x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Setting the standard

Abdulla al Maainah should be a household name. After all, everywhere you go in the UAE you see the national flag, which he designed 38 years ago.

The Abu Dhabi skyline and the UAE flag.
The Abu Dhabi skyline and the UAE flag.

Abdulla al Maainah should be a household name. After all, everywhere you go in the UAE you see his iconic work. Rasha Elass talks to the man whose design was chosen to represent the nation in a contest that drew a thousand entries. When Abdulla al Maainah saw details of a competition in a newspaper 38 years ago, he knew he had to participate. The advertisement came out of Sheikh Zayed's royal diwan, and it solicited entries from artists to submit flag designs. The unification of the emirates was to be announced three months later, and the grand occasion was still missing an official flag.

This is the story of Abdulla al Maainah, the current ambassador to South Korea and the man credited with the design of the UAE's flag. He was raised in Ras al Khaimah and Abu Dhabi in an artistically inclined family. From an early age he took up the hobby of drawing, though he was always "serious about school". He recalls the time leading up to the birth of his nation when, aged 19, he submitted his designs for the country's flag.

"There was a day or two left for the deadline in the ad, and I didn't have the right equipment. So I rushed out to get what I needed, and in one night I stayed up and drew my designs, and put them in an album and worried about not making the deadline." He entered six designs in the competition, which, according to him, drew a total of 1,030 designs. The committee in charge of choosing the winning design narrowed down the entries to six; among them was one of al Maainah's flags.

"The papers ran the six nominated designs, but back then, all papers were in black and white. So I wasn't certain that one of the flags was mine. It looked like mine, but there were no colours, so I couldn't know for certain." Today, meeting the man behind the country's flag design might draw some awe. But back then, al Maainah says, there was no real fanfare to commemorate the occasion. No one contacted him to inform him his design was one of six being considered, and when his design was finally chosen for the country's flag, no one threw the usual high-honour festivities that we might expect today. He did not even know for sure that it was his design until he travelled down to the Mushrif Palace, where the flag was raised at the announcement of the unification.

"One day after announcing the unification, I was still unsure that it was my design," he reveals. "None of the announcements were in colour. So I went down to the Mushrif Palace to see for myself. I recognised it right away when I saw it. It was my design. I was so happy. People were excited about the unification, but I was the happiest of all." The colours and stripes of the current flag have specific meaning, and nothing in the design came about by accident. The observant eye might notice the colour theme of the flag is also present in most Arab flags, and there is historical reason for this.

"The colours represent the colours of the Arab revolution," al Maainah explains. He is referring to the Arab Revolt of 1916, initiated by Sherif Hussein ibn Ali, who worked closely with Lawrence of Arabia, against the Ottoman Empire, with the aim of establishing an Arab state that would have spanned from Turkey's current southern border to Yemen. The four colours in the flag are known as the pan-Arab colours, and are present in six other flags that represent Arab nations: Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Sudan, Syria and Palestine. Other Arab flags incorporate some combination of these colours.

Rooted in the flag of the Arab Revolt, the four colours each represent an era in the region since the inception of Islam. Black is for the early years of Islam, which includes the time of the Prophet and the first two caliphates: the Umayyads based in Damascus followed by the Abbasids based in Baghdad. The latter's rule continued from 750AD to 1258AD, and reached as far west as modern day Algeria to as far east as India.

Green represents the Fatimids Caliphate, which ruled out of Egypt from 909AD to 1171AD over an area that spanned all of north Africa, the west coast of the Arabian Penninsula, the Levant, as well as Malta and Sicily. Red was the colour of the Ottoman flag. Before unification, the emirates had a red and white flag. White represents both a concept and a historic period. "White is for philanthropy," says al Maainah. "It's for charity and good deeds. The white flag also has its own sacredness. It represents the sovereignty of the state, and gives one a sense of pride."

Today the white flag has international meaning recognised by the Geneva Conventions. But it also has special significance in early Islamic history. It was raised after the Prophet's first victory on the battlefield, in the Battle of Badr, when he overpowered his opponents in Mecca and for the first time began to establish himself as a political and military force. The Umayyads later used white in their flag as a symbol to commemorate this early victory, and to differentiate themselves from their Baghdad rivals, the Abbasids, who used black in their flag and in the uniform of their trained battalions. The flag of the Arab Revolt looks very similar to the UAE flag, except the red is in a triangle.

Maybe it is because of the country's young age that there has been little local attention to the man who designed the flag. Chances are, few young Emiratis know the story, and the elders who do know it might be able to recollect it from first-hand memory. Even al Maainah seems oblivious to his special place in his country's history. Indeed, it would be years later, when a Korean journalist interviewed al Maainah, that the press and the diplomatic corps caught on, and the story slowly drifted home.

"For us, it is quite an ordinary thing," he says. "But in other countries, designing the country's flag is an extraordinary thing."