The United Arab Emirates today, somewhat surprisingly, is one of the major hubs of the global aviation industry. That is due, in part, to the success of its two major local carriers, Emirates Airline and Etihad Airways, serving not just the UAE but destinations around the world. Supported by the efforts of smaller carriers, they are an increasingly important part of this country's economy. It is unlikely, however, that they would have recorded such success had it not been for the country's fortuitous geographical location, situated between East and West, and, more specifically, on the route from Europe to India, South East Asia and beyond.
Just as the Arabian Gulf has played a role in the development of maritime trade routes across the Indian Ocean for several thousand years, so too has it been important in the development of the worldwide aviation network. This book, whose author is a former strategic adviser at the Sharjah Museums Department, tells the history of how it all began.
Powered flight - using engines and wings, rather than balloons or airships - began in the years before the First World War, with the Wright Brothers being credited with the invention of the first successful plane, in 1903. During the war, it became evident that aviation had a crucial role to play in combat, primarily for reconnaissance. After it ended, the development of civilian air travel gradually began, with the establishment of the first national airlines, of which Britain's Imperial Airways, later merged into BOAC (now British Airways), was one of the first. Nicholas Stanley-Price notes that "for Britain, it was essential to exploit the new, faster method of travel in order to link London more closely with its imperial possessions in India, Africa and South East Asia."
This book explains when and why Sharjah was selected as a key stopover on that route from Britain to the East, first for military traffic and run by the Royal Air Force (RAF) and then for civilian aircraft. It also records the airport's history and delves into the impact that this had on the Rulers and people of the Emirates.
Imperial Airways opened its route to the East in the mid-1920s along the Iranian (Persian) littoral but, after complex negotiations, it was only possible to negotiate an agreement that would expire in 1932. Such a route was, of course, unsuitable for the RAF, which was responsible for the security of Transjordan and Iraq and also needed to develop a secure passage from Baghdad to India, Singapore and Australia.
The shared needs of British civilian and military aviation - and the importance of them both to the broader interests of the British Empire - meant that the emirates of the Trucial States provided the obvious alternative option. Over time, of course, the emergence of the airport had a direct impact on the local economy, through rental payments to the ruler, opportunities for employment, purchases from the local market and the facilitation of quicker travel, for sheikhs, merchants and others.
Stanley-Price notes that "the establishment of the airfield ... suddenly connected Sharjah to the wider outside world in a way that no other Trucial State was". It helped, for example, to reverse to some extent the economic decline brought about by the collapse of the pearl industry by providing jobs. "Above all, it brought to the Trucial Coast a glimpse of the profound technological changes that were happening elsewhere."
There were other impacts, too - "the advantages of quick travel around the Gulf region brought in its wake some risks, such as the accelerated spread of disease", including, probably, the late 1935 outbreak of smallpox in Dubai and Sharjah. Another important aspect of the opening up of the air route was the creation of an efficient and rapid airmail service and there was a functioning postal service at the airport from 1933 onwards, although it was another 30 years before one would be established in Sharjah itself. Pearl merchants avidly seized the opportunity to send their goods more quickly to the Bombay market.
Stanley-Price divides his book into three phases. From 1932 to 1939, the airport was used as a staging post for the RAF and a landing stop for Imperial Airways, which also launched, in 1937, an alternative service by flying boats that landed at Dubai Creek, passengers being put up overnight at the Sharjah Imperial Airways Rest House.
From 1940 to 1945, while it continued to be used by civilian aircraft, its main function was as a wartime airfield, used both by the RAF and the US Air Force for support operations.
During what he calls "the quiet years", from 1946 to 1952, it was used as a civil airfield and as an RAF base and headquarters for the Trucial Oman Levies (later Trucial Oman Scouts), the main centre of the British military presence in the Trucial States.
He then concludes with a brief review of the airport's growth after 1952 and subsequent decline in the 1960s before it fell into disuse following the RAF withdrawal in 1971 and the opening of Sharjah International Airport in 1977.
Stanley-Price's research has been exhaustive, delving into a wide range of records, including personal papers and photographs of some of those involved, British film archives, the RAF Museum and the Imperial War Museum as well as those accessible through local institutions in Sharjah.
As a result, he has been able to explain, in detail, the procedure for the selection of the landing ground and the construction of the runway and the Imperial Airways Rest House and to retell the experiences of those who flew into, and out of, the airport, and who worked there. "Flying with Imperial Airways - for those who could afford it - was by all accounts a luxurious experience," he tells readers. "It was civil aviation at its most civil."
There is much in the book that is of absorbing interest. The section dealing with the period from 1940 to 1945, for example, provides the most detailed picture thus far available of the engagement of the territory of the Emirates - if not its people - in the Second World War, as well as details of the occasional clashes with local tribesmen, such as an armed raid on the Rest House in January 1945.
Throughout, there is a well-examined theme of the relationship between the town of Sharjah and the airport, known to locals as Al Mahatta. Its presence, he notes, "has been an important element in the social and economic development of the emirate of Sharjah in the 20th century".
Today, its runway has become King Abdul Aziz Street, the control tower still survives, and the Rest House has become the Al Mahatta Museum. "In its reincarnation," Stanley-Price concludes, "it represents to younger generations of Emiratis a tangible witness to one of the most enduring influences on their country's recent history."
This book provides an illuminating insight into a period of UAE history that is little known and less understood. It is one that both aviation buffs and those interested in the history of the country in the middle decades of the 20th century should obtain.
Peter Hellyer is a consultant specialising in the UAE's history and culture.