x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

'The union, everyone knew, was the start of something big'

Ahmed Al Sayegh remembers when women were told to cover their faces when watching television in case the presenter could see them.

Ahmed has taken the time to teach his three children all about the start of the UAE and his childhood.
Ahmed has taken the time to teach his three children all about the start of the UAE and his childhood.

DUBAI // Ahmed Al Sayegh was only five months old the day the UAE was formed. Since then, he has grown up step by step with the country.

As a toddler, stories of the union meant little to him. But over the years, as roads and houses were built, it became clearer what the union would lead to.

"The union, everyone knew, was the start of something big," says Ahmed.

He was the son of a local gold merchant but his family was still not able to afford a car until he was in his mid-teens.

"Only the big businessman had cars," Ahmed says. "We used to travel on donkeys mostly in my area, Bur Dubai."

Getting to school was an uncomfortable half-hour walk with heavy textbooks in his backpack.

And getting water was equally difficult.

"We didn't have Masafi or Al Ain water, we had imported water from Oman or Saudi Arabia. Water would be carried in the same oil-tin boxes on donkeys around town, I remember," Ahmed says, adding some of the containers were dirty.

But as he got older, Dubai began to advance.

"And with the new projects making Dubai bigger, it meant it was easier to reach the borders of other emirates," Ahmed says.

Even when his father had mustered the money for a car, many of the roads were poor and journeys took days or even weeks.

"I remember travelling in my father's Land Cruiser for two weeks before reaching Oman, where Bureimi border is now," he says.

"If you got stuck in the sand that was it - you were stuck alone until someone came, whenever that was."

But a guide stood at the entry of each emirate ready to pass directions to travellers.

"Before the union, my father told me, guards would stand at the emirates' entrances to see where we are from and where we are going," Ahmed says. "But after the union, the emirates were open."

He says there were initial fears the union would not last.

"People believed it would last a day or two, a month or two, or a year or two," he says.

"And there are some envious nations that didn't want the union. But the UAE proved everyone wrong by having the best and strongest union.

"In the beginning, Kuwait helped us a lot with education and health. Before, the mortality rate was high, so they brought in doctors for us. We still have the Kuwaiti Hospital in Dubai."

Later, TVs started appearing in more houses although the older generations took a while to get used to them.

"The men would tell the women to hide their face in front of the TV, in case the presenter could see them," Ahmed recalls.

But Dubai residents mainly welcomed change and the chance to make friends outside their emirate.

"Marriage with people from other places became easier," Ahmed says.

"Growing up, I found more people travelling to other emirates to get married.

"That is why the union will never break. People thought tribalism would make it break, but now we are all one family."

Over the past fortnight, Ahmed has decorated his car and home with UAE flags and National Day decorations - and changed his ring tone to the national anthem.

And he has taken the time to teach his three children all about the start of the UAE and his childhood.

Ahmed says that all the country needs now is a train to link the emirates. That is planned to start running within the decade.

"Dubai changes every hour, so I cannot imagine what it will be like in 20 years but I hope to see the train soon to bring everyone even closer together," he says.