Early in the 1800's, when it was known as the Pirate Coast, the region was occupied by independent sheikhdoms engaged in piracy and often warring among themselves. About the same time, Great Britain intervened and by mid-century had stopped the piracy through force, treaties, and truces. British power was expanded by treaty in 1892 to include control over the sheikhdoms' defenses and foreign affairs. It continued until Great Britain withdrew from the Persian Gulf area between 1968 and the end of 1971.

Six of the seven sheikhdoms merged to form the United Arab Emirates in December, 1971, and joined the Arab League and the United Nations. Efforts to include Bahrain and Qatar in the union failed, and each became a separate nation the same year. Ras al Khaimah joined the union early in 1972.

Each emir (prince) continued to control his state's internal affairs, under a constitution adopted by the union in 1971. However, the emirs agreed to help with the development of all the union's nations. In the 1970's, the union's economy boomed with the increase in the production of oil. The discovery of natural gas deposits in Ash Shariqah also helped the economy. However, the economy faltered in the 1980's when oil prices fell throughout the world.

In 1981, the union and other states of eastern Arabia joined together to form the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). The GCC works together to find solutions to various problems, including defense and economic issues.

Iraq invaded Kuwait in August, 1990. In early 1991, the GCC's military troops helped to successfully free Kuwait.

Legislative elections were held for the first time in December, 2006. The voters, chosen by the emirs, elected half of the federal legislature members; the other half of the members are elected directly by the emirs.