x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Back from a spin through UAE history

Abdullah al Shawi's Land Rover, left behind by the British in 1971 in a time of few cars and fewer roads, served the Bedouin community.

Abdullah al Shawi with his Land Rover, made in the late 1950s, at the Sharjah Old Cars Club and Museum.
Abdullah al Shawi with his Land Rover, made in the late 1950s, at the Sharjah Old Cars Club and Museum.

Abdullah al Shawi witnessed the rise of a nation from behind the wheel of a Land Rover that the British left behind in 1971. In a time of few cars and fewer roads, his rugged vehicle served the Bedouin community as taxi, delivery lorry and even hospital ambulance SHARJAH // The prestige cars are the ones that catch your eye. A Rolls-Royce, a Mercedes-Benz - luxury vehicles, the proud possessions of the wealthy.

You hardly notice that behind them, in a dusty corner, sits a beaten-up old Land Rover. This beige four-wheel drive is well-kept, and spotlessly clean. Look closely, however, and it bears a lifetime's worth of rust and dents that no new paint job could disguise. In many senses, there is little exceptional about it. But its story chronicles the birth of a nation. Built in the late 1950s, the two-seater series II Land Rover was brought here by British troops. In its day, the 2.25-litre petrol engine was good for 72 horsepower, although it might struggle to get that now. The broad steering wheel is leather-padded, but the leather is torn. The two round gauges - one with needles for temperature and fuel, the other for speed - hark back to a simpler automobile culture.

In the back are two removable cushioned seats, and a folding roof. Above that, the only reminder of the use to which the British put the vehicle are the two metal poles that once served as a gun mount. With the unification of the Emirates in 1971, the British withdrew, and the Land Rover found itself, along with other former members of its platoon, in the backyard of Obiad al Naddas, a car dealer in Sharjah. Two years passed without a buyer. Starting to rot away under the scorching sun, it looked like the end. Then, in 1973, a Bedouin named Abdullah al Shawi happened by. He was taken for a tour of new cars, but his eyes fell on the Land Rover and he felt an instant connection. "It was rough, like me, and it had pride," recalls Mr al Shawi, now 70. "I could feel it wanted to be driven."

Minutes later, the car was his. He paid Dh7,000 - which, he says, was quite a lot at the time. Motorised vehicles started to appear in the Emirates in the late 1940s. At first, the cars were mostly American, Fords and Cadillacs, owned by a privileged few. Then, in the late 1950s, the British cars appeared, mainly ex-army trucks and 4x4s. These were eventually sold on, often to buyers who would share one car among the residents of a whole village. Such was the case with Mr al Shawi. Upon his return with the Land Rover to the nomadic settlement in the desert near Al Dhaid, he was greeted by other nomadic families and nearby villagers. "Everyone got excited," he recalls. "Now they had a car that could take them to the big cities like Dubai and Sharjah, and one that could carry heavy supplies like wood and food." The Land Rover was not his first. He learnt to drive in a 1966 Land Rover that he bought for Dh900. That one did not last long; it was falling apart when he bought it. The second one, though, was a workhorse. "I became like a taxi," he says. "I would leave early in the morning, right after dawn, and come back really late after driving people and things from one place to the other." With no air conditioning and no seat belts, driving the Land Rover was not always pleasant. Often, Mr al Shawi would run his errands at night, under the cool breeze of the desert winds.

"There weren't many paved roads at the time, except inside some of the bigger emirates," he says. "So I spent most of the driving along dirt roads and getting in and out of sand dunes." Pausing, he adds: "You realise, we used to move our homes from one desert spot to the other depending on the seasons. So the car was like a treasure for us. We were simple Bedouins, with simple needs but a very rough life." On one occasion, he took a bride from a village nearby to her future husband's home, some 50km away. "I was taking one of our young women on her first trip outside her home and on to a new start in her life. I felt proud to be part of her life's journey."

The Land Rover became his livelihood, with passengers paying what they could afford. Trips could be had for just a handful of dirhams, or as much Dh200 for the longer journeys from Sharjah to Abu Dhabi and back. But the times when he did not charge anything became more regular than he had initially bargained for. "Often, just as I was about to sleep, someone would come running to me, asking me to take a woman in labour to a nearby hospital."

There were only a few modern medical facilities available at the time. Those that did exist, such as Al Maktoum Hospital in Dubai, built in 1951, or Al Qasimi Hospital in Sharjah, built in 1971, were more than 100km away and could take hours to reach. Asked if any of them had delivered inside his car, Mr al Shawi says: "I kept my eyes on the road in front and kept silent. What happens in the car, stays in the car." As the years passed, other foreign cars became available. Cars from mainland Europe, then Japan, became popular, as well as a stream of newer, slicker Land Rovers and Range Rovers hitting the roads. Like many, Mr al Shawi's family moved into new homes in the mid-1980s. Within a few years, sometime in the early 1990s, his 12 grown children, including nine sons, decided that his beloved Land Rover was no longer good enough - something he still finds baffling.

"They each have a new luxury car, and they keep changing it for better and newer ones each year," he says. "I don't understand it." After driving more than one million kilometres in the Land Rover, Mr al Shawi bought an American car, a red shiny GMC, which he has to this day. But he refused to give up the Land Rover, hiding it away in the garage of one of his houses in Sharjah. "I like the GMC," he says, "but my memories with the Land Rover are fonder." Then, when the Sharjah Old Cars Club and Museum opened in 2008, under the patronage of the Ruler, Dr Sheikh Sultan bin Mohammed, Mr al Shawi saw an appropriate final resting place for his ageing 4x4.

He drove it to the museum, where it remains to this day, tucked away behind the luxury models. "My Land Rover witnessed, along with me, the change of our country from a desert into an oasis," he says. "It deserves to be on display, instead of hidden away and forgotten in my garage." rghazal@thenational.ae