This paper examines one of the least known chapters of Middle Eastern history, that of Abu Dhabi before the discovery of oil. It reassesses the reign of Shakhbut bin Sultan al-Nuhayyan (1928-1966), which has been of little interest to scholars. This article's analysis has two strands. First, it examines the nature of the emirate of Abu Dhabi before the advent of oil, and in doing so looks at the complexity of tribe-state relations. Based on a kind of modus vivendi with the tribes, Shakhbut's Abu Dhabi provides some clear examples of how remote areas of tribal societies were administered. The second part of the analysis concerns developments in the 1960s, in particular the discovery of oil in Abu Dhabi and the British decision to withdraw from the Gulf and end British protection of the sheikdom and other Trucial States. These profound changes overwhelmed Shaykh Shakhbut and caused his tribal state to lose its vitality. A particular emphasis is given to the anomalous relationship between Shaykhbut and the British authorities, brought about by the changing circumstances, that eventually led to his removal from power.