Postage stamps issued for the past 100 years, first by the British, individual emirates and then the UAE, tell the story of the nation's growth in a unique and colourful way.
With meticulous care, Khalid al Omairi opens his collector’s album to the first page and proudly shows off his favourite item: Sharjah’s very first postage stamp, issued on July 10 1963.
Bright and colourful, predominantly purple, it is a product of its time; the map of the emirate is highlighted in desert tones and Sharjah’s red and white flag waves next to a portrait of the late ruler, Sheikh Saqr bin Sultan Al Qasimi. The stamp bears the words “Trucial States” and “Sharjah & Dependencies”.
Sharjah is known for its beautiful stamps, says Mr al Omairi, a tall, slender man with a scholarly beard and thin, gold spectacles.
“At the time the printing methods weren’t as sophisticated, yet these stamps have many different colourings. People from all over the world like these stamps.”
This year marks the centenary of postal services in the region that was to become the UAE and Mr al Omairi’s collection provides a unique historical record of the transformation of the country seen through philately.
The first post office was opened by the British in the Old Market, near the Dubai Creek, in 1909. Printed cancellations bearing the word “Dubai” and the date came into use, but for more than 50 years post passing through the area bore stamps issued in India, Bahrain, Pakistan and the UK.
It was not until Jan 7 1961 that the first stamps carrying the name of the Trucial States were issued by the British Postal Agency in Dubai. One design depicted palm trees, the other a dhow; they appeared in 11 different colours and values and were priced in rupees, at that time the currency of the area.
Legend has it that one of the designs proved controversial; the seven palm trees on the first stamp represented the seven emirates, but one was visibly larger than the others.
The race was on for each emirate to produce its own stamps. Dubai was first, on June 15 1963, but the others followed in quick succession, starting with Sharjah on July 10 that year and ending with Fujairah on Sept 22 1964. Abu Dhabi issued its own stamps from March 30 the same year.
Unification was less than a decade away, but if the era of stamp issues for individual emirates was relatively brief, it was a period of spectacular, imaginative and outward-looking creativity.
In all, thousands of different designs found their way to the corners of the world. Between 1964 and 1972, Ajman alone issued more than 1,000 stamps, embracing images from nature, art and science. Among anniversaries celebrated were the birth of Napoleon Bonaparte, the launch of the Apollo and Soyuz spacecraft and several Olympiads.
Many of the stamps were as beautiful as they were progressive. In 1972 Fujairah produced a series of 12 reproductions of nude figure paintings ranging from The Judgement of Paris by the 15th-century German painter Lucas Cranach to Venus and Adonis by the 16th-century Flemish master Peter Paul Rubens. The same year the emirate also issued a series of stamps on the theme of the Persian empire 2,500 years earlier.
Nearly all of the emirates issued several series connected with the life and death of the American president John F Kennedy, marking the anniversary of his assassination in 1963 for several years. On Nov 22 1966 Sharjah issued a 10x12cm airmail sheet showing Kennedy’s grave at Arlington National Cemetery in Washington.
Abu Dhabi was among the least prolific of the emirates when it came to stamps, producing only 11 sets between 1964 and 1972, including 55 different stamps and 10 aerogrammes. This restraint means that surviving specimens now have a correspondingly higher value. Mr al Omairi has them all and particularly treasures a mint-condition set from the first series issued by Abu Dhabi on March 30 1964.
Valued in rupees, they bore the likeness of the late ruler, Sheikh Shakhbut. In 1966 the stamps started to come in a new currency, the dinar, and from the following year carried the portrait of Sheikh Shakhbut’s successor, Sheikh Zayed, the founding President of the UAE.
The first stamps bearing his likeness also carried images associated with the emirate, including a sand gazelle, a lanner falcon and the sheikh’s palace in Abu Dhabi. In 1968 one stamp celebrated the 20th anniversary of the Declaration of Human Rights by the UN General Assembly.
Over the next few years, as oil money started to flow and prosperity increased, many issues celebrated the rapid development of the emirate, recording construction work such as the new airport in 1968.
Remarkably, perhaps, only four of the stamps produced by Abu Dhabi before unity carried a direct reference to the oil boom; they were issued on Aug 6 1969 for the third anniversary of the accession of Sheikh Zayed and depicted an oil refinery, a drilling rig, a separator platform and a tank farm.
Soon after the founding of the UAE in 1971 the individual emirates stopped producing their own stamps – one of the last issued by Abu Dhabi, on June 3 1972 carried illustrations of the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem. However, it was several more months before the fledgling nation issued any of its own.
On Jan 1 1973 the UAE came of age for philatelists, issuing 10 different stamps with values between five fils and 10 dirhams.
Among the first designs was a map with the national flag, the coat of arms, a portrait of Sheikh Zayed and an illustration of a landmark from each emirate including “Amaqta” bridge in Abu Dhabi and Khor Fakkan in Sharjah.
The UAE went on to issue stamps recording a wide range of cultural subjects and social issues.
On April 1 1973 Traffic Week earned its first set of three stamps, a theme that was continued for several years, as were Environment Week and Literacy Day, marked on stamps from 1974. Falcons and camels have made many appearances over the years and, in 2004, one issue portrayed traditional women’s costumes.
The story of the UAE’s stamps is also the story of the nation’s growth and increasing involvement in world affairs.
According to Neil Donaldson’s 1975 book The postal agencies in Eastern Arabia and the Gulf, in the early days, ships of the British India Steam Navigation company, founded in 1856 and absorbed into P&O in 1972, carried mail from the Trucial States to other branches, a process that could take weeks or even months. But in Oct 1932 Britain’s Imperial Airways began serving the Arabian Gulf via Basra, Bahrain, Sharjah and Guadar and carried mail from merchants. A few precious covers were issued by the company to mark the event.
A couple of years later Dubai signed a contract with Imperial Airways guaranteeing more frequent services. Now first-class airmail could be delivered to the UK within a week.
The oil boom helped to stimulate postal services. In Abu Dhabi the centre of the drilling business was Das Island, about 160km north of the mainland, and in 1959 demand from the hundreds of oil workers based there led to a delivery service via Bahrain.
Many of the early UAE stamps are now avidly collected by philatelists such as Mr al Omairi, who calls stamps “the visiting cards of nations”.
Mr al Omairi, who spends most of his spare time working on his splendid collection, glows with pride as he shows off the many folders in which he keeps his thousands of stamps, covers and old documents.
“I want to provide a unique insight into the postal system of the UAE, also before it became a federation,” he says.
When he travels abroad to exhibitions, it is not just in the pursuit of more specimens for his collection.
His dream is to use his collection to start a museum in Abu Dhabi.
“Stamps,” he says, “are a country’s reservoir of historical facts, education and culture. I think all schools should teach their students about stamps.”