x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

How the ships of the desert charted our journey

On the beauty and heritage of camels, and the various environments where Arabs lived and the skill sets necessary for each.

Ali Al Saloom is on holiday, so this week he will share various facts about the UAE. His biography will resume next weekend.

The camel was an important tool for survival in the desert and is therefore intimately associated with Arabs from early days. When water is scarce in the dry desert, camel milk becomes a precious substitute for staying hydrated. The camel hide and hair is used to make tents as well as containers for water and food and clothing. The meat of young male camels is a delicacy served to important guests. And last but not least, camels were the only means of transport, ideally suited for the sandy desert before off-road vehicles arrived in the region.

The number of camels a man owned constituted a measure of his wealth. It is only natural that as a people we cherish this key symbol of Arabian life even today. In his book The Distinctive Arab Heritage, Ahmed K A Al Mansoori writes: "It is often claimed that every Arabic word has one basic meaning, an opposite meaning and a meaning that has something to do with a camel."

We demonstrate our love for the camel and pride in our heritage by hosting the Mazayin Dhafrah festival, where the best pedigreed camels compete to be the fastest, biggest and best-looking. The contest, held annually in December in Abu Dhabi, is one of the richest and biggest events of its kind. Bedouins, who now live in reserved areas, continue camel breeding and are undoubtedly the experts on breeding and training racing camels. We hope events of this kind will renew our belief in living in harmony with our environment.

Camels have very pronounced individual features that come from their lineage and the identity of the tribe that bred them. Our ancestors could tell which tribe a certain camel belonged to just by looking at its footprints. They could also tell if there were wars in an area by tracking camel footprints. I think this talent has given Arabs an eye for detail and an ability to detect subtle patterns not visible to the untrained eye. I also suspect that our respect for our elders is linked to our camel heritage. Small boys who saw their fathers or elders in the tribe interpret the past, present and possibly the future based on camel footprints were instantly in awe of them.

The Arab takes pride in the beauty of his camel. A fine female camel has small, pointed ears, shiny eyes, small feet, long slim legs, an arched neck, broad ribs and chest, and her hump is immediately above her stomach. The type of camel found in the Middle East is the dromedary, which has a single hump and coarse, short hair. Nomad poetry is rich with camel imagery, and there are several references to the camel in the Holy Quran. The most memorable is the Surah 88, Al Ghashiyah, which depicts God's immense power to create anything and gives the camel as an example of his marvellous design: "Do they not look at the camels, how they are created?

"And at the sky, how it is raised high? And the mountains, how they are fixed firm?

"And the earth, how it is spread out?"

Arabs are not the only people to employ camels for survival. Napoleon Bonaparte was the first military commander to use camels in warfare, in Egypt from 1799 to 1801. He also organised a camel corps in Sudan. The British formed the Imperial Camel Corps in 1916 and a memorial to the mounted camel stands on an embankment on the River Thames.

Coastal survival

Arab people developed different sets of skills based on the peculiarities of their habitat. For example, the inhabitants of the oases were used to a far more even-paced life than the nomads. They were also exposed to higher oxygen levels and had a very different body constitution. They also had more time to think. It is evident in the strategic contingency plans and exit plans of the business families from these regions. The emirate of Abu Dhabi, founded by the Bani Yas tribe, reflects this philosophy.

Coastal settlements were more permanent. Being close to the sea, people feared the fury of the floods and scarcity of fish and prepared for such eventualities. Their survival skills became second nature to them.

I think an Arab is very adept at picking up variations and predicting where the course is headed. This sense of foresight has proved to be crucial when it comes to business decisions, especially when the business runs into trouble after going a considerable way off-course. The coastal lifestyle has given rise to an ability to take calculated risks but also to be prepared for crises.

Coastal people earned their living from pearling, ship or dhow building and trade with the Indian subcontinent. The ruling Al Qasimi family of Sharjah is one of the most prominent such families. They leveraged their interaction with foreigners to collect information and educate themselves. You can see their preference for learning, as Sharjah is home to several modern educational institutions.