The UAE in books

The Emi­rates have long in­spired vis­i­tors to com­mit their thoughts to pa­per, James Lang­ton writes

The National - News - The Review - - Front Page - James Lang­ton is a se­nior editor at The Na­tional.

From the mem­oirs of di­plo­mats' wives to out-of-print aca­demic texts, James Lang­ton scans his book­shelf for no­table ti­tles about the Emi­rates as a new his­tory, Keep­ers of the Golden Shore: A His­tory of the United Arab Emi­rates by Michael Quentin Mor­ton is pub­lished

A first glance along the shelves of the coun­try’s book­shops will re­veal that the his­tory of the UAE is largely told, at least in English, largely through the mem­oir.

The most pop­u­lar of th­ese – so much so that it can even be pur­chased at mo­tor­way ser­vice sta­tions – is Mo­hammed Al Fahim’s best-sell­ing Rags to Riches, a lively, some­times pas­sion­ate ac­count of a child­hood in pre-oil Abu Dhabi that is un­flinch­ing in the tribu­la­tions of that age, that in­cluded the death of his mother in child­birth in 1962 when the com­mu­nity still lacked a proper hos­pi­tal.

As a se­quel to those times, Pa­tri­cia Holton (a pseu­do­nym) pro­vides a vivid ac­count of her ex­pe­ri­ences of 70s Abu Dhabi – in­clud­ing ar­riv­ing at the city’s new Hil­ton ho­tel along a sand track – through the lens of a lo­cal fam­ily, in Mother

With­out a Mask.

Ron­ald Codrai was an oil man as­signed to the Emi­rates shortly af­ter the Se­cond World War and an en­thu­si­as­tic and tal­ented pho­tog­ra­pher. While heav­ily pic­to­rial, his twin Ara­bian Ad­ven­ture vol­umes, one on Dubai, the other on Abu Dhabi, fea­ture di­ary ex­tracts that com­bine to cre­ate a vivid por­trait of life in what were then called the Tru­cial States, 60 years ago. Wil­fred Th­e­siger’s Ara­bian

Sands, first pub­lished in 1959 but still in print and with the of­fi­cial sta­tus of a Pen­guin Clas­sic, de­tails two voy­ages across the Empty Quar­ter or Rub Al Khali, and fea­tures a no­table en­counter with Sheikh Zayed in Al Ain, while con­clud­ing on what is now the Abu Dhabi Cor­niche but was then a beach lined with fish­ing boats.

Most re­cently The Gulf Wife, pub­lished in 2014, is Jo­ce­lyn Hen­der­son’s ac­count of a life largely spent in the re­gion with her hus­band, Ed­ward Hen­der­son, a Bri­tish diplo­mat who wit­nessed the birth of the UAE and then stayed to cre­ate what is now the Na­tional Ar­chives.

There is some life be­yond the bi­og­ra­phy. David Heard’s From

Pearls to Oil, pub­lished in 2012, is a metic­u­lous ac­count of a swash­buck­ling era in the 1930s when the pe­tro­leum in­dus­try bar­gained with the rul­ing sheikhs for a prize both hoped would bring them wealth.

So re­mote was the in­te­rior of Abu Dhabi in those days that tribes­men fled in ter­ror at the sight of a mo­tor car and the sound of its horn. Heard is mar­ried to Frauke Heard-Bey (the cou­ple have lived in Abu Dhabi since the 1960s), a Ger­man-born aca­demic whose so­cial and political his­tory, From Tru­cial States to United Arab Emi­rates was pub­lished in 2004 and thus is less easy to find.

The hardcore his­tory buff will need a credit card and per­sis­tence to build a col­lec­tion. Su­san Hill­yard’s Be­fore the Oil is an es­sen­tial, lov­ing and highly read­able ac­count of Abu Dhabi in the mid1950s. A young Bri­tish mother of a tod­dler, Hill­yard, whose hus­band Tim had been re­cruited to de­velop the emi­rate’s off­shore con­ces­sion, im­mersed her­self in life changed be­yond recog­ni­tion by those same oil­fields. She was en­cour­aged to write a book by Sheikh Zayed, who told her: “You are the only per­son who re­mem­bers Abu Dhabi as it was.” De­spite Hill­yard posthu­mously win­ning an Abu Dhabi Award, the book, only pub­lished in 2002, is sadly – ab­surdly – now out of print. Se­cond-hand copies can some­times be found for Dh400 and up.

Even deeper pock­ets are re­quired for Roderic Owen’s The Golden Bub­ble, subti­tled Ara­bian Gulf

Doc­u­men­tary. A bril­liant if un­con­ven­tional writer, Owen vis­ited Abu Dhabi as the guest of the Hill­yards and formed a bond with the Ruler, Sheikh Shakhbut, styling him­self as court poet. He also es­tab­lished the proper use of the Ara­bian, rather than Per­sian, Gulf. Rare copies of The Golden Bub­ble can fetch in the thou­sands of dirhams; copies of Owen’s se­quel,

Away to Eden, which also in­cludes a chap­ter on Abu Dhabi and the ar­rival of the ex­plo­ration rig that first struck oil, are a frac­tion of this.

Still in the se­cond-hand book­shop, we find Edna O’Brien’s 1978 Ara­bian Days in which the great Ir­ish writer comes to Abu Dhabi on an as­sign­ment to meet Sheikh Zayed and ex­pe­ri­ences a cul­tural con­fu­sion that is al­most psy­che­delic.

Sec­tions of Farewell to Ara­bia by the dis­tin­guished for­eign correspondent David Holden deal with boom­town Abu Dhabi in the 1960s (Holden was mur­dered in sus­pi­cious cir­cum­stances in Cairo in 1977), as does Jonathan Ra­ban’s Ara­bia, still in print, for the next decade. A whiff of pes­simism hangs over both ac­counts.

A solid and still in­ex­pen­sive se­cond-hand read is Don­ald Haw­ley’s The Tru­cial States, pub­lished just a year be­fore the for­ma­tion of the UAE and so it only takes the reader to 1970. Haw­ley was a political agent, as the Bri­tish called their di­plo­mats in the pro­tec­torate of the Gulf, and worked closely with Sheikh Rashid of Dubai as he un­veiled his am­bi­tions for the emi­rate. A gen­uine odd­ity is Ray­mond O’Shea’s Sand Kings of Oman, pub­lished in 1947. O’Shea was a Bri­tish air­man based in Shar­jah dur­ing the Se­cond World War who wrote about his ex­pe­ri­ences in the emi­rate but also claimed to have dis­cov­ered a lost city in the sands, de­spite us­ing a pho­to­graph of Mus­cat cas­tle as proof. Copies of his book are al­most as hard to lo­cate as his At­lantis of the desert. For the more se­ri­ous his­to­rian, He­lene von Bis­marck’s Bri­tish Pol­icy in the Per­sian Gulf, 1961-1968 is ex­pen­sive, at Dh270 for the e-book alone, but worth it for the depth in which she ex­plores the machi­na­tions of Her Majesty’s Govern­ment in the re­gion.

Ge­of­frey Bibby’s clas­sic Look­ing for Dil­mun is a joy­ous (and in­ex­pen­sive) ac­count of early ar­chae­o­log­i­cal digs in the Gulf dur­ing the 1950s and 60s, and in­cludes a sec­tion on the an­cient struc­tures at Umm Al Nar, the is­land that lies just off the Maqta cross­ing and is now more fa­mil­iar for its oil re­fin­ery.

By now the bookcase of our UAE his­tory fan is over­filled, just as their bank ac­count is de­pleted. And this is even with­out John Gor­don Lorimer’s 5,000-page Gazetteer of the Per­sian Gulf, Oman and Cen­tral Ara­bia, pub­lished in 1908 but still avail­able in sev­eral hefty vol­umes as a re­pro­duc­tion from Cam­bridge Univer­sity Press for Dh12,000.

Which brings us, with apolo­gies and ad­mit­tedly rather the long way round, to Keep­ers of the Golden Shore by Michael Quentin Mor­ton, and pub­lished this month by Reak­tion Books. Subti­tled A His­tory of the United Arab Emi­rates, the book ac­tu­ally cov­ers the coun­try from pre­his­tory to the present day in less than 250 pages.

If Keep­ers of the Golden Shore does not in any way ren­der all those pre­vi­ous ti­tles un­nec­es­sary, it is at least a wel­come, read­able and much needed start­ing point for new read­ers and new ar­rivals to the UAE who want a bet­ter un­der­stand­ing of the peo­ple and places around them.

Mor­ton’s con­nec­tion with the re­gion comes through his father, a highly-re­garded pe­tro­leum ge­ol­o­gist from the 1940s to the 1960s, at which point the fam­ily, in­clud­ing young Michael, were liv­ing in Abu Dhabi. In re­cent years Mor­ton has pub­lished sev­eral works of lo­cal in­ter­est, in­clud­ing Bu­raimi: The Strug­gle for Power, In­flu­ence and Oil in Ara­bia and, last year, The Third River, no less than a his­tory of oil ex­plo­ration in the Middle East.

Keep­ers of the Golden Shore could be seen as his most am­bi­tious work yet, if only be­cause it stands alone in what, on the sur­face, seems like quite a crowded field. There are a lot of his­tory books re­lat­ing to the UAE, but his­to­ries of the UAE, cer­tainly ones still in print and on sale here, are some­thing of a rar­ity.

Why should this be the case? Per­haps it is be­cause the UAE is such a young coun­try that has yet to con­struct an agreed nar­ra­tive of its past, par­tic­u­larly when so many of those in­volved are around to de­bate it.

Mor­ton cer­tainly does not avoid what might be re­garded in some quar­ters as “sen­si­tive” or “dif­fi­cult” sub­jects, in­clud­ing the Bu­raimi cri­sis, caused by Saudi claims, backed by mil­i­tary in­ter­ven­tion, on the ter­ri­tory around what is now Al Ain in the early 1950s.

Slav­ery – which en­dured in the re­gion much later than many peo­ple are com­fort­able with – also makes an ap­pear­ance, as does some of the im­me­di­ate post-fed­eral ten­sions be­tween the seven Emi­rates, par­tic­u­larly over the is­sue of a uni­fied mil­i­tary.

But to de­scribe the book only in th­ese terms is to cre­ate the wrong im­pres­sion of what is a very care­fully con­structed and re­searched work. Mor­ton’s book is un­likely to cause of­fence, be­cause, like Hill­yard and Holton and the best of UAE au­thors, his writ­ing is suf­fused with a deep af­fec­tion and re­spect for the place.

While Mor­ton’s ac­count be­gins with pre­his­tory and the first mi­gra­tions out of Africa and across what is now the Ara­bian Penin­sula, more than half the book is de­voted to the past 100 years.

For this, Keep­ers of the Golden Shore draws from an ex­ten­sive range of pub­lished sources (in­clud­ing The Na­tional’s His­tory Pro­ject) to con­struct a de­tailed ac­count of a time that saw the Ara­bian Gulf emerge from a fief­dom of the Bri­tish Em­pire to a re­gion of in­de­pen­dent na­tions find­ing power and in­flu­ence in the age of oil.

Inevitably much of the source ma­te­rial is Bri­tish, that is to say viewed from the out­side. This is an is­sue faced by any his­to­rian of this part of the world, drawn to any­thing that pro­vides hard ev­i­dence rather than hearsay or folk mem­o­ries. As Mor­ton points out: “The Be­douin did not write things down, re­ly­ing in­stead on an oral tra­di­tion of songs and sto­ries in which the great deeds of their fore­fa­thers were re­peated over un­fath­omable pe­ri­ods of time.”

It is to his credit that the Ara­bian per­spec­tive is well rep­re­sented even if at times anec­do­tal and – for tra­di­tional his­to­ri­ans – frus­trat­ingly im­pre­cise, es­pe­cially with re­gards to time­lines, as demon­strated by the Ruler of Fu­jairah, who in the 1950s, be­rated a be­mused Bri­tish of­fi­cial about the bom­bard­ment of his fort by the Royal Navy “yes­ter­day”, re­fer­ring to an in­ci­dent that had taken place in 1925.

Nat­u­rally, some of the best tales are un­cred­ited, like the re­port that Sheikh Shakhbut bin Sul­tan’s ab­sence from the 1953 corona­tion of Queen El­iz­a­beth in Lon­don was cov­ered up by of­fer­ing his seat in West­min­ster Abbey – lit­er­ally – to the gen­er­ously up­hol­stered Queen of Tonga, Salote Tupou III.

There are also many tan­ta­lis­ing snip­pets. The Amer­i­can cannon seen by vis­i­tors to Bu­raimi was brought back from New York in 1842 on the dhow Sul­tana af­ter an epic Transat­lantic voy­age, and the Rev­erend John Ba­con in 1902 planned a cross­ing of the Rub Al Khali in a bal­loon, and would, as Mor­ton notes: “have ap­peared on this dis­tin­guished list, had he ac­com­pa­nied his mis­sion”.

For more re­cent times, Mor­ton re­minds us of the UAE’s par­tic­i­pa­tion in the First Gulf War, not­ing that so strong was the feel­ing of pa­tri­o­tism that hun­dreds “queued un­der the blaz­ing Sun to reg­is­ter in a vol­un­teer army”.

Of the coun­try’s grow­ing role on the in­ter­na­tional and re­gional stage, from send­ing po­lice to Bahrain to air strikes against ISIL in Iraq, he notes that: “If th­ese events demon­strate any­thing, it is that there is a grow­ing sense of na­tional pride and self-con­fi­dence within the UAE.”

If the reader is to draw any con­clu­sion from this story of the UAE it might be this: that the coun­try’s his­tory has seen all the con­flicts, treach­eries, blood­let­ting, tribu­la­tions and cru­el­ties of any other, but has evolved and ma­tured, in the 21st cen­tury, to a place where the fu­ture can take its lessons from the past.

As Mor­ton puts it: “If his­tory is any­thing to go by, a re­silient and pi­o­neer­ing spirit will see fu­ture gen­er­a­tions through, but the wis­dom of ear­lier gen­er­a­tions will be re­quired too.”

Delores John­son / The Na­tional

Keep­ers of the Golden Shore Michael Quentin Mor­ton Reak­tion Books Dh104

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