x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Sifting history from the sand

In the Center for Documentation & Research archives, one can find the first contracts establishing sovereignty amid colourful dispatches about the life in the country.

Like many new arrivals in the capital, the American consul found there were pros and cons to living here. Traffic in Abu Dhabi had more than doubled in six months, he noted, taxi drivers often ignored the rules of the road and the cost of renting accommodation had gone through the roof. "Driving into town, one notices immediately the increase in vehicular traffic," he wrote back to his employers in Washington. "At a guess, there are two or three times as many cars and trucks in operation as six months ago. "The Land Rover or something else with 4-wheel drive is still the vehicle of choice ? also, to an American it is very noticeable that traffic in Abu Dhabi now drives on the right - at least when the driver remembers." If all this has a familiar ring to it, then ponder on the date it was written: Nov 16 1966. The consul can hardly have guessed that more than four decades on most of his observations would still ring true, despite the enormous strides the city has made in the interim. Nor can he have imagined his letter would have helped archivists to piece together a picture of life in the emerging UAE during a period of massive change - but where few records previously existed. It forms part of a collection of documents painstakingly gathered over the years by the Center for Documentation & Research in Abu Dhabi, a treasury of the nation's archival records which offers a fascinating insight into the burgeoning nation as it was taking shape. As the centre prepared to mark its 40th anniversary next Saturday, its director spoke about the significance of its work. "The centre was established late in 1968," said Abdullah al Reyes. "It came about because when Sheikh Zayed was ruler of Abu Dhabi in 1966, he asked for the treaties sent between the British government and Abu Dhabi. He wanted to know what his obligations were so he could abide by them but he was told those documents were in the British archives. "That was when he decided to establish a database of documents here in the UAE. There were lots of nations around the world which had dealings with our country in those early days and it was decided to bring all their records under one roof." Once they started pulling together significant documents, archivists realised they had their work cut out. With papers scattered all over the world, it took numerous delegations many years to comb through the records of different countries and find references to the region. Back in 1968, with the foundation of the UAE still three years away, the team of researchers found two rooms in Qasr al Hosn fort were enough to house their findings. Most of the discoveries they brought back to the Gulf were not original documents but photocopies, albeit sepia-tinted to add a flavour of authenticity. There were maps of Arabia from the 1500s; letters sent back and forth between British and American consuls and their bosses, describing the delicate negotiations before withdrawing from the region; rare photos of Sheikh Zayed's state visits to other nations, taking part in regional dances and sitting cross-legged and barefoot with a US camera crew in the 1970s; copies of every speech he ever made and 40,000 books, including a number of first editions. Eventually, the expanding archives outgrew their tiny home and, three years ago, were moved into the centre's spectacular Dh100 million circular glass-and-sandstone building on the outskirts of the city, where they are managed by a team of 140. Open to the public by appointment, the collection is mostly used by academics. Most of the records have been transferred from paper files stored in dusty cardboard boxes to digital documents available at the touch of a button, while newspaper archives dating back to the 1970s are housed in a humidity-controlled environment. More than half the records were sourced from British archives, but others came from as far afield as the US, Russia, Japan, Turkey and the Vatican, as well as from the collections of oil companies and individuals. An archive of photographs set up in 1974 has accumulated thousands of pictures, including one of Sheikh Zayed's grandfather sitting in his majlis in Qasr al Hosn in 1904, surrounded by his followers. Some of the documents give vivid descriptions of everyday life. One American official writing in 1966 described how a "near riot takes place every day at the Beach hotel, Abu Dhabi's sole public accommodation, which has 28 rooms. "The hotel is unable to accommodate all the new arrivals, even those who have confirmed reservations, because present tenants have not finished their business and refuse to move out. "People are even staying at the British agency, Abu Dhabi Petrol Company facilities, homes of managers and even the ruler's guesthouse is packed. (Some say that when a visitor is especially unwelcome he is put in the ruler's guesthouse to encourage an early departure)." Abu Dhabi taxi drivers, he added, "are doing a thriving business in taking them on to Dubai, four dusty hours away". Anyone despairing of finding affordable accommodation in Abu Dhabi today should spare a thought for those house-hunting in the late 1960s, when a two-bedroom apartment "suitable for a senior expat Arab" soared from US$1,263 (Dh4,640) a year to US$1,474 - then a considerable amount - in a matter of months. But as tough as the housing crisis was, and still is, one clear difference between then and now was the issue of feeding the exploding population. Although food prices have been a cause of concern in recent times, the problem in the 1960s was of a "shortage of food stores to feed foreign tourists", which escalated into such a crisis that the British agent had to send an SOS to Bahrain. Many of the British and US officials described Sheikh Zayed in detail in correspondence. In a document marked confidential, Sir William Luce, a British political resident in Bahrain in 1962, wrote: "The population of the nine Buraimi villages are peaceful and contented, particularly now that more money ? is becoming available through Sheikh Zayed. "New houses are being built, old irrigation channels are being brought back into use, and many pumps have been installed in wells. "Agriculture is on the increase and there is a general air of growing prosperity. Sheikh Zayed is popular and respected, both in the oasis and among the surrounding Bedu, and his influence has increased with the annual funds at his disposal." Martin Buckmaster, a British political officer in Abu Dhabi from 1955 to 1958, described how Sheikh Zayed funded a new souq in Al Ain. His other achievements had included installing an irrigation system to water mango and palm trees in half the usual time. "I find him in excellent spirits, more tranquil and relaxed than in Abu Dhabi; and it is clear from the large numbers of people whom I met at his majlis ? that his popularity is high," he wrote. Buckmaster painted a fascinating picture of the festivities for the royal wedding of a member of Sheikh Shakhbut's family. "The wedding between his youngest daughter Raudha and the Sheikh's son Mohammed, which took place on August 15 and was the highlight of the Buraimi 'season' had done much to raise his prestige locally," he wrote. "The celebrations lasted for a full week before the wedding and for the two great feasts, one for the men and one for the women, 11 camels and over 130 herds of sheep and goats were slaughtered. "I gather that over a lac of [100,000] rupees was spent on this wedding - Rs70,000 on the presents, which were exhibited before most of the womenfolk of the oasis on the eve of the marriage, and Rs30,000 on the food etc." He commented that "such lavishness" was in contrast to Shakhbut's reputation for frugality, "and several people have remarked to me on the change that has come over him. "In fact, he is now paying out considerably more to his family - his three brothers, his mother, his cousin Mohammed bin Khalifah - than formerly, and some of this money finds its way to the tribesmen." It says much about Sheikh Zayed's popularity that key surviving British officials from his era are planning to return to Abu Dhabi to speak at a three-day conference, starting on Nov 23, to mark the centre's anniversary. They are expected to include James Treadwell, a British political agent in Abu Dhabi from 1968 to 1971 and the first British ambassador in the UAE after its formation, and Julian Walker, a British diplomat posted to Abu Dhabi in the 1950s who wrote about his experiences in the 1999 book Tyro on the Trucial Coast. The celebrations will include a week-long bus tour of the centre's work around each emirate as well as history competitions for schoolchildren. Jayanti Maitra, who is organising the conference, said: "We are incredibly privileged to have all these officials whose memories have formed the history of the UAE as we know it." tyaqoob@thenational.ae