For centuries the tribes that inhabited the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula lived a tough nomadic lifelihood, or earned a living by diving for pearls and fishing along the coast. In 1958 massive oil and gas reserves catapaulted these impoverished desert sheikhkdoms into a dimsension of wealth and plenty. Slowly embracing socio political reform too, today the region’s most socially liberal country, is a federation of modern city states replete with gleaming skyscrapers towering above manicured artificial oases and palm-lined boulevards. With economic diversification and enlightened development plans in diverse spheres, there is more to life in Abu Dhabi than meets the eye.
Many of those who knew the UAE in previous years may have regarded Abu Dhabi as a quiet sleepy capital, the home of bankers, diplomats, and government servants on the lines of Washington or Canberra, rather than a centre for business. This was not an entirely fair view, since huge industrial developments have been taking place in other parts of the Emirate out of sight of the casual visitor, for example the giant petro-chemical plants on the western coast at Ruwais; or the huge gas projects near the oil fields like Sahil and Habshan, deep in the desert. Extensive housing schemes have created many new townships, providing Emiratis with spacious villas where they can live in comfort in the desert regions, close to their original villages. There has of course, been a spectacular building boom in Abu Dhabi City itself, and this year massive new schemes have been announced which will transform the Emirate over the next decade into an ultra-modern city and regional business centre.
A Little History
The main families that make up the native population of Abu Dhabi come from the Bani Yas tribe, whose origins are obscure, but who are thought to have come from South West Arabia, from the northern parts of what is now known as Yemen. They began to occupy the area that is now Abu Dhabi Emirate around 500 years ago, perhaps earlier, settling in the palm gardens of the interior in Liwa to the south and Al Ain to the east. It was only in the 1790s that the Bani Yas, under the direction of the leading family, the Nahyans, made a more permanent home on Abu Dhabi Island. Another closely related part of the Bani Yas, led by the Maktoum family, settled on the coast a little further to the north-east, on the Dubai creek. In the nineteenth century, the main economic activities were pearling and trading in essentials with India and some of the other Gulf States. The population endured considerable hardships, especially when the pearling industry collapsed following the introduction of cultured pearls by the Japanese, and the world depression took a grip in the 1920s and 1930s. They lived largely off dates and fish, and were reliant on camels, sheep and goats, as well as a few meagre crops that they grew in the places where there was water, mainly near the mountains and in the sands of the Liwa.
The Bedouin System of Government
The traditional system of government has lasted for centuries and represents a pact between the ruling family, whose members are given the title ‘Sheikh’ (‘Shaikha’ for the women) and the other members of the tribe. In the case of Abu Dhabi, for example, the Ruler is the unquestioned leader. His family has the task of selecting a suitable candidate to succeed when the Ruler dies. The normal succession is for the position of Ruler to pass to the next suitable son of the late Ruler, and only to pass to a member of the same generation if there are no eligible sons and if there is a suitable brother who is capable of taking the responsibility: otherwise it might be given to a cousin or older member of the family. In return for the allegiance of his people, the Ruling Sheikh has to make himself available to them to hear and settle their problems. To this day, the Ruler makes it his duty to know all the leading figures in his Emirate, and holds a regular majlis, or place for sitting where in theory any member of the tribe can attend, sit with him, and air his views. In the case of the UAE, which is a Federation of seven Emirates, Zayed was elected President of the State by the other six, through the force of his character, and the fact that Abu Dhabi owns 80 percent of the land area of the UAE and an even higher percentage of the oil reserves, and therefore the wealth of the country.