x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017


We can count on currency for the truth about the past, according to Abdullah al Mutairi, a numismatist whose 3,000-strong collection traces the changes in the region from pre-Islamic times through unification to the present day.

Carefully untying one of his suede "treasure bags", Abdullah al Mutairi digs in with his fingers and pulls out a favourite coin. "It's Abu Salaa [bald-headed]," he says, referring to the likeness of the British monarch Edward VII, who died in 1910. The silver rupee is dated 1902, the second year of Edward's reign.

Mr al Mutairi, who believes written history tends to be biased, says he started collecting coins used in the Arabian peninsula as a way of learning about his country's past. "Currency," he says, "doesn't lie." He has been collecting them for years and now has more than 3,000, including many used in the Emirates before and after unification in 1971, as well as some from the pre-Islamic period. "The Bedouin always preferred to deal with something they can feel and touch in their trade and negotiations," he says.

Several hundred of his coins are on display at the Coins House Museum in Dubai's Bustakiya complex, a collection of historic buildings, some parts of which date back to 1918. Among them are antique coins from the Sassanid empire, the last pre-Islamic regime in Persian history. These were in circulation at the time of the four prominent caliphs and the Ummayad Caliphate. The collection also includes coins from the Abbasid Caliphate, as well as examples from ancient Egypt.

The first paper currency is thought to have come into use in the Emirates in the mid-1930s. However, those printed notes, along with handwritten pieces of paper indicating a value and signed and sealed by ruling sheikhs, were not trusted by fishermen and nomadic traders, says Mr al Mutairi, and did not gain acceptance. He can see why: "You can't debate with pieces of metal in the same way you can debate and question written documents and testimonies."

And there was a practical reason, too: the climate. "Paper just didn't last as long as metal." Before paper currency finally took hold - the dirham was introduced in 1973, two years after unification - the region including the modern-day Emirates saw the use of all kinds of coins from various parts of the world. "Currency," says Mr al Mutairi, "is more than just about money; it is about history and the politics behind it."

The area began, he says, "like the rest of the world, using Greek coins". The drachma, in both silver and copper, was in widespread use in the region in the first century AD and is thought to have been the origin of the word "dirham". However, excavations across the UAE have traced the use of coins to as far back as the 4th century BC, when the first to be found in the area - imitations of Athenian examples - were struck.

Some of these coins were found at Mleiha, 50km east of Sharjah city, and el-Dur, in Umm al Qaiwain. At Mleiha, a large settlement that predated the Christian era by three centuries, the ruler Abi'el introduced some of the first mould-made coins in the ancient Middle East. Hundreds of examples of his coins, as well as copies made until well into the first centuries AD, have been found near the surface of these sites and uncovered in excavations.

The el-Dur site also yielded examples of foreign coinage from India, Iran and Mesopotamia, evidence of historic trading contacts. Examples of ancient coins can be found in other museums across the UAE. One of the oldest coins at Al Ain museum is a silver-coated bronze piece bearing the head of Heracles, the mythical son of Zeus, adorned with a lion skin. According to the museum, the Aramaic inscriptions on the reverse indicate that the coin was minted locally.

The museum is also home to a silver Islamic hoard, consisting of dozens of coins, dating from the end of the 17th century and found buried in the sand to the north of Al Ain. Although a coin is easily overlooked amid the more eye-catching displays in museums, it "is a very telling object of history," says Mr al Mutairi. "People shouldn't skip them." During the late pre-Islamic era, when the region of Oman and what is now the UAE came under the control of the Sassanian Persians, Iranian coins began to circulate.

As Islam spread, so Islamic coins were introduced, from Iran, Iraq and India. The dinar, once the predominant coin of the Islamic world and used throughout North Africa and the Middle East, including the Trucial states (the seven Emirates plus Qatar and Bahrain), was traditionally made of gold, and the dirham of silver; for thousands of years they were used in trade across the region. The most common surviving examples are the al Muhalab ibn Abi Sufra dirham, from the eighth-century Ummayad Caliphate, and a Sassanid-style silver Arabic dirham.

One of Mr al Mutairi's most cherished coins is a Hormuz larin. Named after the city of Lar in Iran, it was a type of coinage minted by Islamic rulers in Turkey, Arabia, Iran and India from the 16th century. These are not coins in the traditional sense, but twisted lengths of stamped metal. According to the British Museum, which has several larins, they were tied in bundles and traded by weight: "According to the mid-19th century writer, François Pyrard de Laval: 'the best silver comes from Persia by way of Hormuz in the form of long coins called larins which the smiths of India prize highly and use to their great advantage being a very pure clean soft silver good for working'."

They were, says Mr al Mutairi, "very popular as maritime trade currency and used widely between the ports". With the increase of maritime trade to the Gulf region, the silver Austrian riyal appeared. Also known as the Queen Theresa riyal, it weighed 28g and bore an image of Maria Theresa of Austria, who died in 1780. Its proper name is a thaler, which is thought to be part of the origin of the word dollar.

Traders carried it down the Gulf, and it remained in wide use from the late 1700s until the rise of the Indian rupee in the 1800s. The rupee became the official currency after the trucial agreements with Britain in the early 19th century, and remained in popular use for more than 130 years, until as recently as 1966. Throughout the years of the British Empire, the Indian coins bore the heads of various British monarchs, including William IV and Victoria.

Other coins tell their own stories of shifting trade patterns in the region - for example, the 18th-century pure-gold Bohemia ducat, a trade coinage that weighed in at 7g, and the Venice ducat. Between 1890 and 1898, the Oman pesa, also known as the Sultan bin Faisal bin Turki pesa, was in use, while during the Ottoman rule over Arabia the empire's lira was also in wide circulation. After the First World War and the end of the Ottoman Empire, the use of Islamic coins began to decline in the Gulf region; in their place, expanding use of the rupee reflected the growth of trade with the subcontinent. Much of this trade was related to the pearl industry.

When the rupee was devalued in 1966, the Saudi riyal enjoyed a brief ascendancy, from June to September of that year, before the introduction of the Qatar & Dubai riyal. "Abu Dhabi had its own currency, and Dubai and the rest of the northern emirates had their own," says Mr al Mutairi. "It was a different time with different politics and it was reflected in the use of currency. Abu Dhabi was close with Bahrain and Dubai was close with Qatar."

Between 1966 and 1973, Abu Dhabi used the Bahraini dinar, while Dubai and the rest of the emirates used the Qatar & Dubai riyal. Then, in 1973, the nation - a political unit since 1971 - was united again, this time financially, with the issue of the UAE dirham. On January 28, 1978, the dirham was linked to the International Monetary Fund's Special Drawing Rights system. In practice, it has been pegged to the US dollar since November 1997.

Besides the widely circulated coins and banknotes, limited commemorative coins have been issued on special occasions, celebrating anniversaries of local institutions, such as banks, universities and the Armed Forces, and even sports such as football. In 1996 the 25th National Day was marked with a silver Dh50 coin bearing the image of Sheikh Zayed, the Founder of the UAE. Another silver Dh50 coin was issued to celebrate the inauguration of Sheikh Rashid Terminal at Dubai International Airport in 2001; an image of the late sheikh appeared on one side of the coin and an aircraft coming in to land at the airport on the other.

In 1976, 12,000 gold Dh1,000 coins were issued on the fifth anniversary of unification. Important milestones have also been marked in coin, including the 25th anniversary of the first shipment of offshore oil from Abu Dhabi, commemorated in 1987 with a Dh1 coin bearing the image of a tanker. In 2001, a Dh1 coin bearing the Army's symbol of a falcon surrounded by seven stars was issued for the silver jubilee of the unification of the Armed Forces. Such coins can be seen in museums and are often traded online by collectors.

As well as coins, Mr al Mutairi also collects banknotes from the peninsula - especially those with printing errors. "I just found it funny how letters would be missing or the amount misprinted and how that would cause a bit of a problem for whoever ends up with that particular note," he says. "No wonder it took time for people to get used to using paper money." Mr al Mutairi believes that while their use has been largely marginalised, coins remain critical "instruments" of history and culture that will outlive paper money, though each has its part to play.

"The coins and paper money reflect the story of our country, with images of oil fields or gazelles or any other national treasures printed on it," he says. "When a country issues its own currency into circulation, it is leaving its own mark on world politics and history. "And the coin will outlive us, and the paper notes." rghazal@thenational.ae