x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Qasr Al Hosn is just one of many treasures to protect

The UAE has plenty of historical sites – if you know where to look for them.

The Qasr Al Hosn Festival, which ended at the weekend, appears to have been a great success judging by the reactions of the Emiratis, expatriate residents and tourists who made the effort to go and see what was on offer.

It is the nature of such events that some of the tales were overly-dramatised; that was probably inevitable. One cannot always meet the competing demands of a need for showmanship with a desire for historical accuracy. Indeed, there are always events in any country's history that are better relegated to the sidelines.

For instance, I was rather amused by a news story last week that a previously unrecorded ruler of Abu Dhabi had been "identified" during research for the festival. The existence of the "forgotten ruler", Sheikh Hazza bin Zayed, who ruled from 1793-1795, is clearly mentioned in historical documents dating back to the 1830s, and presumably earlier. But he had recently been airbrushed out of the historical record because he seized the throne from Abu Dhabi's founder, Sheikh Dhiyab, before being removed by the latter's son, Sheikh Shakh, unquestionably one of the key figures in the history of the emirate.

In broad terms, though, it's fair to say that the Qasr Al Hosn festival achieved its objective of drawing attention to a historic fort, and to the fact that Abu Dhabi has a fascinating history. Heroes - and others of a less admirable nature - abound, and the more that we're taught about them, the better. I look forward to an annual event of this type, with engagement from the community, including schools.

We need more of these types of activities, to educate us all about the UAE's history, and to stretch out far beyond the role of a rulers' fort in a capital of one of the emirates. Indeed, there are many other places around the country that also played their part in the Emirates' past of which we know little.

In February 1968, for example, Sheikh Zayed of Abu Dhabi and Sheikh Rashid of Dubai met at Semeih, between the two towns, and agreed to form a federation between their emirates, the initial step towards what became the UAE.

But there's no memorial there, no small display to tell visitors about the role of this spot in the country's history.

In 1950, the country's first oil-well was spudded at Ras Sadr, north-east of Abu Dhabi. It was the beginning of our oil industry. The Abu Dhabi Company for Onshore Oil Operations, ADCO, installed a replica wellhead there over a decade ago, but I have yet to hear of it being visited by parties of schoolchildren or groups of tourists.

In 1943, a British Royal Air Force bomber crashed at Dhadnah, on the east coast, killing its navigator. The crash was one of the very few signs that the UAE, like most of the rest of the world, was also affected by the Second World War. A memorial was erected a couple of years ago, thanks to the generosity of Fujairah's ruler, Sheikh Hamad bin Mohammed Al Sharqi. Yet do nearby hotels tell their visitors about it? Many people might be interested, but I suspect they go back home unaware of its existence.

And there's more forgotten history.

In 1808, following a battle at Khor Fakkan, again on the east coast, the defeated Omani army commander fled south. He was caught and killed, or so the story goes, under a tree on the edge of the village of Dhadnah. The tree survives, and is called Sidr Qais, or the Acacia tree of Qais, the slain commander. I gather that a protective wall around it is now being planned. Both the tree, and the story attached to it should surely be a part of the telling of local history.

These places are part of the UAE's history, and there are many others, perhaps known only to members of the older generation. As this generation passes away, the oral histories it possesses will be lost, too, unless we act to preserve them.

Who, for example, can tell us the site of the battle 150 years ago when the rulers of Abu Dhabi and Sharjah fought in man-to-man combat in front of the gathered forces of both sides? Sadly, not too many.

I hope that the Qasr Al Hosn Festival will just be the start of a continuing programme to raise awareness about the country's past, not just focused on the cities, but elsewhere too.

As the responses of visitors to the festival showed, there's plenty of curiosity waiting to be satisfied.


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