Sandscapes of Memory; A Different History of the UAE

Gazing around Abu Dhabi, replete with skyscrapers and modern highways, or looking down the Burj Khalifa in Dubai onto an ocean of sand dotted with ...

Aug 30, 2014

Gazing around Abu Dhabi, replete with skyscrapers and modern highways, or looking down the Burj Khalifa in Dubai onto an ocean of sand dotted with buildings, one could be forgiven for thinking there is little to UAE history. However, the history of the UAE goes beyond the idea of the timeless mystical traditions of the Bedouin.
To the Romans, the region was known as Arabia Felix, which translates to happy Arabia. It was a region which never became fully part of the Empire, because of its distance and resistance to occupation. However, this did not stop the region from becoming an integral part of world trade. Copper was mined in the Hajar Mountains and it was washed and processed in the oases of Al Ain. Copper was then sent north up the Arabian Gulf or by land on the camel caravans which ran through the Rub al-Khali, the Empty Quarter, which covers much of the South Eastern Arabian Peninsula. These wares would turn up around the Mediterranean and throughout the Middle East. Recent archaeological finds, in and around Al Ain, have contributed to this new understanding of the UAE's role in a global network of trade stretching back to 2500 BCE. These findings have shown that those who lived in what is now the UAE were particularlywealthy and lived in complex urban centers.
Later inhabitants of what would become the UAE built on this tradition of trade and engaged the rest of the world through pearls. The pearl trade, already developed in the 11th-century, reached its pinnacle in the late 19th- and early 20th-centuries, before the invention of cultured pearls. While the dhow, a traditional sailing vessel, and pearl diving culture is proudly on display in many celebrations of Emirati history, the role of slavery in the trade networks is often casted aside. The southern Arabian Peninsula was a hub for the Indian Ocean slave trade, with many pearl divers coming from the East Coast of Africa.
The movement of slaves across the Indian Ocean matched the Atlantic Ocean slave trade in terms of thenumber of slaves bought and sold, albeit over a longer period. Much of the trade began in Zanzibar, an island off the coast of Tanzania. People were taken from the interior by merchants from Oman and then shipped northwards on dhows that often did not have enough food or water for the entire journey. Similar to the transatlantic slave trade, deaths at sea were common. Slaves were then sold in markets, one of which was at the Buraimi Oasis and wascontrolled by the Bani Yas tribal confederacy which ruled the emirate of Abu Dhabi. The UAE’s key role in this slave trade continued well into the 20th century
When the Emirates came under British influence around 1820, slavery was nominally outlawed. The practice, however, continued inland in places like Buraimi beyond the reach of the British Navy. A small force was even set up by the British, the Trucial Oman Scouts, which in part, policed the slave trade. However, even with the British outlawing slavery in 1814 and the extending of said ban to all British territories, the slave trade in the UAE continuedconsistently until the 1950s when oil revenues started flowing in. Matthew Hopper, an associate professor at Yale, argues that the slave trade was largely driven by global economic demand for dates and pearls, rather than any Arab preponderance for enslavement.
As the trade connections make clear, the UAE was by no means an isolated wasteland before the discovery of oil. Many migrants made theirway to the UAE and built up the city of Dubai in particular. Merchants from Persia, India and Pakistan set up shop in the souks of Dubai and, to a lesser extent, Abu Dhabi. Simultaneously, administrative connections tied the Gulf and the subcontinent together as part of the British Raj. The territories of Trucial Oman were ruled from India by the British and shared their currency.
What has made all of these developments possible and at times impossible is access to water. The largely arid landscape of the UAE has made access to water an imperative. Thus, much of the population was concentrated around inland oases and further to the north, to take advantage of the run-off from the Hajar Mountains. Coastal trade was restricted by limited freshwater sources and any spring was protected fiercely. The spring that provided water for Abu Dhabi is now the site of Qasr al Hosn, specifically designed to protect and regulate the water supply. Desalination has made the coastal metropolises of the modern UAE liveable, albeit only just enough. Currently Abu Dhabi only has water reserves equal to roughly three days ofconsumption and work has beenunderway since 2011 to expand and recharge underground reservoirs so that more stable water sources can be found.
While the UAE may only be 42 years old, there is a deep and intriguing history tied to the land that stretches back centuries. As we make our own marks on the history of the UAE, it’s worth delving into this nation’s past.
Connor Pearce is managing editor. Email him at
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