literal quote from the 8th January 1820 Treaty makes no reference to the said classification nor to the first flag.
Santiago Dotor
, 19 April 2001

The No. 1 and No. 2 classification is rather strange as the No. 1 flag was not the first, but the second to be introduced. So I think this classification came by chance. The flag with the white stripe along the hoist [No. 1] was definitely introduced later, the treaty only mentions the square flag with the red dot. But it is still not clear when did the flag with the white stripe come into use. I am still researching the history of the Arab Emirates' flags. Unsolved questions are for example:

  • what did the green flag of Abu Dhabi (used for about ten years) look like,
  • how did the three flags of Qatar, reported in the 1830s, look like, etc.
The 1820 flag was square, colours in 1:1:1, although an illustration of that time showed in in 1:2:1. It only became elongated later and then the red part was of the same height as both white parts together (1:2:1).
Ralf Stelter
, 19 April 2001

I said it is still not clear when the "white stripe flag" came in use. It was not before 1833, possibly 1864 or even later. A hint: the British Admiralty flag book of 1930 [Drawings of the Flags in Use at the Present Time by Various Nations 1930] shows only the square red dotted flag (plate 31), only the amendment of 1936 shows both flags (plate 31a).
Santiago Dotor asked, "which emirates (if any) used Arabic inscriptions on these flags, which inscriptions and for how long?" Although the treaty of 1820 allowed signs of differentiation to the flags I know of none. As the treaty was not followed. The white flag with red dot was not used by the Arabs, they preferred the plain red ones and used them as far as I know by now, widely. Only later treaties forced them to use white in their flags. And then they were possibly only used at sea.
It is said that some emirates used their state's name in the flag, but I only know one example: Fujairah introduced her white name on the red flag and white bordered red ensign in 1952. Returning to the plain red flag in 1961.
Ralf Stelter
, 20 April 2001

White Pierced Red or No. 2 Flag

As it appeared on the 1820 Treaty As it was actually used
[White pierced red or no. 2 flag as appeared on the General Maritime Treaty 1820] 1:1     
image by Santiago Dotor
[White pierced red or no. 2 flag, actually used (General Maritime Treaty 1820)] 1:3     
image by Ivan Sache

Gresham Carr 1956 wrote, "No. 2 Flag has a white square field with a small red square in the centre: this is flown by Sharjah, Ras-al-Khaimah, and Kalba." This flag is the one described in the treaty; the length of each side of the square in the centre of the flag is the same as the width of the border around it. To put it another way, the square in the centre is one ninth of the square flag.
David Prothero
, 25 October 1998

I think that the flag is three breadths (the unit of measurement in British flags) long [i.e. proportions 1:3]. (...) The current flag of Ras al-Khaimah is similar, but the red is twice as wide as the flag described above.
Graham Bartram, 27 October 1998

The white pierced red of the treaty of 1820 was a square flag. A sketch is accompanying the text of the treaty, but there is some doubt, if it was ever in use that shape, because the Arab tribes preferred very long flags on their ships. It is no accident that old flag charts show proportions of 1:3, 1:4, and even 1:6 in Arab flags (seagoing tribes or nations), as you may remember the first Iranian flag of green-white-red stripes had proportions of 1:3. It is not even clear if the red dot in the center was of half the size of the cloth or smaller, as the instructions how to make them were not very clear. Later books show it being 1/9th of the flag, but even Norie 1848 showed a rectangular flag (although he labelled it flag of the Wahabees which is wrong) with a narrow border.
Ralf Stelter
, 17 May 1999

Flaggenbuch 1939 shows this flag with a white border 1/4th of the flag height (though there are no dimensions mentioned).
Ivan Sache, 19 April 2001

Santiago Dotor asked, "when (and in what emirates) did the proportions change from 1:3 to 1:2 — if that has been ever specified?". I do not think they were specified, but the British had the idea of a square flag, whilst Arabs used very long flags usually. The reason for this may be that Arabs showed their tribal device usually on the main mast of their ships. Their flags often touched the water, and such a flag you can only hardly recognize. Other publicated proportions were 1:4. Possibly the proportions were changed to 1:2 in 1971 (independence of the United Arab Emirates).
Ralf Stelter, 20 April 2001

No. 1 Flag

[No. 1 flag (Arab Emirates)] 1:3 
image by Santiago Dotor

Gresham Carr 1956 wrote, "Abu Dhabi, Ajman, Dubai and Umm-al-Qawain use the No. 1 Flag, consisting of a long narrow red field, three by one, having a white vertical stripe at the hoist and occupying one sixth the length of the flag."
David Prothero
, 25 October 1998

Flaggenbuch 1939 also shows this flag with the white stripe extending over 1/6th of the flag length.
Ivan Sache, 19 April 2001