x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

The need for more history from an Emirati point of view

Authoritative Emirati perspectives on the past are needed for the country to understand its history and future

For many years, I have enjoyed researching aspects of the heritage of the United Arab Emirates. The further back one goes, the more difficult the task becomes. In the absence of documents one is obliged, therefore, to depend primarily on the discoveries made by archaeologists which, fascinating though they may be, naturally only present a partial picture. As the period of study comes nearer to the present, documents do exist, particularly in the archives of the various European powers that played a role in the region, like the British, the Dutch and the Portuguese, though, sadly, these still require much more examination.

It is fair to note, however, that such archived documents, however illuminating they may be, are generally written from the point of view of the powers concerned, and often do not provide any real understanding of how events were perceived by the local, Emirati, players.

In consequence, the view of the country's history that is put forward is, necessarily, partial and incomplete. A good example is that of the conflict that took place at the beginning of the 19th Century between the British and the Qawasim of Ras al Khaimah and Sharjah. History, it is well-known, is generally written from the point of view of the victors, rather than the vanquished. Thus the area that is known today as the United Arab Emirates became known for well over a hundred years as the "Pirate Coast", because of the portrayal by the British of their defeated opponents as pirates.

It was not until 1986, when the Ruler of Sharjah, Dr Sheikh Sultan bin Mohammed Al Qasimi, published his book The Myth of Arab Piracy in the Gulf, that a more balanced view was put forward, arguing that the conflict arose out of a competition for control between the two main naval powers in the region. One result of the book's publication was a re-assessment by historians here and overseas about the nature of the British presence in the Gulf which, inter alia, I consider to have been broadly positive over the century and a half that passed between the initial agreements with the Rulers in early 1820 and the establishment of the federation in 1971, not least in making possible the flourishing of the pearling industry in the late 19th Century.

The days of Qasimi "piracy" are, of course, long past, very much part of the country's history. They can only be assessed today through an exhaustive study of documents, primarily held overseas, although bodies like the National Centre for Documentation and Research in Abu Dhabi now have extensive facsimile archives of their own.

As one approaches the present, however, one has the advantage of being able to make good use of the memories and records of those participants in events, both minor and major, who are still living. Through these, one is able to look beyond the dry and often one-sided official papers that provide a summary of, but rarely deep insight into, events.

It was, therefore, a great pleasure to read a recently-published personal memoir of the UAE's history covering, broadly, the period from the end of the Second World War until the formation of the federation in 1971.

From the histories of the region already available in English, for, sadly, I am unable to delve into Arabic documents without help, I knew that during the 1950s the British authorities in the Gulf had been concerned about the potential spread of Arab nationalist feeling into the region, and that there had been minor incidents of overt opposition to the British presence at the time of the Anglo-French-Israeli invasion of Egypt at the time of the Suez crisis in 1956.

This memoir told me much more about local radicalism. It was low-key, perhaps, but nonetheless present. The author reveals that he had been recruited, briefly, into the Ba'ath party. He goes on to provide details of small incidents of sabotage that he and some friends had carried out in 1956, including setting fire to a small British communications complex and an unsuccessful attempt to set fire to a British plane at the British Royal Air Force base in Sharjah. He also provides previously unpublished (at least in English) details of his involvement in radical student activities in Cairo and of the resignation of two senior Emirati officers from the Trucial Oman Scouts because of their desire to join the Egyptian armed forces as volunteers in the June 1967 War.

More recently still, the memoir provides details of the unsuccessful coup in Sharjah in January 1972, during which the Ruler was killed, to be succeeded by his younger brother, Sheikh Sultan, who remains Ruler today.

None of this information is of the type to require a complete re-writing of the country's recent history. What it does do is provide much greater insight and give an authoritative Emirati view of events, something that is too often lacking in assessments of the country's history. Indeed, since the memoir, My Early Life, is the latest book to emerge from the prolific pen of the Sharjah Ruler, one could scarcely hope for a more authoritative source.

In English, in particular, there are few books written by Emiratis on aspects of the country's recent past, with those by Mohammed Al Fahim and Easa Al Gurg being the most notable. One hopes that there are others, businessmen, former Ministers and the like, who are planning to follow suit. Some, I know, have kept copious diaries that must, surely, have the potential to shed new light on the way in which the UAE has developed and grown in recent decades, warts and all. As Sheikh Sultan so clearly shows, it's perfectly possible to produce memoirs that are not overly sanitised. I look forward to reading some more.


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