UFOs, hi­jack­ings and threats to the UAE in times past

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ed Athol Yates Me­d­ina Pub­lish­ing Dh45

The United Arab Emi­rates has been spared the dev­as­ta­tion of con­flict at home. Our earthquakes are mild, our shores are not swamped by tsunamis, ma­jor epi­demics gen­er­ally pass us by. How­ever, this coun­try, like any other, needs to be equipped to deal with the chal­lenges to what can be de­scribed as our “civil se­cu­rity” that are posed by nat­u­ral dis­as­ters or man-made events.

A cou­ple of years ago, Athol Yates, a pro­fes­sor at Khal­ifa Uni­ver­sity, be­gan to col­lect in­for­ma­tion on past threats to our civil so­ci­ety so he could teach his stu­dents about them. Find­ing lit­tle avail­able in the way of aca­demic stud­ies, Yates and a few helpers turned to the files of old news­pa­pers. The re­sult is a fas­ci­nat­ing book fo­cus­ing on the 1970s and ti­tled Catas­tro­phes, Crashes and Crimes in the UAE.

Now avail­able for the gen­eral public, the book re­pro­duces a se­lec­tion of orig­i­nal sto­ries taken from now-de­funct pub­li­ca­tions such as Gulf Weekly Mir­ror, which was based in Bahrain and, later, Dubai. Other sto­ries are from Abu Dhabi News, which was based in the cap­i­tal and was founded be­fore the Fed­er­a­tion. It later be­came UAE News and, later still, Emi­rates News, of which I was manag­ing ed­i­tor from 1985 to 1999.

For old-timers, the book will bring back mem­o­ries. And for those who can’t re­mem­ber as far back as the 1970s, there is much that sheds light on the way things were.

One high­light are the five hi­jack­ing dra­mas in Dubai in July 1973, De­cem­ber 1973, Novem­ber 1974, June 1977 and Oc­to­ber 1977. In sev­eral, Sheikh Mo­hammed bin Rashid played a lead­ing role, be­ing de­scribed in an Oc­to­ber 1977 head­line as the “Cool man on the hot line”.

An­other story, from Oc­to­ber 1977, cov­ers the shock­ing as­sas­si­na­tion of the UAE’s Min­is­ter of State for For­eign Af­fairs, Saif Ghobash, at Abu Dhabi Air­port.

Also well-cov­ered is Iran’s oc­cu­pa­tion of the is­lands of Greater and Lesser Tunb in Novem­ber 1971, just be­fore the fed­er­a­tion was es­tab­lished. Abu Dhabi News led its story with the para­graph: “Iran’s in­va­sion of the two tiny Gulf is­lands of Greater Tunb and Lesser Tunb cast a dark shadow over the of­fi­cial for­ma­tion of the Union of Arab Emi­rates.” More than 45 years later, the oc­cu­pa­tion con­tin­ues. Earthquakes, cy­clones and floods? There are a plethora of those, in­clud­ing the “worst ever storm” in Fe­bru­ary 1974, when the sea wall on Abu Dhabi’s Cor­niche was breached. Power cuts were com­mon: in Au­gust 1975, more than half of Dubai was blacked out for hours be­cause of a fire in the main power sta­tion.

Mar­itime in­ci­dents? In Septem­ber 1972, 70 peo­ple were res­cued from a sink­ing dhow near the Umm Shaif oil­field. In July 1978, five peo­ple drowned off Ras Al Khaimah on their way to a wed­ding.

Mov­ing on to ho­tel fires, one in April 1976 at the long-van­ished Omar Khayyam Ho­tel in Abu Dhabi saw seven peo­ple die when an il­le­gally built roof ex­ten­sion caught fire. Tough new fire pre­cau­tions were promptly in­tro­duced.

Re­ports of crimes are there in abun­dance. In Oc­to­ber 1972, 15 peo­ple were con­victed of beg­ging dur­ing Ra­madan, while in June 1974 there were re­ports of forged Dh50 cur­rency notes. In De­cem­ber 1974, a bank clerk in Khor Fakkan tried to carry out an armed rob­bery of his own branch, even­tu­ally com­mit­ting sui­cide when the at­tempt failed.

In Fe­bru­ary 1976, the Gulf Weekly Mir­ror re­ported that a “pass­port scan­dal” had prompted “a big il­le­gal im­mi­gra­tion clam­p­down”. At that time, vis­i­tors with a re­turn air ticket could de­posit their pass­ports on ar­rival and ob­tain a 96-hour tran­sit visa. The pa­per re­ported that “the num­ber of un­claimed pass­ports col­lected dur­ing the past year puts the fig­ure at nearly 50,000.” Back then the to­tal pop­u­la­tion was less than 625,000.

In Septem­ber 1976, an at­tempt to smug­gle about 1,200 il­le­gal im­mi­grants into the UAE ended in tragedy when more than 170 drowned.

In De­cem­ber 1978, there were re­ports of a UFO in Dubai, which was tracked by a po­lice car and a pa­trol boat be­fore dis­ap­pear­ing. Whether or not it was the same one al­legedly seen over Shar­jah a cou­ple of months later was never re­solved. In Au­gust 1976, a cam­paign to erad­i­cate malaria was to be launched. It was suc­cess­ful: all cases to­day are of peo­ple who ar­rive in the coun­try al­ready in­fected with the dis­ease. In April 1978, it was an­nounced that the UAE was free of small­pox.

All this and more is con­tained in Yates’s com­pi­la­tion of the Catas­tro­phes, Crashes and Crimes from yesteryears. It’s a fas­ci­nat­ing read whether or not you be­lieve UFOs have ever scouted Shar­jah.

Peter Hel­lyer is a con­sul­tant spe­cial­is­ing in the UAE’s his­tory and cul­ture.

Courtesy Me­d­ina Pub­lish­ing

In Catas­tro­phes, Crashes and Crimes in the UAE, Athol Yates re­vives sto­ries from now-de­funct pub­li­ca­tions.

Catas­tro­phes, Crashes and Crimes in the UAE: News­pa­per ar­ti­cles of the 1970s

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