x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

This was the year that was

From Arabian Ranches entrepreneurs to a Syrian ice-cream institution and Dubai’s burgeoning film industry, here are 12 months of Saloons

James McBey's 1918 portrait of Thomas Edward Lawrence, better known as Lawrence of Arabia. DEA / G Nimatallah
James McBey's 1918 portrait of Thomas Edward Lawrence, better known as Lawrence of Arabia. DEA / G Nimatallah

January

Baby clothes, cupcakes, furniture, jewellery, health and image consultations … these are just a few of the goods and services that were on offer when Alice Haine went out to meet the homemaker entrepreneurs of the Arabian Ranches. Residents rarely need to leave their desert enclave thanks to the plethora of small businesses supplying the affluent desert community’s needs. “There’s no need to go to the shops in Dubai; you have your neighbours,” said Clementina Kongslund, who set up an online directory of the 40 or so businesses in 2011 called ­www.ranchesbusinesswomen.com.

February

What killed Beethoven? That was the question that Alice Haine posed when she met a German biologist and pianist who believes that genomics can tell us what brought about the deaf and chronically ill composer’s demise in 1827 at age 56, as well as a wide range of other personal information. Nikolaus Rajewsky examined Beethoven’s death through the lens of modern genomics, interspersing his intellectual musings with his own performances of Beethoven’s compositions at an event in Abu Dhabi. Rajewsky said that genome sequencing technology could potentially reveal whether the composer had a rare genetic disease.

March

Rym Ghazal met the journalist and Al Qaeda expert Abdel Bari Atwan, whose analysis of the conflicts in the Muslim world proved both provocative and insightful. Bari, who was named one of the “50 most influential Arabs” by The Middle East magazine, was born and raised in a Gaza refugee camp, has faced death threats and has been banned from some countries at different points of his career. He’s the author of The Secret History of Al Qaeda, in which he recounts his meeting with the late Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.

April

John Henzell attended the Emirates Centre for Strategic Studies and Research’s annual conference on the future of warfare, where uncertainty emerged as one of the themes. One of the speakers, Dr Peter Singer, the director of the Centre for 21st Century Security and Intelligence, said that the next game changer in how wars will be fought is likely to be something entirely from left field. The nature of warfare is, he said, undergoing a change as profound as the one that occurred around the First World War. It is, however, extremely difficult to predict what form it will take. He said: “In what comes next, we invariably get it wrong.”

May

Yasmine Al-Kuttab visited a newly established Iraqi channel, Al Madar TV, which was set up in cooperation with Abu Dhabi’s twofour54. Iraqi TV channels such as Al-Fayhaa, Al-Iraqiya and Al-Forat often broadcast images of conflict, but Al Madar’s founders believed that the time was ripe for a softer approach that offers a broader view of human activity. Al Madar was set up to produce and broadcast shows on history, fitness, comedy, music, sport and youth culture. Alaa Makki, Al Madar TV’s general manager, said that providing audiences with non-political programming was essential, especially for those in Iraq. Makki said: “News doesn’t necessarily have to be about politics, war, killings and bloodshed.”

June

Bushra Alkaff Al Hashemi checked out “ladies’ night” at the recently opened Yas Waterworld, which attracted big crowds of curious women looking for some respite from the summer heat. Most of the women that she spoke to had a great time, but some complained that females weren’t given enough time to enjoy the facilities. Moza Mohammed, 26, said: “We need a full day for ladies, not just five hours. It took us 40 minutes of standing in the queue for every ride. But complaints aside, it was a great opportunity for socialising. Mohammed said: “You get to know new girls and you see girls you haven’t seen since high school.”

July

Mitya Underwood met a Canadian expat, Paul Nagelkerke, who has set up a club in Dubai for people who share his passion for all things robotic. Dubai Lego Robotic Makers wasn’t quite an overwhelming success yet, but it was building a membership through word of mouth. “In Vancouver, it took five years for the group to get to the point where the group was sustainable,” he laughed. “I’m stubborn, so I can wait.” He was confident that the support network that the group offered would eventually attract members. He said: “Before starting the group here, I went around and talked to different people and realised there was a little bit of frustration that there wasn’t a group that people could go to and get information about robotics – where to get stuff, how to get started, where to start.”

August

Suha Philip Ma’ayeh visited Bakdash, a Syrian ice-cream institution in Amman, Jordan, where people displaced by the conflict across the border can find a little taste of home. Late into the night, dozens of families fill the ice-cream parlour and its outside tables, reminiscing about the good old days, when they used to queue in the old Hamideyeh Souq or sit patiently at tables at the Bakdash cafe in Damascus waiting to get a taste of the Levant’s most famous frozen treat. Elastic in texture, it comes in a variety of flavours, from the traditional Syrian pistachio to chocolate and mango. But coming here is about far more than having dessert. “It is heritage. It is a landmark. Bakdash is for Syrians what Petra is for Jordanians,” said Khaldoun Abbabneh, manager of the Amman branch.

September

Nick Leech met Margaret Wertheim, who has the distinction of being one of the few people in the world to make a direct connection between higher maths, environmental activism, global warming and – wait for it – crochet. The award-winning journalist, curator and author came to the capital to give a talk on her project, the Hyperbolic Crochet Coral Reef, which is rooted in scientific and mathematical fact. Her aim is to raise awareness of the threat that global warming poses to coral reefs by crocheting a replica of the delicate marine ecosystem. “We never thought it would be this big,” said Wertheim. “I thought there would be a few dozen who would join us in this rather madcap synthesis of maths, science, art and environmentalism, but it’s really surprised us and here we are, eight years later, with one of the biggest participatory art and science projects in the world.”

October

Jonathan Gornall headed to Pall Mall in London to attend the annual luncheon of the Abu Dhabi Sixties Group at the 19th-century Oxford and Cambridge Club. A handful of men and women who lived in the capital in the 1960s gathered to reminisce about their contributions to the UAE’s development. “Frankly, we thought it was going to go back into the sand,” recalled 69-year-old Miles Stockwell. His first sight of Abu Dhabi and Dubai had been in March 1968, as a young British soldier. As the four-engine Bristol Britannia on which he was travelling from Bahrain to RAF Sharjah flew along the Gulf coast to Abu Dhabi and beyond, he gazed down – and saw “not a lot”. He and his fellow officers, he said, “would never have believed what it has become today”.

November

Ahead of the 130th anniversary of the Scottish war artist James McBey’s birth, experts called for greater recognition of his work. As the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War approaches, his contribution to documenting one of the bloodiest conflicts known to mankind will be brought sharply into focus. “His drawings are a comprehensive and honest record of his travels with the Allied troops,” says Jenny Wood, the senior art curator at London’s Imperial War Museums, of McBey’s eastern campaign, which saw him begin work in Cairo in 1917. “While many artists showed the hard operating conditions in the devastated landscape of the Western Front, McBey was important in showing the fighting conditions in a very different theatre of war. ”

December

On the windswept desert plains on the fringes of Dubai, Tahira Yaqoob found a crop of buildings resembling war bunkers surrounded by a vast sweep of nothingness. They gave the landscape a post-apocalyptic feel. That was apt, she wrote, considering their purpose is a futuristic one, encapsulating the UAE’s hopes of creating a world-class film industry with facilities to rival those found in Hollywood. Those bunkers house one of the world’s largest sound stages (official terminology for a filming studio with high-tech acoustics), built to give both local and international filmmakers the latest state-of-the-art technology to help them create movies. Jamal Al Sharif, DSC’s managing director, told Yaqoob: “We want to show that Dubai can be a destination for film, television and commercial-making and that you do not have to come to Dubai just for its malls or property.”

* The Review