x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

In the footsteps of a gazelle in 1761, the wellspring of a capital

Forty years of statehood behind it, UAE and Abu Dhabi have roots in an earlier era.

Celebrations of the 40th National Day are fading into the background, with a wider recognition among Emiratis and expatriates about what the country has achieved over the last four decades. There is also a greater degree of pride in those achievements.

During the celebrations, I watched an event at a school in Abu Dhabi where children from 90 different nationalities took part, a fitting symbol for the inclusiveness that is now present in the UAE.

While we honour the last four decades, there is a danger that we might overlook what went on before. Next week, a conference will remind us of another major milestone in the history of the country, the 250th anniversary of the foundation of the town of Abu Dhabi in 1761.

The legend of its formation is fairly well known. The summary is that a group of Bedu hunters from Liwa, following the tracks of a gazelle to the coast, found that the animal had crossed a shallow creek to a nearby island. They also crossed the stream and tracked the gazelle to a small spring.

While the fate of the gazelle disappears from the history books, the hunters are said to have reported back to their chief, Sheikh Dhiyab bin Isa. Recognising the importance of the discovery of fresh water on the island, he instructed that a settlement should be founded there and declared that the name of the island should be Abu Dhabi - father of, or possession of, the gazelle.

The actual truth may be somewhat more prosaic. There is certainly archaeological evidence of at least temporary residence on the island much earlier, as far back as the beginning of the Christian era in the Bateen area on the island's west coast, for example.

The new settlement in 1761, however, established a much larger presence within a few years. A report written in 1831 by a British naval officer noted: "The first establishment (which consisted of twenty houses) took place around the year 1761. The intelligence of water having been found quickly spread through the tribe, and before two years had elapsed, the place had increased to four hundred houses; from which period to the present additions to the population and the dwellings have been constantly making."

Although Sheikh Dhiyab did not move to the new town - his son and successor, Sheikh Shakhbut, was the first ruler to do so in 1795 - he deserves his place in the country's history for having had the wisdom to recognise the strategic value of the discovery made by his tribesmen.

The water they found, which continued to be exploited until recent times, not only permitted the establishment of the town, which until the beginning of oil-fuelled development was the only large coastal settlement west of Dubai, but also allowed the emerging emirate of Abu Dhabi to extend its influence over the offshore pearling banks, the richest anywhere in the southern Gulf. It was partly because of pearling that Abu Dhabi rose to become the most important power in south-eastern Arabia during the 19th century under Sheikh Shakhbut's grandson, Sheikh Zayed bin Khalifa.

With the new settlement as a population centre, along with Liwa, Al Ain and the islands of the west (traditionally important because of pearling and fishing), the essential geography of the emirate was established in the 50 years or so that followed Sheikh Dhiyab's founding of the town. Thus began the modern history of Abu Dhabi.

It has been the good fortune of Abu Dhabi and more recently of the UAE that at crucial moments in its history, leaders have taken advantage of opportunities that have presented themselves. One such moment was the appearance of that legendary gazelle in 1761; Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan, grandson of that first Sheikh Zayed and the founder of the UAE, was know for similar acumen.

Other emirates have their own, equally fascinating, histories that in some cases stretch so far back into the past that it's not possible to cite a specific year as the date of foundation. In Abu Dhabi's case, 1761 marks just one key event in a series, but that doesn't detract from its importance as a year that marks Abu Dhabi's founding.

We've just celebrated one important date in the country's history. Now it's time to reflect upon another.


Peter Hellyer is a consultant specialising in the UAE's history and culture