A sleepy backwater for much of its history, Al Ain and Buraimi briefly captured the world’s attention in the early 1950s as a result of the so-called Buraimi Dispute – one of the defining events in the twentieth-century history of Abu Dhabi and Oman, and one which neatly encapsulates the Wild West atmosphere of the early days of oil prospecting in the Gulf. The origin of the dispute lay in Saudi Arabia’s claim in 1949 to sovereignty over large parts of what was traditionally considered territory belonging to Abu Dhabi and Oman, including the Buraimi Oasis. The Saudis (supported by the US Aramco oil company) backed up their claim by referring to previous periods of Saudi occupation dating back to the early nineteenth century, although their real interest in Buraimi stemmed from the belief that large amounts of oil lay buried in the region.
In 1952 a small group of Saudi Arabian soldiers occupied Hamasa, one of three Omani villages in the oasis, claiming it for Saudi Arabia and embarking on a campaign of bribery in an attempt to obtain professions of loyalty from local villagers. They also attempted to bribe Sheikh Zayed, then governor of Al Ain, tempting him with the huge sum of US$42 million – an offer which Sheikh Zayed pointedly refused. The affair was debated in both the UK Parliament and at the United Nations, although attempts at international arbitration finally broke down in 1955. Shortly afterwards the Saudis were driven out of Hamasa by the Trucial Oman Levies, a British-backed force based in Sharjah (for an eyewitness account of this action, read Edward Henderson’s Arabian Destiny). The dispute wasn’t fully resolved until 1974, when an agreement was reached between King Faisal of Saudi Arabia and Sheikh Zayed (who had subsequently become ruler of Abu Dhabi and first president of the newly independent UAE). Ironically, after all the fuss, the area proved singularly lacking in oil.
The dispute gave Buraimi its proverbial fifteen minutes of fame, even inspiring an episode of The Goon Show entitled “The Nasty Affair at the Buraimi Oasis”. More importantly, it put a final end to centuries of Saudi incursions into Abu Dhabi and Oman, as well as establishing the legendary reputation of Sheikh Zayed, who succeeded in repulsing the oil-rich Saudis and their American cronies long before Abu Dhabi had found its own huge oil reserves. As one foreign observer put it, “He [Zayed] was very proud that, when he had nothing, he told them to get stuffed.”