x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

How the post in UAE left its stamp on us

It was just a way of sending a message to and from Abu Dhabi. But the first postage stamps issued by the emirate, which cost only a few fils, are now worth a small fortune - and they give a glimpse of a very different way of life from just a few decades ago, reports Bushra Al Hashemi.

An early colour picture of the Qasr Al Hosn, which featured on some of the earliest stamps issued in Abu Dhabi, in the 1960s. Before that, any post was marked with British postal stamps. Postcards and stamps courtesy of Khaled Ali Al Omaira
An early colour picture of the Qasr Al Hosn, which featured on some of the earliest stamps issued in Abu Dhabi, in the 1960s. Before that, any post was marked with British postal stamps. Postcards and stamps courtesy of Khaled Ali Al Omaira

Long before email and the text message, getting in touch usually meant putting a stamp on an envelope. Letters, postcards and parcels were so much part of life for nationals and expatriates that no one gave them a second glance.

But in the age of the internet, what were once commonplace are now fragments of our shared history.

That they survive is largely thanks to a small group of dedicated collectors. Khalid Ali Al Omaira is the owner of one of the three largest stamp collections in the UAE.

For a quarter of a century, he has accumulated an archive that might once have cost a few fils at the counter of a post office, but is now worth millions of dirhams.

Many of those early stamps feature Qasr Al Hosn, the magnificent white fort at the heart of Abu Dhabi.

One of Mr Al Omaira's most prized possessions is a series of the first stamps from the emirate, issued in 1964 and commemorating the Ruler at the time, Sheikh Shakhbut bin Sultan, and historic local scenes.

Launched on March 30, 1964, Qasr Al Hosn featured prominently in the series.

"Of course Abu Dhabi would have the fort as the main icon," says Mr Al Omaira. "It is the palace of Al Nahyan, the palace of the rulers, the palace of Abu Dhabi."

Postal services began in the late 1950s under the administration of the British from Bahrain.

Previous to that first series in 1964, only British stamps were used.

Those first Abu Dhabi stamps were priced in Arabian Gulf rupees and included oil exploration and gazelles as well as four portraits of Sheikh Shakhbut and two of Al Hosn.

A second series followed on April 1, 1967, after the accession of Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan.

One of the rarest postmarks of the Abu Dhabi postal service also features a drawing of Qasr Al Hosn.

Drawings in postmarks are extremely rare, says Mr Al Omaira.

"And for it to have Al Hosn just adds to the significance of the palace," he says.

Mr Al Omaira says he has tried to track down the artist who created the postmark, which was only used between April and December 1968, but that "this question remains a secret".

Postcards also tell the history of Abu Dhabi, although inevitably many of these ended up overseas. Local collectors are now buying them, returning them home to the Emirates to document its history.

Dr Muhammed Al Mansouri, a historian who also collects books and other printed material, has acquired many of his postcards from auctions and sellers outside the UAE.

He draws attention to a postcard of Khalifa Street in the 1970s currently on sale on eBay for US$180 and adds there "is no comparison to the postcards with Al Hosn in value".

Dr Al Mansouri and Mr Al Omaira both have items from the Osaka World Fair of 1970, in which Abu Dhabi participated for the first time, building a pavilion based on Qasr Al Hosn.

Dr Al Mansouri points out that Osaka fair took place before the launch of Al Ittihad, the nation's first newspaper, so that items such as Japanese stamps featuring the pavilion and a commemorative card handed out to visitors at the Abu Dhabi pavilion are one of the few ways of recording these events for posterity.

Ephemera from the post can also be valuable to students of history in other ways. Two stamps feature the same image of Qasr Al Hosn in the background, but feature first Sheikh Shakhbut and then Sheikh Zayed, recording the transition of rule.

An envelope of official correspondence from Qasr Al Hosn bears the red flag of Abu Dhabi and the postmark "Emiri palace", a reminder that Qasr Al Hosn was once a centre of government.

"These postcards and samples of post document the last era of Al Hosn before union when it was used to rule Abu Dhabi," says Mr Al Omaira.

A member of the Emirates Philatelic Association, Mr Al Omaira likes to encourage the younger generation to take up stamp collecting.

Addressing this writer's younger brother, Hussein, who had come along for the interview, he says, with a smile: "If you were interested in stamps, I promise a collection that you can start building on."