x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 21 February 2018

Scrutinising UAE history to save future lives

Not all disasters that befell earlier inhabitants of the Arabian Gulf have lessons that resonate today, but many do - from fires to camel disease and sandstorms to shipwrecks. A historical research project proves the wisdom of expecting the unexpected.

Volunteers peruse volumes of British historical archives from the 1800s to 1968, looking for mentions of fires, epidemics, shipwrecks and natural disasters. The information is being gathered for a textbook on civil security in the UAE that will be used by security students at Khalifa University. Fatima Al Marzooqi/The National
Volunteers peruse volumes of British historical archives from the 1800s to 1968, looking for mentions of fires, epidemics, shipwrecks and natural disasters. The information is being gathered for a textbook on civil security in the UAE that will be used by security students at Khalifa University. Fatima Al Marzooqi/The National

ABU DHABI // Athol Yates is optimistic in the hunt for disaster.

The Khalifa University professor stood before a room of volunteers at the National Centre for Documentation and Research and sounded off his wish list.

"Fires," said Dr Yates, a civil security instructor. "Diseases. Disease and pests. Fish disease, camel disease, human disease. Leprosy, malaria and for those people looking in the 1920s, have a look for Spanish influenza."

Last week Dr Yates and the volunteers read thousands of British archive pages in the search for shipwrecks, plagues and other national calamities that will be compiled into a sourcebook of the country's hazards.

This data is the basis for a university textbook by Dr Yates and his colleagues that teaches internal security through the context of national history, written for a master's degree course in International and Civil Security at the Khalifa University of Science, Technology and Research.

"It's important that the Emiratis we teach use information relevant to the UAE, rather than an American or English textbook," said Dr Yates.

"The university is about building capacity, and the best way of doing that really is to make sure the students are well aware of the risks that this nation faces rather than risks America faces."

It took Dr Yates 10 minutes to list hazards that merited inclusion. The textbook will focus on two types of hazards: natural hazards, such as sandstorms, and technical hazards, such as plane crashes. Malicious hazards such as tribal wars, executions and civil disobedience fill the archives but will not be included.

After Dr Yates finished his list with man-made destructions, the 10 volunteers gathered around a table buried under stacks of thick, red books.

There were 20 volumes of political diaries of the Arabian Gulf that date from 1904 and 30 volumes of the Arabian Gulf administration reports that date from 1873. They document British administration until its withdrawal in 1968 and report everything from the 1921 Bolshevik agitation in Iran to the breeding and the treatment of mules.

It was a rare chance for volunteers to peek into the British archives for a more intimate view of Gulf history.

"It's the fact that you can just do a little tiny bit to help and it's just such a huge and valid project," said Patricia Blais, a volunteer who came to the UAE in 1978 to teach at Dubai College. "These books are fascinating."

Halfway into the political diaries of 1948-50 - between records on the guano sales of the former Abu Dhabi Ruler, Sheikh Shakhbut bin Sultan, and reports on Dubai's ban on Venezuelan pearls - Ms Blais found a forgotten story of a violent storm from June 16, 1949, that forced an American aircraft to circle for hours.

The plane eventually crashed between Qatar and Bahrain, but not before 18 passengers leapt from the aircraft.

She read: "Two of the passengers who bailed out were killed, as well as the three who remained in the aircraft. The latter are said to have had two parachutes between them but no two of them could be persuaded to use them and leave the third man to his fate."

Volunteers focused on the Trucial States, the name for the UAE before unification in 1971. Within the first nine minutes, Dr Yates dismissed an Iranian locust infestation that destroyed an opium crop, because of its location. "That would have been an interesting one," he said with obvious disappointment.

Each calamity was marked with a yellow Post-it note scribbled with a few words. The 1946-1947 political diary notes were: smallpox, prayers for rain, poor pearl season, shamal winds and man shot after being mistaken for a wolf.

Some years were mercifully short of destruction, but in years such as 1914 people suffered from plague, famine and shipwrecks in a few short months.

"The Trucial Coast has, this year, suffered severely from the ravages of the plague, and perhaps more than any part of the Gulf from the dullness of the pearl-market always seriously affected by the outbreak of War," wrote Lt Col SG Knox in the 1914 Trucial Coast Administration Report.

The British Indian Company's failure to serve Gulf ports meant that cereal shipments did not arrive. Famine loomed.

"If we add to this a severe storm that sank about 50 pearl boats and drowned 100 divers, it can truly be said that these Arabs have been afflicted, in the course of 1914, with every species of disaster that could possibly overtake them," Lt Col Knox concluded.

The year 1914 is a critical reminder for today's students of the importance of a flexible and comprehensive internal security strategy.

"The whole generation of internal security policymakers post-2001 are overly fixed on terrorism as the key threat," said Dr Yates. "Having a longer-term perspective will make students realise that there's actually a broad number of things that pose threats to the UAE. Many of them are very infrequent. The likelihood is awfully low, so therefore they need to prepare for an all-hazards approach."

Shipwrecks and Spanish influenza may sound like perils of the past but they hold lessons for modern security. Food security and public health hazards caused by trade and migration are not new to the region. The archives are a reminder that public health hazards are often a greater cause for concern than sensational weather.

The archive search could uncover hazards and weather patterns absent from recent data. Policymakers can prepare for forgotten hazards before they strike again.

Of course, such findings rely on the record writer.

The Administration Report for the Trucial Coast for the Year 1917 by the deputy political resident, J H Bill, was terse.

"The Trucial Coast had absolutely no history during this year," he wrote. "There were no changes among the Shaikhs, and no events worthy of record."

For this reason, the British archives are just a starting point. Event dates and locations can be cross-checked with newspapers, the centre's collection of unpublished diaries, mission reports and oral histories that the master's students will collect from family elders.

The final database will help future research and serve as a factual record of the country's history for policy development that looks beyond the past 40 years.

"There is a risk because of a lack of data that policy decisions are being made that are perhaps not well-informed, and yet we see here that there is information going back over 100 years that gives us reference points of data," said Derek Gliddon, a volunteer who has worked for 20 years on UAE environment databases. "You can start calibrating on a longer timeline."

For Mr Gliddon and other volunteers, some of the greatest finds were not hazards but stories that brought past characters to life, such as the 1910 Deira skull collector.

After skulls began to appear on Dubai and Deira beaches that June, Dubai raised a search party that caught a slave in the act of digging up graves.

"He arrested the slave who, on being questioned, stated that he was engaged in the work because he and certain companions of his had been told by the grey-beard of slaves that when 200 skulls had been dug up and thrown on the sea beach the object which he had in view would be gained," wrote Captain R L Birdwood, the first assistant resident.

"It appeared that he had already dug up 170 graves. The slave was executed and the grey-beard has been imprisoned."

These accounts are macabre, but for Dr Yates it is the remembrance of death that will save future lives.