x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

The Ali Story: Coping with combat

Ali Al Saloom shares his insight and experiences from growing up in the UAE.

When Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990 it seemed like a dream - a bad one. At our Bani Yas home, I had just woken up for Fajr prayers. I noticed that my father was up, but was agitated. I asked my mum what was going on and she said: "Speak to your father."

I could see people sleeping on the floor and landings of our home and that the majlis was full. When I went outside, there were about 20 carelessly parked cars, and most had Kuwaiti registration plates.

Dad explained what had happened. Our house guests had been on the road for about 14 hours, having driven all the way from Kuwait. He said they were basically running away. He added that many Kuwaitis had gone to Bahrain, Qatar and Saudi Arabia. Some of them who didn't know where to go had simply left quicklyand kept on driving unaware of where they would end up.

We did what we could to open our doors to many of these people, and growing up, it was a good lesson in Arab hospitality. My mum took a group of women under her wing, and put them up.

We ended up Scotch-taping every window we could find, in our cars, our houses and schools, in case of an attack.

However, later on in the conflict, as Iraq launched Scud missiles against coalition military targets in Saudi Arabia, Mum was prepared. Every morning she would hand us a little bit of charcoal that she had kept in the fridge. She told us that breathing through it would filter away any black smoke should be we be unfortunate to encounter any. We knew Iraq had an arsenal of deadly chemical and biological weapons.

It was a worrying time for us all, because we simply didn't know how the conflict was going to pan out. Saddam Hussein had threatened to turn Kuwait city into a "graveyard" if any other country dared to challenge his takeover.

We were all waiting for Sheikh Zayed's statement. He felt very said that a great power and an Arabic country had misappropriated its power and influence.

As the conflict progressed, it became clear there would be US involvement, and involvement from the then Soviet Union, which had supplied its military with billions of dollars worth of equipment. We were thinking we could be on the brink of a Third World War.

We were all standing by. At my secondary school, Hamdin bin Mohammed Secondary School in Bani Yas, we even had army training on the curriculum which involved drills, fitness, weapon training, teamwork etc.

I had found my niche. I had actually always wanted to be an airforce pilot. On marching exercises I was often chosen to give the salute to our parade commander, and the whole unit related to me. I think that's when I started to develop a few of my leadership skills.

Our daily combat was with each other. We were all young boys on the verge of teen age, and we used to get into a lot of fights.

We divided into factions: Emiratis, Egyptians, Jordanese, Somalis Sudanis, Palestinians etc. Nobody dared to have fights in school - it was a sanctuary and discipline was strict. But when we went outside it was warfare between the groups. There was always that little bit of needle between the nationalities, and that's how an altercation would start - fist fights usually, starting with insults, and bad mouthing someone's country or nationality.

Often the teachers would prise us apart and sort out the differences - often after having consulted the parents of the individuals involved. Then, next day everything would be OK and life continued - until the next time.

Iraq finally agreed to a ceasefire at the end of February 1991. For us boys the conflict had showed us how vulnerable a smaller country can be, when a neighbour can simply barge in and take over.

Of course, we all had sympathy for Kuwait, because we felt we had all been invaded. We could not blame the Iraqi civilians who had no say in the decision to invade, and indeed, my best friend Haider was an Iraqi and some of his relatives had been killed.

We all rallied round and offered support to everyone who was against the invasion, which was everyone we knew.

Iraq went on to lose its membership of the GCC. However, the Gulf countries are like brothers. We are one family. And as happens in families, brothers often fight but they will come back and forgive each other. Many of the powers who have negative intentions towards the region should realise we have cousins in each of its countries. No matter how much they try to break us, we share a bond. And that's what makes the Gulf region so special.