The earliest significant settlements in the UAE date from the Bronze Age. In the 3rd century BC, a culture known as Umm an-Nar's arose near the site of modern Abu Dhabi and its influence extended well into the interior and along the coast of what is now Oman.
The Greeks were the next major cultural influence and ruins showing strong Hellenistic features have been found at Meleiha, about 50km (30mi) from Sharjah, and at Al-Dour, in the emirate of Umm al-Quwain. During the Middle Ages, much of the region was part of the kingdom of Hormuz, which controlled the entrance to, and most of the trade in, the Gulf.
The Portuguese arrived in 1498 and by 1515 had occupied Julfar near Ras al-Khaimah, building a customs house that taxed the Gulf's flourishing trade with India and the Far East. The Portuguese stuck around until 1633 and were followed by the British, who began exercising their naval power in the Gulf in the mid-18th century.
Throughout this period, the main power among the Bedouin tribes of the interior was the Bani Yas tribal confederation, made up of the ancestors of the ruling families of modern Abu Dhabi and Dubai. The Bani Yas were originally based in Liwa, an oasis on the edge of the Empty Quarter, but moved to Abu Dhabi in 1793.
The British were focused on securing their line of communication to India and keeping European competitors, such as France and Russia, out of the region. The states that comprise the UAE were formerly known as the Trucial States, Trucial Coast, or Trucial Oman. The term trucial refers to the fact that the sheikhs ruling the seven constituent states were bound by truces concluded with Great Britain in 1820 and by an agreement made in 1892 accepting British protection.
However the British let the area remain a backwater of fisher people, pearl divers and Bedouin until the early 20th century. For most of this colonial period, Sharjah was the most populous and powerful of the emirates but it lost influence to Abu Dhabi as the 19th century drew to a close; Abu Dhabi was later overshadowed by Dubai.
After World War II the British granted internal autonomy to the sheikhdoms. Discussion of federation began in 1968 when Britain announced its intended withdrawal from the Persian Gulf area by 1971.