x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Sheikh Saqr, Ruler of RAK, a man of the people

Sheikh Saqr bin Mohammed al Qasimi, the Ruler of Ras al Khaimah, who was born in 1920 and was believed to be the world’s second-longest serving monarch, has died.

Sheikh Saqr bin Mohammed al Qasimi, the Ruler of Ras al Khaimah.
Sheikh Saqr bin Mohammed al Qasimi, the Ruler of Ras al Khaimah.

RAS AL KHAIMAH // His Highness Sheikh Saqr bin Mohammed al Qasimi, the Ruler of Ras al Khaimah and a member of the UAE’s Supreme Council of Rulers, has died.

Sheikh Saqr, who was born in 1920, was believed to be the world’s second-longest serving monarch and belonged to the same generation as the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al Nahyan, founder of the nation. 

In recent years, due to his failing health, much of the burden of Government has been undertaken by his fourth son, Sheikh Saud, who became Crown Prince in 2003 and succeeds him as Ruler and member of the Supreme Council.

Sheikh Saqr, whose father had been ruler of RAK, came to power in January 1948, taking over from his cousin, Sheikh Sultan bin Salim. 

After the collapse of the pearl fishing industry in the Gulf in the 1930s, there had been increasing poverty among the tribes of RAK. When he took power in 1948, Sheikh Saqr invested his own money in restoring the country's dilapidated falaj irrigation system to improve agriculture. But probably his greatest legacy to his people was his commitment to, and investment in, education. With considerable foresight, Sheikh Saqr understood it was only through education that RAK could progress in the world. 

Sheikh Saqr appealed to the Kuwaiti and Egyptian governments to send teachers to RAK, to teach at the emirate’s first schools: a collection of tents outside Sheikh Saqr’s fort that served 34 pupils who studied maths, Arabic and religion. He also arranged scholarships to send children to other Gulf states.

In 1956, he established the emirate’s first girls’ school, Khawla bint al Azwar, which stood near where the e-Government building is today.

So committed was Sheikh Saqr to education that he hired guards to prevent boys skipping class. He supervised, and at times disciplined, classes personally. His own children attended his schools, sharing desks with other students and receiving the same treatment. He believed in education for all and his own daughters were educated at university.

In an interview with The National in February last year, the Crown Prince, Sheikh Saud, said his father’s vision of universal education extended to all children in the emirate.
"He believed that Bedouin, seamen, farmers, that everyone can have their future for education,” said Sheikh Saud.

Sheikh Saqr also saw economic development, particularly in areas such as tourism, as imperative for the emirate’s stability and long-term security and was a champion of tolerance and partnership. He understood that cooperation was essential for RAK to prosper in today’s world.

Throughout his long reign, one of his principal concerns was the issue of the Tunb islands. From 1968 onwards, Sheikh Saqr had been deeply involved in the discussions between the rulers of the emirates of the then Trucial States on the formation of the new federation of the United Arab Emirates. However, in July 1971 he declined to agree to join the new state at its formation on  December 2, 1971.  

As that day approached, Iran stepped up its claims to the islands of Greater Tunb and Lesser Tunb, near the Straits of Hormuz at the mouth of the Arabian Gulf. Resisting Iranian pressure and advice from the British, who still then controlled the Emirates, Sheikh Saqr refused to surrender the islands, which had been ruled from Ras al Khaimah for more than 250 years. 

On the night of November 30, 1971, Iranian forces invaded the Tunbs, despite the resolute resistance of the RAK police on the islands. Recognising the future of his emirate was best guaranteed within the framework of the UAE,  Sheikh Saqr sent written word to Sheikh Zayed that RAK would join the UAE on February 10, 1972, on the understanding that the UAE would not withdraw its claims to the Tunb islands. 

In the 39 years that have passed since then, Sheikh Saqr steadfastly argued for efforts to be maintained to recover the occupied islands. 

In RAK, Sheikh Saqr will be remembered for his respect for citizens and residents alike.

Sheikh Saqr held an open diwan where citizens and residents could meet  him directly to talk about their concerns. Sheikh Saqr worked with five men to listen and solve each problem, regardless of how big or how small. His diwan was open five days a week from 7am to 1pm until he eventually grew too old to continue the meetings.

Mohammed Saif, 65, who worked in the private diwan from 1972, remembers Sheikh Saqr as a trusted confidant to his people. He told The National last year that it was the Ruler’s ability to relate to all people that was at the core of his successful leadership.

Through this dedication, he united the bedouin of the desert, the badi of the mountains, all ages and nationalities. In RAK today, goat-herders on lonely mountain tops still keep portraits of the Sheikh visiting tribal rulers in the 1950s. Young men today decorate their cars with his portrait and women pin his photo to their abaya and wear scarves embossed with his portrait at celebrations.

For more than six decades, he maintained the respect and trust of his people by balancing the future and the past. Emiratis and expatriates of all ages called him “father”. Virtually every family in the emirate has a personal story about lessons learned first hand from the Sheikh.

Although, through his education and development policies, he played a critical role in transforming and modernising Ras al Khaimah, he was also deeply aware of the importance of the past and its  traditions. Keenly interested in the history of his emirate and of his family, who have ruled for more than 300 years, he encouraged archaeological excavations at the old port-city of Julfar, just north of the town of Ras al Khaimah, that have shown that it was an important trading centre for more than 1,000 years. 

His last public appearance was in February last year at a celebration to mark his 61 years of rule. For months before and after, citizens produced art, theatre, music and poetry in his honour. Sheikh Saqr did not attend the celebrations but was chauffeured past in his trademark white Rolls-Royce Phantom with his number 1 licence plate. Thousands paraded to the royal palace in March to present him with a  letter signed by an estimated 120,000 people expressing their affection and respect for the man who ruled and united RAK for so many years.

He is survived by seven sons: Saud, Ahmed, Faisal, Khalid, Mohammed, Omar, Talib. One son, Sheikh Sultan, died in December last year.