In November 2009, Yas Island was the venue for the Abu Dhabi Formula One Grand Prix; earlier that year, the UAE capital was selected as the headquarters for the International Renewal Energy Agency, IRENA - two events that show how the United Arab Emirates is making its mark on the world, as a showcase for technology and for much else besides.
Yet a mere 38 years ago, when the federation of the UAE was created, the country had little in the way of development, let alone technology. There were few schools and hospitals, no tarmac roads connecting its major cities and, in the more remote areas, camels and donkeys were still a common mode of transport.
The dramatic changes the country has undergone since then are due to the visionary leadership of the country’s first President, the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan. Becoming Ruler of Abu Dhabi in 1966, and then President on December 2, 1971, he was determined to ensure that the people of the UAE would enjoy the benefits of development.
He would not, however, have been able to convert his vision into reality had it not been the UAE’s good fortune to find itself sitting on large reserves of oil and gas, which provided the revenues that permitted the growth to take place.
In 1962, when the first oil exports left Abu Dhabi, the country had changed little for centuries, except that pearling, the one industry that had provided both employment and income for more than 7,000 years, had collapsed a decade or so earlier. In less than a couple of generations, the country was to change almost beyond recognition.
Sheikh Zayed believed that “He who does not know his past cannot make the best of his present and future, for it is from the past that we learn”. To understand the country today, one must look into that past.
The first evidence of human occupation comes from the Palaeolithic period, perhaps 200,000 years ago, when the country was on the migration route of Early Man out of Africa into Asia. Much later, in the Neolithic period, about 7,500 years ago, the inhabitants of islands such as Dalma and Marawah, in western Abu Dhabi, were building sophisticated houses and trading by sea with Mesopotamia. It was at about this time that the pearling industry began.
Five thousand years ago, the inhabitants began to mine copper in the mountains, both for local use and for export, an industry that led to the development of the first towns and an expanding trade network that extended to Central Asia and the Indus Valley. The industry was long-lived, surviving until the 17th century.
At the beginning of the Iron Age, around 1,300 BC, increasing aridity in the region prompted two major developments; the domestication of the camel, permitting the re-emergence of a nomadic lifestyle, and the invention of the falaj, an ingenious technique for tapping underground supplies of water.
At sea, there was another innovation: the lateen sail was used here over 2,000 years before it reached Europe. By the beginning of the Christian era, Emirati sailors and merchants were trading with China and Rome.
Christianity reached the UAE about 1,400 years ago, with the foundation of a monastery on the island of Sir Bani Yas, but it was short-lived; the revelation of Islam to the Prophet Mohammed in the early 7th century was swiftly followed by the adoption of the new faith by the people of the Emirates.
Though on the fringes of the great Arab and Muslim empires, the UAE continued to play a role in international commerce, thanks to pearling and its strategic location. Julfar, in Ras al-Khaimah, flourished as a trading centre from the 7th to the early 18th century, and was the birthplace of one of the country’s most famous sons, Ahmed bin Majid, a sailor whose seafaring manuals continued to be used for 400 years after his death in the late 15th century.
The arrival of European powers, first the Portuguese, in about 1500, followed by the British, the Dutch and the French, had a major impact on coastal towns, but inland the way of life changed little. In the 17th century, two important groupings began to emerge: the Bani Yas tribal confederation, in the deserts of Abu Dhabi, and the Qawasim family, whose power was centred on Ras al-Khaimah and Sharjah. From these, the Emirates of today eventually emerged.
In the early 19th century the Qawasim came into conflict with the British, who sought to control the sea route to India, and in 1819 a British expedition destroyed the Qawasim fleet and their strongholds on land. In early 1820, treaties were signed that laid the basis for the British presence that continued until 1971, with the rulers preserving their autonomy onshore, but with the British controlling the waters of the Gulf. It was the series of truces to maintain peace at sea that led to the area being named the Trucial States.
The second half of the 19th century saw pearling reach its peak, with rising demand from overseas. Among those to prosper was Abu Dhabi, led from 1855 to 1909 by Sheikh Zayed bin Khalifa, “Zayed the Great”, the grandfather of Sheikh Zayed and great-grandfather of President Sheikh Khalifa.
Following the First World War, however, the Japanese invention of cultured pearls and the world economic depression of the 1930s led to the collapse of the industry, which finally faded away after the Second World War.
By that time, however, a new source of wealth was on the horizon – oil. Exploration began in earnest after 1945, with the first discovery being made in 1958.
In the 1950s, the formation of the Trucial States Council prompted closer co-operation between the rulers. When the British announced in 1968 that they would leave the area within four years, the seven rulers, led by Sheikh Zayed and Sheikh Rashid of Dubai, set about the task of creating the United Arab Emirates, which was born on December 2, 1971.
Foreign observers were pessimistic about its future, pointing to the disparities in size, wealth and population, as well as the presence of covetous neighbours. There was, however, much more to unite the people of the emirates than there was to divide them and the UAE has grown into a united, confident, prosperous and developed state, build on the solid foundations of a common heritage and history.
Peter Hellyer, a columnist for The National, has lived in Abu Dhabi since 1978 and writes on the UAE’s history and environment.