x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Sheikh Rashid: Shepherd of the Two Powers

Sheikh Rashid left an indelible mark on Umm al Qaiwain, guiding his people into a new age while preserving its culture in the process.

The passing of Sheikh Rashid bin Ahmed, the Ruler of Umm al Qaiwain, at the start of the month marked the end of an era for the emirate.
The changes that occurred during Sheikh Rashid's life were perhaps the most rapid and profound ever to affect UAQ's people, society and culture.
The discovery of oil in the region, and the formation of the UAE and its subsequent development, brought significant challenges and Sheikh Rashid, first as the head of the UAQ Municipality and later as the ruler of the emirate, made it his mission to see that his people received the benefits of their entry in to the modern world, while staying in touch with their heritage.
"He followed in his father's footsteps and learnt a lot from the traditional way of ruling," says Sheikh Khalid bin Humaid, the head of the UAQ Department of Archaeology and Heritage, and the son of Sheikh Rashid's younger brother.
"When Sheikh Rashid was a young man this was a very small community and relations between people were very close. If people had problems they would come and sit with the Sheikh, talk to him and he would make a decision. It was a more simple time.
"The modern world is more complex. There are departments for different parts of life, there are courts and lawyers and so on, but even so, Sheikh Rashid always kept in touch with the traditional way of doing things.
"If you came to his majlis it was open to everyone - you would not find bodyguards blocking your way - and he would sit and talk to everyone with respect.
"Whether you were a poor fisherman or a rich and important person, it did not matter. His father was the same; they were both very calm, very kind, and knew how to deal with people. They set an example for how people should take care of each other and live in peace."
Sheikh Saud bin Rashid, the Crown Prince of Umm al Qaiwain, is the new Ruler.
Sheikh Rashid was born in 1932 at Al Adi Fort, the traditional centre of power in UAQ, as the oldest of eight sons, and went on to have eight sons of his own.
He spent the early part of his life assisting his father, Sheikh Ahmed, in the running of the emirate, where most people made their living from the sea. In 1968 he was made the head of the municipality, and took over the leadership of UAQ on his father's death in 1981.
"The job of the ruler is to take care of all the people," says Sheikh Khalid. "These days, if someone has a problem with their rent there is a government department to deal with it, there is a procedure to follow. It is not just for the Sheikh to make a decision. It's good to have everything under the law but there is still a place for the old ways as well.
"Sheikh Rashid was always very involved in how the emirate was run. He would read all the reports, he would talk to people about what he wanted to happen. Even though issues are more complex than they used to be, he was still always looking to take care of the people."
When resources for development started to become available, the biggest priorities for Sheikh Rashid and his father were health care and education, says Sheikh Khalid.
"From the beginning, when oil came and the country started to change, Sheikh Rashid said it was important for people to know more about what was going on in the world.
"He built a small school, and teachers were brought in from Kuwait to teach reading, writing, mathematics and about the outside world.
"He also wanted the people to have access to health care. In the beginning he built a small clinic, with just two nurses, and a doctor would come once or twice a week from Dubai.
"This was all before the union in 1972. When the union came, it became better for all the people living in this country. More clinics and schools were built, and more people were able to go to university.
"With help from Abu Dhabi, there was more equipment for the schools and clinics, more teachers and doctors being trained, better emergency services - everything started to modernise."
When in charge of the municipality, Sheikh Rashid took an active role in planning the development of the city, his nephew says.
"He was always talking with the engineers and going out with them to see where things would be built. He was very active in this way."
Two of the biggest changes for UAQ were the improvement in communications and transport to other emirates and the outside world.
"This was a very small community, quite isolated, and there were many like it all along the coast," says Sheikh Khalid.
"You couldn't get news. If a disaster happened to another town you might not hear about it for days or weeks. If you wanted to go to Sharjah or Dubai it would take you a whole day, on foot or by camel, so the rest of the world seemed a long way away.
"Now with television and computers you know everything that is happening instantly and many people now travel from here to work in Dubai or other emirates every day, and come back at night."
As well as directing the development of Umm al Qaiwain, Sheikh Rashid and his father found their workloads increasing in the years leading up to unification, as together with the other ruling families they took on the task of creating a new nation.
"A union of different emirates in to one country does not just come overnight; it comes from a lot of work and effort," says Sheikh Khalid.
"It required people with open minds who were willing to take on this great responsibility. Sheikh Rashid had good relations with the other rulers and he took his duties to the UAE very seriously."
The opportunities brought by education, together with the growth of new federal ministries after unification, meant more and more people were starting to find work outside of the fishing industry, which for centuries had been the main way of making a living for the people of UAQ.
"Fishing is still important here but Sheikh Rashid saw that the economy had to diversify and grow," says Sheikh Khalid.
"He founded the national bank of UAQ and started to give incentives for people to come and invest here. A cement factory was built and then a plastics factory and other kinds of businesses. They were still quite small but they created jobs.
"Sheikh Rashid established the free zone and the Sheikh Ahmed bin Rashid Port, which also grew the economy, and more and more people were starting to travel for education or work."
Sheikh Khalid says UAQ will continue to develop, although perhaps at a more leisurely pace than some of its neighbouring emirates.
"Sheikh Rashid thought it was very important to preserve our history. Although a lot has changed in this emirate and this city you can still see ancient buildings. This is a good place for tourism. We have the desert and the sea and we want people to see our heritage."
It is, Sheikh Khalid says, "especially important for the young people to see what life was like. It is a challenge. They have computer games, television and other modern things, but actually I think a lot of them are very interested in their history.
"We have schools come and visit the museum, and on occasions like National Day we have cultural events, so there is a big effort not to lose the past."
The fort that once housed the royal family is still standing and, after renovations, was opened by Sheikh Rashid in 2000 as a museum.
It contains photographs of the emirate's past, examples of traditional handicrafts and dozens of ancient artefacts recovered from archaeological digs.
"We have some very rich archaeological sites here in Umm al Qaiwain, with evidence of settlements that existed in the same place for several thousand years," says Alyaa Mohammed al Ghafly, the director of the museum.
"We have found coins with the head of Alexander the Great, which were probably traded with people here after he went to Persia, and we have large collections of pottery and bronze objects."
From 1989 to 1992, teams of French archaeologists scoured the emirate for evidence of Stone Age and Bronze Age inhabitants, and for evidence of trade with other societies in the Gulf. The island of Akab, off the coast of UAQ, proved to be one of the richest sources for artefacts in the UAE, with some objects dating back to about 5000BC.
"At almost every site you can see how people developed over the centuries," says Ms al Ghafly. "You dig down through the Islamic period, through the Bronze Age, and at every level you find bones of people and the animals they ate, and the objects they used in their life. It is a connection to the past; a way of understanding how our ancestors lived."
The name "Umm al Qaiwain" comes from the Arabic, meaning "Mother of Two Powers", says Ms al Ghafly, "and the emirate has always relied on its two strengths, the land and the sea.
"The city was built with a wall facing the land and its back to the sea for defence. The sea is important to the emirate today with fishing and other industry, and it was important to the people who lived here before us, who fished and even made tools from the bones of dugongs.
"It shows that although a lot of things change, there is a lot about the past that we recognise and can connect to our lives today."
Even the royal family has gone through significant changes as it entered the modern world, says Sheikh Khalid.
"Most of us now have gone to university, either in the UAE or in Europe or the US, but everyone comes back to Umm al Qaiwain to do their duty and work for the good of the emirate," he says.
"Like all families our life now is very different from a century ago, but Sheikh Rashid showed us we have to keep our heritage."
gmcclenaghan@thenational.ae