Written in the UAE: our guide to the best books about the Emirates
A first glance along the shelves of the country’s bookshops will reveal that the history of the UAE is largely told, at least in English, largely through the memoir.
The most popular of these – so much so that it can even be purchased at motorway service stations – is Mohammed Al Fahim’s best-selling Rags to Riches, a lively, sometimes passionate account of a childhood in pre-oil Abu Dhabi that is unflinching in the tribulations of that age, that included the death of his mother in childbirth in 1962 when the community still lacked a proper hospital.
As a sequel to those times, Patricia Holton (a pseudonym) provides a vivid account of her experiences of 70s Abu Dhabi – including arriving at the city’s new Hilton hotel along a sand track – through the lens of a local family, in Mother Without a Mask.
Read more: The top books written about the UAE
Ronald Codrai was an oil man assigned to the Emirates shortly after the Second World War and an enthusiastic and talented photographer. While heavily pictorial, his twin Arabian Adventure volumes, one on Dubai, the other on Abu Dhabi, feature diary extracts that combine to create a vivid portrait of life in what were then called the Trucial States, 60 years ago.
Wilfred Thesiger’s Arabian Sands, first published in 1959 but still in print and with the official status of a Penguin Classic, details two voyages across the Empty Quarter or Rub Al Khali, and features a notable encounter with Sheikh Zayed in Al Ain, while concluding on what is now the Abu Dhabi Corniche but was then a beach lined with fishing boats.
Most recently The Gulf Wife, published in 2014, is Jocelyn Henderson’s account of a life largely spent in the region with her husband, Edward Henderson, a British diplomat who witnessed the birth of the UAE and then stayed to create what is now the National Archives.
There is some life beyond the biography. David Heard’s From Pearls to Oil, published in 2012, is a meticulous account of a swashbuckling era in the 1930s when the petroleum industry bargained with the ruling sheikhs for a prize both hoped would bring them wealth.
So remote was the interior of Abu Dhabi in those days that tribesmen fled in terror at the sight of a motor car and the sound of its horn.
Heard is married to Frauke Heard-Bey (the couple have lived in Abu Dhabi since the 1960s), a German-born academic whose social and political history, From Trucial States to United Arab Emirates was published in 2004 and thus is less easy to find.
The hardcore history buff will need a credit card and persistence to build a collection. Susan Hillyard’s Before the Oil is an essential, loving and highly readable account of Abu Dhabi in the mid-1950s.
A young British mother of a toddler, Hillyard, whose husband Tim had been recruited to develop the emirate’s offshore concession, immersed herself in life changed beyond recognition by those same oilfields. She was encouraged to write a book by Sheikh Zayed, who told her: “You are the only person who remembers Abu Dhabi as it was.” Despite Hillyard posthumously winning an Abu Dhabi Award, the book, only published in 2002, is sadly – absurdly – now out of print. Second-hand copies can sometimes be found for Dh400 and up.
Even deeper pockets are required for Roderic Owen’s The Golden Bubble, subtitled Arabian Gulf Documentary. A brilliant if unconventional writer, Owen visited Abu Dhabi as the guest of the Hillyards and formed a bond with the Ruler, Sheikh Shakhbut, styling himself as court poet. He also established the proper use of the Arabian, rather than Persian, Gulf.
Rare copies of The Golden Bubble can fetch in the thousands of dirhams; copies of Owen’s sequel, Away to Eden, which also includes a chapter on Abu Dhabi and the arrival of the exploration rig that first struck oil, are a fraction of this.
Still in the second-hand bookshop, we find Edna O’Brien’s 1978 Arabian Days in which the great Irish writer comes to Abu Dhabi on an assignment to meet Sheikh Zayed and experiences a cultural confusion that is almost psychedelic.
Sections of Farewell to Arabia by the distinguished foreign correspondent David Holden deal with boomtown Abu Dhabi in the 1960s (Holden was murdered in suspicious circumstances in Cairo in 1977), as does Jonathan Raban’s Arabia, still in print, for the next decade. A whiff of pessimism hangs over both accounts.
A solid and still inexpensive second-hand read is Donald Hawley’s The Trucial States, published just a year before the formation of the UAE and so it only takes the reader to 1970. Hawley was a political agent, as the British called their diplomats in the protectorate of the Gulf, and worked closely with Sheikh Rashid of Dubai as he unveiled his ambitions for the emirate.
A genuine oddity is Raymond O’Shea’s Sand Kings of Oman, published in 1947. O’Shea was a British airman based in Sharjah during the Second World War who wrote about his experiences in the emirate but also claimed to have discovered a lost city in the sands, despite using a photograph of Muscat castle as proof. Copies of his book are almost as hard to locate as his Atlantis of the desert.
Geoffrey Bibby’s classic Looking for Dilmun is a joyous (and inexpensive) account of early archaeological digs in the Gulf during the 1950s and 60s, and includes a section on the ancient structures at Umm Al Nar, the island that lies just off the Maqta crossing and is now more familiar for its oil refinery.
Which brings us, with apologies and admittedly rather the long way round, to Keepers of the Golden Shore by Michael Quentin Morton, and published this month by Reaktion Books. Subtitled A History of the United Arab Emirates, the book actually covers the country from prehistory to the present day in less than 250 pages.
If Keepers of the Golden Shore does not in any way render all those previous titles unnecessary, it is at least a welcome, readable and much needed starting point for new readers and new arrivals to the UAE who want a better understanding of the people and places around them.
Morton’s connection with the region comes through his father, a highly-regarded petroleum geologist from the 1940s to the 1960s, at which point the family, including young Michael, were living in Abu Dhabi. In recent years Morton has published several works of local interest, including Buraimi: The Struggle for Power, Influence and Oil in Arabia and, last year, The Third River, no less than a history of oil exploration in the Middle East.
Keepers of the Golden Shore could be seen as his most ambitious work yet, if only because it stands alone in what, on the surface, seems like quite a crowded field. There are a lot of history books relating to the UAE, but histories of the UAE, certainly ones still in print and on sale here, are something of a rarity.
Why should this be the case? Perhaps it is because the UAE is such a young country that has yet to construct an agreed narrative of its past, particularly when so many of those involved are around to debate it.
Morton certainly does not avoid what might be regarded in some quarters as “sensitive” or “difficult” subjects, including the Buraimi crisis, caused by Saudi claims, backed by military intervention, on the territory around what is now Al Ain in the early 1950s.
Slavery – which endured in the region much later than many people are comfortable with – also makes an appearance, as does some of the immediate post-federal tensions between the seven Emirates, particularly over the issue of a unified military.
But to describe the book only in these terms is to create the wrong impression of what is a very carefully constructed and researched work. Morton’s book is unlikely to cause offence, because, like Hillyard and Holton and the best of UAE authors, his writing is suffused with a deep affection and respect for the place.
While Morton’s account begins with prehistory and the first migrations out of Africa and across what is now the Arabian Peninsula, more than half the book is devoted to the past 100 years.
For this, Keepers of the Golden Shore draws from an extensive range of published sources (including The National’s History Project) to construct a detailed account of a time that saw the Arabian Gulf emerge from a fiefdom of the British Empire to a region of independent nations finding power and influence in the age of oil.
Inevitably much of the source material is British, that is to say viewed from the outside. This is an issue faced by any historian of this part of the world, drawn to anything that provides hard evidence rather than hearsay or folk memories.
As Morton points out: “The Bedouin did not write things down, relying instead on an oral tradition of songs and stories in which the great deeds of their forefathers were repeated over unfathomable periods of time.”
It is to his credit that the Arabian perspective is well represented even if at times anecdotal and – for traditional historians – frustratingly imprecise, especially with regards to timelines, as demonstrated by the Ruler of Fujairah, who in the 1950s, berated a bemused British official about the bombardment of his fort by the Royal Navy “yesterday”, referring to an incident that had taken place in 1925.
Naturally, some of the best tales are uncredited, like the report that Sheikh Shakhbut bin Sultan’s absence from the 1953 coronation of Queen Elizabeth in London was covered up by offering his seat in Westminster Abbey – literally – to the generously upholstered Queen of Tonga, Salote Tupou III.
There are also many tantalising snippets. The American cannon seen by visitors to Buraimi was brought back from New York in 1842 on the dhow Sultana after an epic transatlantic voyage, and the Reverend John Bacon in 1902 planned a crossing of the Rub Al Khali in a balloon, and would, as Morton notes: “have appeared on this distinguished list, had he accompanied his mission”.
For more recent times, Morton reminds us of the UAE’s participation in the First Gulf War, noting that so strong was the feeling of patriotism that hundreds “queued under the blazing Sun to register in a volunteer army”.
Of the country’s growing role on the international and regional stage, from sending police to Bahrain to air strikes against ISIL in Iraq, he notes that: “If these events demonstrate anything, it is that there is a growing sense of national pride and self-confidence within the UAE.”
If the reader is to draw any conclusion from this story of the UAE it might be this: that the country’s history has seen all the conflicts, treacheries, bloodletting, tribulations and cruelties of any other, but has evolved and matured, in the 21st century, to a place where the future can take its lessons from the past.
As Morton puts it: “If history is anything to go by, a resilient and pioneering spirit will see future generations through, but the wisdom of earlier generations will be required too.”
James Langton is a senior editor at The National.