Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 June 2019

Six million and twelve years in the making - one man's mission to tell the story of the UAE

Emirati collector and antiquary Ahmed Al Khoori completes his epic history book

Dr Ahmed Al Khoori, who has finished his history of the UAE after 12 years of writing, at his home in Abu Dhabi. Victor Besa / The National
Dr Ahmed Al Khoori, who has finished his history of the UAE after 12 years of writing, at his home in Abu Dhabi. Victor Besa / The National

It has taken 12 years or, depending on how you look at it, several million.

But finally Dr Ahmed Al Khoori has finished his epic history of the UAE.

His book, which runs to nearly 700 pages, tells a story that begins more than six million years ago, when the fossil record shows the country was a lush savannah populated by elephants and crocodiles.

It traces the transformation to desert and the migration of early man from Africa to Arabia, the evolution of tribal life and the establishment of the first coastal communities, as trading links were created along the Arabian Gulf.

The second part covers the arrival of the British in the early 19th century, following in the footsteps of the Portuguese, and the treaties that gave the British Empire control over the region's foreign policy and led to the seven emirates being known as the Trucial States.

Many of the photographs in this section are from his huge personal collection of antiquities from the region, assembled over many decades.

British control ended in 1971 with the formation of the United Arab Emirates and the book's concluding section tells the story of the era of Sheikh Zayed and with it he age of oil - in which he played a part - and the transformation of the country from a home to nomadic desert tribes to the site of some of the most modern cities in the world.

“The whole idea for this is a history through to modern times,” he says. “I wanted to show what the UAE looked like, particularly Abu Dhabi.” He hopes it will be of particular value to foreign visitors and expatriates, but also anyone who wants to discover more about the past.

In its way, Dr Al Khoori’s own story is equally transformational. As a child he grew up in Abu Dhabi when most people lived in palm frond arish houses, and was part of the first generation to train overseas, before eventually working as an engineer for what is now called Adnoc Onshore, from where he recently retired.

The book, currently being negotiated with publishers, comes from his passion for history, which also manifests itself in his private collection of antiquities.

Both interests started at an early age. As a young boy he recalls a small stand selling coffee and tea behind the family home.

“We would help them out with supplies of fresh water and in return they would give me postage stamps and some old coins,” he says.

Later he would travel with his father, who also worked in the oil industry, by pickup truck to remote places like the Buraimi Oasis, now known as Al Ain, where Dr Al Khoori would pick up pieces of old pottery and jewellery.

Abu Dhabi (1962/1964). In the souq in Al Ain, Buraimi Oasis, Abu Dhabi. Photo by David Riley
The souq in Buraimi Oasis, pictured in 1962-64, where Al Khoori would pick up pottery and jewllery. Photo by David Riley

Several decades later, his collection now fills much of the space in his house in Khalifa City.

Even in retirement he continues to collect, joking that it has left him broke, with the most recent additions being traditional coffee pots used by tribal leaders and decorated with images of wolves and lions.

Finding good quality pieces, even with his network of connections, is increasingly hard.

“It’s become very difficult. Everything is much more rare,” he says.

Many of the most striking pieces from his collection will feature in the book, particularly in the section devoted to the 19th century, when the region was a British protectorate, through to the discovery of oil in the late 1950s, when the discovery swept away many of the old traditions and way of life.

Abu Dhabi, Trucial States (1962/1964). Al Ain, Buraimi Oasis, Abu Dhabi. Photo by David Riley
Al Ain's Buraimi Oasis. Photo by David Riley

The length of time taken to finish the book is in part a reflection of his meticulous research, which he has checked with local experts and which at one point even led him to employ a small team of researchers. The idea came to him in 2007 and he has spent the past seven years devoting increasing amounts of his time to the manuscript.

A glimpse of his collection came last year, when Mina Zayed’s Warehouse 421 featured swords, daggers and rifles in the exhibition Lest We Forget – Emirati Adornment: Tangible & Intangible.

Other items formed part of The National series for the 40th anniversary of the UAE, which selected 40 items significant to the country’s story.

Dr Al Khoori says it is important for people to remember the past.

“There are a lot of photographs but not many people are writing it down.”

He plans to continue to do just that


Read more:

UAE’s Lest We Forget initiative aims to maintain a strong link to the past

Old gun belt that gave one Bedouin an edge in battle

40@40: Woman's headdress, silver, early 20th century

40@40: Kohl container and applicator, early to mid-20th century


Updated: August 16, 2018 03:14 PM