x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

The day the Emirati majlis changed forever

Previous majlis' held in the Qasr were confined to small rooms. But when the majlis was brought outside the Qasr walls, bigger gatherings and greater access to the sheikh became possible.

ABU DHABI // The day Sheikh Zayed the Great decided to move his majlis from inside Qasr Al Hosn to outside, its walls changed the make up of the Emirati majlis.

"This is a key moment in history because until this point we were led to believe the majlis was inside," said Mark Kyffin an architect working for the Abu Dhabi Tourism and Culture Authority.

Mr Kyffin, who has been a member of the Qasr Al Hosn conservation team for six years, believes the move changed the structure of the majlis from a more intimate setting to a more open and all-encompassing meeting area.

"What Sheikh Zayed the Great did was bring the majlis out of the Qasr and to the people so he could be seen by everyone."

Previous majlis' held in the Qasr would have been confined to small rooms, which were limited in size by the building materials used.

With mangroves being the only available wood, they were used as beams in the rooms' ceilings.

Because a typical mangrove tree grows to only 3.6 metres, the rooms were little more than 3 metres wide.

"With the limitation of space you probably would have been allowed to come in one at a time for the sheikh to hear your problems or disputes," Mr Kyffin said.

But when the majlis was brought outside the Qasr walls, bigger gatherings and greater access to the sheikh would have been possible.

"This majlis was located on a bench outside the northwest murabaa [square] tower, which had the shamal [north] winds which were the strongest and provided the most comfort."

When expanding Qasr Al Hosn from funds gained by the first oil concession in the 1940s Sheikh Zayed's grandson, Sheikh Shakhbut bin Sultan, extended the majlis in the same location.

"With Sheikh Shakhbut, we start to see an external majlis which extended Sheikh Zayed the Great's majlis further to an enclosure outside the fort wall," Mr Kyffin said. "Like a ranch wall that goes around the front."

This allowed for even bigger majlis', which were necessary due to the increase in the local population.

The expansion of the majlis did not stop there and was furthered by Sheikh Zayed, the founding President of the UAE, who built the National Consultive Council chamber in the same area in 1968.

"The council chamber is still present on the site now and was the site of the pre-[union] meetings," Mr Kyffin said.

But not all agree about the significance of the fort as it relates to the majlis.

Dr Frauke Heard-Bey, a former archivist at the National Centre for Documentation and Research, said people attached too much mystery to the majlis.

"A majlis is just a congregation," she said.

"It could be done at home or when a parliament meets the sheikh."

Dr Heard-Bey is more familiar with Qasr Al Hosn than most. She worked there for more than 30 years and said that what Sheikh Zayed did was common.

"On a nice spring day like today it is only natural to want to go outside and sit in the shade.

"It would have been more comfortable to go outside and see and meet the people than spend time indoors."

The historian added that sheikhs routinely held their majlis outdoors and the fort was not part of the origins.

She went on to say an indoor majlis would have been no hindrance to the people of the time.

"The population was so small and tightly knit at the time. There was little social barrier between them and the sheikh."

However, she did agree that holding a majlis outdoors might have made it a little less intimidating for regular people to approach the leader.

talsubaihi@thenational.ae