x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

The Lawrence of Ras Al Khaimah

Major Tim Ash, who died last week at age 79, arrived in the northern Emirates in the 1960s for an 18-month tour and stayed for 22 years.

Major Tim Ash, whose gift for the language, combined with his empathy for the local culture, enabled him to win acceptance by mountain tribes of Ras Al Khaimah.
Major Tim Ash, whose gift for the language, combined with his empathy for the local culture, enabled him to win acceptance by mountain tribes of Ras Al Khaimah.

Major Tim Ash, who has died aged 79, arrived in the northern Emirates for an 18-month posting in the 1960s and stayed for 22 years. In that time, he became a good friend to Arabs in the region and left a lasting impression on what would become the UAE.

The historian Dr Saif bin Aboud Al Bedwawi remembers a letter he once sent to Major Tim Ash. "You are", he wrote, "the Lawrence of Ras Al Khaimah."

His old friend's reply was typically both droll and self-effacing: "I am Ash of Ras Al Khaimah."

As an epitaph, it is entirely fitting. Ash of Ras Al Khaimah, who died last week aged 79, was no adventurer with a lust for self-glorification and the ego to match.

Instead, he was one of that rare breed of early expatriates who came to this region ready to give more than they took, and whose passing is mourned on two continents.

His story, though less than five decades old, does carry some echoes of the celebrated T E Lawrence of Arabia.

At the end of his time in the UAE, Ash had found his way into the lives and hearts of many in the Northern Emirates - though not as a warrior, but as a trusted friend.

Ash arrived in the northern emirates in the early 1960s for what he thought was a short posting. A career soldier who joined the Royal Signals regiment of the British army in 1951, he had already served in Germany, Libya, Malta and Egypt when a notice was posted seeking volunteers for the Trucial Oman Scouts, a paramilitary force with British officers and Arab soldiers.

Ash wrote later of a large map on the wall of the communication centre where he was then serving.

"I looked for the Trucial Oman States [as the UAE was then known], but there was a large blank under the word 'Oman' at the south-eastern end of the [Arabian] Gulf and nothing further on the precise location of the Trucial Oman."

Posted to Aden for a crash course in Arabic, Ash showed a gift for the language unusual among his compatriates. But as Dr Al Bedwawi recalls, he still had much to learn about the Arabs of the Gulf.

Initially joining the signals squadron at Sharjah's Al Mahatah camp in 1964, he was put in charge of Sawt Al Sahel min Al Imarate Al Mutasaliha (Voice of the Coast from the Trucial States), an Arabic-language station run by the British Foreign Office.

He later recalled: "The station's main aim was to provide listeners with Arabic music as well as supplying local news. The world news was taken from the BBC, but it had to go to the Agency in Dubai first for checking before being broadcast. The station broadcast about six hours a day and had its own transmitter."

Four years later, after receiving his commission, Ash was appointed District Intelligence Officer for the Scouts in Ras Al Khaimah but soon realised that to develop any meaningful relationship with the local population, he must immerse himself in their culture.

Accordingly, he set out for Madhah, the home village of his driver, Saif Khamis Al Kaabi, spending several weeks with tribal elders, learning everything from eating dates and drinking coffee to sitting Bedouin-style and the art of gently eliciting news and information from the locals in a way that did not make them uneasy or suspicious.

On his return, he abandoned the army-assigned home near the beach in the city - complete with driver, cook and orderly - and moved into a house near the foot of the mountains at Hubaydah, more suited to welcome his Arab guests.

His gift for the language - and its obscure local dialects - combined with his empathy for the local culture enabled Ash to win acceptance by mountain tribes of Ras Al Khaimah notorious for their suspicion towards outsiders, even their costal neighbours.

Over time, Ash was able to win the trust of the Shahuh and Habous when there was concern that the area might become caught up in the growing internal conflict in neighbouring Oman.

"He was a friend who brought peace to the area with his courage and patience," says Dr Al Bedwawi, who met Ash first as a schoolboy and became a close friend while researching his doctorate on the withdrawal of the British before unification in 1971.

Saif Al Hubsi was five years old when he first met Ash, who used his father as a guide in the mountains and became "a very close friend".

The British officer enjoyed taking meals with them: "He liked the Arabic breakfast," Mr Al Habsi recalls.

This "hearts and minds" approach won him many friends. Mountain tribesmen knew that in case of sickness, Ash would drive them to the nearest clinic or arrange for the Trucial Oman Scouts to fly them to Sharjah Hospital.

He was a regular figure at social occasions and weddings, opening his house for Eid, offering local dishes and giving presents to children.

All this had a more serious purpose. Acting as a liaison between Sheikh Saqr bin Mohammed Al Qasimi, the then Ruler of Ras Al Khaimah, and the mountain tribes, Ash was able to gain important intelligence, including the acquisition of guns and explosives that might otherwise have found their way to supporters of the Dhofar rebellion in Ras Musandam.

Many disputes between the local tribes were also resolved under his patient guidance at the majlis in his Hubaydah house.

In time, says Dr Al Bedwawi, he became regarded as a member of the main tribes, accorded the status almost of a sheikh. "He was the first person they brought their problems to," says Dr Al Bedwawi.

It was at this time that Ash met his second wife. Ruth Willis was a nurse working at the emirate's first hospital, set up by the Trucial Development Office.

The story is told that her name proved too much of a mouthful for Sheikh Saqr, who decided that she should be called "Miriam" after the mother of Jesus, who appears in both the Quran and the Bible. And so "Doctora Miriam" she became.

The couple met in the 1970s when they both lived in Ras Al Khaimah. After being made a Member of the British Empire for his services to the military, Ash took a posting in Oman in 1972.

The couple married in 1977, but the modest civil ceremony in Dubai seemed inadequate to the local tribes. Instead, they organised a traditional Hubsi wedding, much to the new Mrs Ash's astonishment.

She recalled the occasion in a letter to her cousin: "On Thursday more goodies started appearing ... rice, pounds of spices and coffee, incense and rose water, large missionary pots for cooking.

"Then everything hotted up, the guests started to arrive and I got dressed in my finery. "However, I was confined with the ladies to the bedroom for most of it and just let out every now and then to meet some favoured guest".

Ash made continued to make regular visits to Ras Al Khaimah and returned soon after at the request of the ruler and was able to pursue his love of archaeology, supervising excavations and founding the Ras Al Khaimah Museum.

General Abdullah Al Kaabi described Ash as "a distinguished man who knew how to forge himself a prominent position among the people of the region, especially that he was accepted among the mountain tribes that were much more conservative and reserved back then."

"He came for 18 months and stayed for 22 years," says Dr Bedwawi. "He loved the Arabs, he loved the Bedu."

"He once told me, 'I was a happy man in Ras Al Khaimah.'"

jlangton@thenational.ae