x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

A sense of history on National Day in the Northern Emirates

An oral history of the Northern Emirates aims to make young people aware of how precarious life was before oil brought both unprecedented wealth and national unity.

Dr Hamad bin Seray, standing near the ancient Sheba Palace in Ras Al Khaimah, says many young Emiratis are unaware of the region's pre-oil past.
Dr Hamad bin Seray, standing near the ancient Sheba Palace in Ras Al Khaimah, says many young Emiratis are unaware of the region's pre-oil past.

The sight of streets filled with cars bedecked with UAE flags would have been unimaginable to the residents of Ras Al Khaimah 70 years ago, when the emirate was suffering through what they called sanat al-ji' - the year of hunger.

But the concern of some is that many of the young Emiratis who will be jubilantly celebrating the anniversary of the UAE's formation tomorrow find it equally impossible to imagine what life was like in the Northern Emirates before oil.

But, if people like Hamad bin Seray have their way, they will know that there was a time when life in their grandparents' time was difficult and precarious.

"I don't think they realise what it was like," Dr Seray, a UAE University history professor, says of the latest generation who have only known prosperity and for whom tales of the pre-oil era must seem like a bleak kind of fiction.

"We know more good information about the sheikhs and about the foundations of the country and Sheikh Zayed.

"They don't know a lot of information about the history of Ras Al Khaimah for the whole period. But if you teach them, they will accept it."

The unique situation of the UAE is that not only has its citizens experienced one of history's most dramatic reversals of fortune but that there are still people around now who lived through it.

Their numbers dwindle with each year, especially for the remaining few who experienced distant events such as "the year of hunger", when the cumulative effects of the collapse of the pearling industry, the Great Depression and then the deprivations of the Second World War combined to devastate the already weak Trucial Coast economy.

But even when the last veterans of the pre-oil days die, their voices will live on thanks to a combination of efforts by oral historians such as Seray and his dozens of student researchers, by the section of the Abu Dhabi-based National Centre for Documentation and Research dedicated to oral history, and by the rulers of RAK, who commissioned a mammoth compilation of first-hand accounts of village elders throughout the Northern Emirates and Musandam.

Spanning eight years from 1995, researchers visited villages, compiling testimonies from elders about life before oil.

The research was commissioned by Sheikh Sultan bin Saqr Al Qasimi, the then-deputy ruler of RAK, who was concerned that the next generation would be ignorant about the past.

Those testimonies were collected by William and Fidelity Lancaster, British social anthropologists who have specialised in Arabian culture since 1971, into a large volume that was published in Arabic in 2007 under the title Al-'izz fil-Qinaa.

An English edition was published under the title Honour Is In Contentment last year, becoming the most comprehensive collection of oral history about life in the Northern Emirates and Oman.

The broad theme that emerges from the interviews is exactly what the researchers were expecting: their informants' worlds had been turned upside down. But although life was tough before, they were independent and everyone worked together to provide what they needed.

But it was amid the details that the nuanced narrative emerges of how life actually was and that whether or not oil had been found, the traditional ways of life were effectively already over.

"What happenedto turn our lives upside down?" That question, posed by a Shihuh mountain tribesman south of Masafi, was a sentiment echoed by many elders who spoke to the research team.

But he wasn't referring to the increased means created by the newly federated UAE's oil revenues. He was referring instead to the way it completed the inversion of the previous social hierarchy.

"Before, we, the mountain peoples, had everything, and the coast people and the Bedu had nothing," he said. "They relied on us for what they had. Now we have to rely on coast people for jobs. It is impossible to live from our own resources."

For centuries, physical wealth in this part of the world had meant possession of fields with fertile soil in areas with reliable rains or access to irrigation. It meant having enough grain, dates, tobacco, dairy products, live animals, firewood and wild honey that the needs of everyone in their villages were met and there was still some spare to sell at the souqs on the coast and at Buraimi.

A Ruhaibiyiin villager based high in the mountains of Ru'us al Jibal, the range that forms the spine of the Musandam Peninsula, echoed the sentiment.

"All of us here are old enough to remember life before oil money, and in our opinion, we had everything we needed and we could make money for what we needed to buy," he said.

"And we were independent. Now, no one can do anything without money. Money means jobs and jobs mean you are not independent."

Another elderly mountain tribesman from northern RAK, now living in the sha'abiyya - social housing provided by the Government - said the comforts of modern life came at a price.

"Thanks to God and Sheikh Zayed we have electricity, air conditioning and refrigerators," he said.

"But life was better in the mountains. Up there we were responsible for everything: food, water, animals, shelter. Down here, all we do is pay for things.

"We grew a lot of wheat up there and we nearly always had some to sell to people we knew in Rams and Dhaya. And we sold a lot of cheese, clarified butter, honey and firewood.

"We were rich in the past, we had land and we sold produce. We had profits from our land and our animals. We were self-sufficient.

"There came a time when we had food and shelter but no money because there were no profits in the Gulf from pearls and trade. Then there was oil and unification, and now we have money but no profits.

"Our money comes from oil and the state and so we are poor. We used to be rich and the Rulers and traders were poor. Now the Government is rich and we are poor."

If there's a human trait that is truly cross-cultural, it's the tendency to romanticise and rehabilitate the past, no matter how bleak it might have been at the time.

The Lancasters sought to verify and corroborate what they were being told, comparing the elders' claims against records such as those in The Gazetteer, which were compiled in at the start of the 20th century by the British colonial officer John Gordon Lorimer.

Most reports referred to those living on the Trucial Coast eking out a meagre existence in an inhospitable environment, but almost everyone outsiders met were the coast dwellers and not the mountain tribes.

Overwhelmingly, those who sought jobs in the new oil economies such as Kuwait and Bahrain from the 1930s were those on the coast. Members of the mountain tribes would generally only go for one contract to raise enough money for a dowry when they wanted to marry.

The mountain tribes were wary of moving away from farming and into a money-based economy because, collectively, they remembered times of hunger.

The date for this varies but is described as being around 1942. Those who suffered were the traders and the bayadir, landless labourers who worked on date-palm plantations for wages.

A member of the RAK ruling family said that with pearling revenues effectively gone and the Second World War under way, the emirate was "very poor and tired".

"That was when the sanat al-ji' [year of hunger] happened," he said.

"There was very little rice and so little sugar that in our house the date sacks were boiled and squeezed to get the last bit of sweetness."

An elder from Rams said the year of hunger only really affected those who relied on money.

"The effects of the sanat al-ji' were mixed, depending on what other assets they had.

"If they fished and had a date garden, it made hardly any difference to them. People who traded only were the worst affected."

Another said the mountain tribes were not badly affected by the time of hunger, but were by the draw of secure jobs created by the oil industry, first in Kuwait or Bahrain and later in Abu Dhabi.

"The mountains were rich in food, they were more than self-sufficient, and the hard times of the early 1940s didn't affect them, at least not as far as food.

"Coastal people were affected because they relied on imported food. People died on the streets and people did boil up date bags for sugar, even though there were [British army] ration cards.

The date harvest was poor because there was a shortage of labour to water the palms, a Khor Khuwair fisherman explained.

"The poor people - widows, old women and the like - would sit under the tree and mark out a circle in the earth and any date that dropped onto it, they ate."

A series of seemingly unrelated factors prompted the decline of the mountain tribes' wealth and autonomy, the Lancasters were told. The introduction of much cheaper Australian wheat after the war made the mountain harvests less valuable on the market. The rains became increasingly unreliable. Secure jobs became more appealing.

On the plains, the introduction of diesel water pumps replaced less efficient bullock-driven traditional methods of water extraction - but at the cost of using groundwater faster than it was replaced, with the result that the wells became increasingly saline.

A former farmer based on the plains inland from RAK City said farming in that area began to deteriorate during the Second World War.

"Before that, the gardens were fine," he said.

"Growing wheat and barley went first [because] all the young men were working in Kuwait, Al Hasa, Bahrain and so on. By the 1950s and 1960s, diesel pumps for water had come in, and of course people put them in their gardens. It was much easier than using the bull ... and they started using irrigation for growing vegetables.

"Then the water began to go salty, and people couldn't grow vegetables, only dates and alfalfa. Then they couldn't even grow these, the water was so salty.

"Then, when independence came, people could get secure jobs in the army, police and administration. And the Government built social housing. Everyone moved ... into the sha'abiyya. There was no point in living on your land - you couldn't grow anything on it - and the sha'abiyya were free and had everything."


There was yet another currency considered more important than surpluses of produce and which, in the move towards a newly money-focused economy, many elders said they missed even more keenly: reputation.

An elderly Bani Shamaili said the community suffered with the new wealth from oil revenues.

"The big change is that now no one is generous or keeps open house or co-operates with their neighbours. Now everyone lives in a house with locked gates and keeps themselves to themselves," he said.

"The reason? Money! Before there was money, people lived in a stone house or a date tree branch house or whatever, and they saw everyone who was passing, and we all passed the time of day together.

"We shared work, we co-operated with each other. Now we buy the time and labour of other people, and we keep our money for ourselves."

A Shihuh said life in the past was both better and more enjoyable.

"If you had enough to eat, you were content. You didn't want more.

"People valued each other from what each person did, their behaviour, their character. Now, nobody has any way of valuing anyone except through money, and everybody wants more and more money."

But if there is a point that emerges from reading the testimonies gathered by the Lancasters and their assistants, it's that the old way of life was already irretrievably ending.

The only question was what was going to replace it.

Thanks to the discovery of oil and the federation of the United Arab Emirates, the changes that occurred were far better than the inevitable change that was already underway.


All these reports underscore the value of oral history, which deals with the realities of day-to-day life rather than decisions made at the level of the Rulers.

Dr Seray found that his students at UAE University in Al Ain were generally well-versed on the creation of the UAE, they were not equally aware of the social histories of their families, let alone the trends affecting society in general.

So he sent his students out to take oral histories from their parents and grandparents.

"I've done research with my male students. I asked about their fathers and grandfathers working in Kuwait, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Qatar from 1948 to 1971," he said.

"And I found a lot of information. They worked in very bad jobs - worse than Indian labourers here.

"Now some of these people are very wealthy. They taught their children [but] people think they imagined that.

"Oral history is very important. We can know about our ancestors, our fathers and grandfathers and how they lived, about their lives and their suffering, in getting jobs and their travelling outside the Gulf to East Africa and India.

"We can know the simple life we're living now - everything is good for us, everything is computerised and there's electricity - and you don't forget how our fathers and grandfathers lived in their time."

Dr Seray then sends his students out to the wider community to gather oral histories.

One goal is to ensure more female voices are included in the oral history, a hitherto under-represented group but an important one since their roles became increasingly important when the men travelled around the Gulf for work.

"We have female narrators, but my male students couldn't meet them so I asked my female students to make the interviews," he added.

"I have a lot of interviews with male narrators [but] the female voices are amazing. We're finding behind the life, men and women concentrated on different things. Most of their things involved the home and their lives at home."

For someone whose own experiences straddle the emergence of the UAE - he lived in an arish hut as a child but was funded to study for his doctorate at a top British university - he knows full well the imperative and opportunity to continue recording those who witnessed the transformation.

"We have to record this now," he says, "before we lose them."

John Henzell is a senior features writer for The National