x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

A nation born, and they were there

A team from a UK university is planning to capture the history of the Trucial Oman Scouts, and the role they played as witnesses and assistants in the UAE's formative years, for proposed museums in the Emirates and Britain.

British Trucial Oman scouts based at Fort Jahli near Abu Dhabi carrying out a traditional camel patrol in February 1972.
British Trucial Oman scouts based at Fort Jahli near Abu Dhabi carrying out a traditional camel patrol in February 1972.

DUBAI // The late 1960s and early 1970s were a crucial time in the formation of the UAE, when the vision of the late Sheikh Zayed - to form a group of disparate emirates into one nation - became reality.

There to witness those momentous days were members of the Trucial Oman Scouts (TOS), the force set up in the region by the British in 1951. And among them was Sqd Cmdr Michael Curtis.

"Sheikh Zayed, bless his heart, he was a wonderful man," said Mr Curtis, who met the new Ruler regularly, "set about the restructuring of Abu Dhabi. That's when it all started.

"My memories of him are of a man with a straightforward vision of what was needed. He was loved very much by all his people - the Bedouin and the city dwellers and the rest of it - and was much revered by people like me.

"I went to his majlis at Eid on a number of occasions. He was a very, very charming chap. He was not a spendthrift. Everything was done with a lot of care and thought, and he used the oil money to his best ability. He was a man of the people."

Such vivid testimonies give a compelling insight into the events that led to the formation of the UAE in 1971. And now a project to record and preserve them has attracted interest in the country at the highest levels.

The UK team behind the project has been negotiating to finance it for some months, and hopes details will be announced by the end of April.

Researchers from Exeter University want to collect oral histories from veterans, including some of the many Emiratis who served with the TOS, and there are plans to open museums about the force in the UAE and the UK.

Mr Curtis acts as a link between the veterans and the Exeter team, and is the co-author, along with the late Antony Cawston, of a book entitled Arabian Days: The Memoirs of Two Trucial Oman Scouts.

He was among a group of 60 veterans from the UK who visited all seven emirates this month as guests of the Armed Forces.

"The news is very encouraging," said Leslie McLoughlin, an honorary fellow at the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies at Exeter, and a former captain in the TOS who visited this month.

"The concept is to detail the history of all the elements that came to make up the Armed Forces. There are quite a number of them.

"We're planning to trace the history of all these forces by getting the testimony of the surviving veterans, and the project becomes a bit urgent because none of us is getting any younger.

"We've submitted very detailed proposals about establishing a museum in the UK and also one or more museums within the UAE.

"This would be an educational project, so people in the UAE can get an understanding of the origins of the Armed Forces."

Mr McLoughlin said Exeter University's contribution would be to maintain the required academic standards.

"Our major focus at the moment is to ensure that everything is handled in a scholarly, academic manner," he said.

The TOS was formed by the British as the Trucial Oman Levies in 1951.

In 1971 it was renamed the Union Defence Force, which five years later merged with several offshoots to form the UAE Armed Forces.

As well as collecting oral testimonies, the Exeter team plans to create a digital archive of photographs, films, recordings and documents, and publish histories, documentaries, interviews, photos and official records.

Veterans are being asked to complete and submit a questionnaire, and their contributions will ensure a detailed record of those pivotal years will be preserved for future generations.

csimpson@thenational.ae