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Historian calls for local input to Gulf history

A more balanced history of the Gulf region could be written if more private documents were made public, an historian said today.

A more balanced history of the Gulf region could be written if more private documents were made public, a historian said today. Speaking at the National Centre for Documentation and Research (NCDR), Dr James Onley discussed his book The Arabian Frontier of the British Raj: Merchants, Rulers and the British in the Nineteenth-Century Gulf, and the difficulties he encountered trying to find historical accounts by local people.

"There's a perception that there are no local records. There are, but they are kept behind closed doors by the political elite," he said. "There's extensive British documentation, but it's not the whole story. Much of the history written about the Gulf is a reflection of British hegemony in the region." Dr Onley spoke on the occasion of the launch of a new volume published by the NCDR. The volume is made up of 28 historical and anthropological papers by academics from around the world and was first presented in Abu Dhabi last November.

His first book, The Arabian Frontier looks at the system of British residency in the Gulf from 1820 to 1971. Within this system, the British used influential Arab, Persian and Indian families to work on their behalf, which Dr Onley argues was the key to Britain's success and the proliferation of British interests in the region. His research revolved around mostly British records as well as oral and some written histories by descendants of the local people who served the British government, sometimes for generations. "I had a very different perception of the Gulf based on reading history written by foreigners," Dr Onley said. "Most of it makes Britain look like they were running the show. Some local historians and I had totally different ideas of this place, totally different accounts. So they showed me records that no one else had seen before." Dr Onley said the major problem in trying to research Gulf history was that historical records were kept private, often by families who did not want them released for fear their ancestors would be ridiculed, Dr Onley said. The result was that the general history of the region lacks balance. "Most governments don't give public access to historical records. Here, they don't want the ruling families' pasts published. Sometimes we look at that from a western perspective, but those values aren't true here," he said. "But I'm beginning to see people push for more government transparency."

In his research, Dr Onley describes how he consciously tried to avoid looking at Gulf history from a western perspective. The solution, he realised, was to involve the local people in his work as much as possible. Local historians read all his drafts and gave him extensive feedback. He spent hours listening to their stories. More historians should approach their work this way, he said. "The British have been given too much credit in the past in accounts of Gulf history. A lot of it was written by people who never even came here. I'm trying to redress that imbalance. I want to tell these stories, but using local sources." jhume@thenational.ae

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