How sailors from Norway made waves in the UAE

A new documentary exhibition is shedding light on four decades of cultural ties between the two countries and their citizens

They came by sea. In the early 1970s, large numbers of Norwegian merchant ships sailed into Dubai's ports, with seafarers frequently transiting through the emirate. Seeing this sharp rise in traffic and trade, a man named Leif Frivold from the Norwegian Seamen's Church in Norway sought to establish a more permanent base for the seamen as they journeyed through the Middle East.  

Together with Tor Sandgren, a Swede who served as general manager of Gulf Agency Company, they approached Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed, the Ruler of Dubai at the time, with the idea. Through the Dubai Municipality, Sheikh Rashid donated a plot of land for a community centre to be built in Oud Metha.

How it all started

In October 1976, the Norwegian Seaman's Mission – which would later become the Norwegian Seamen's Centre – was inaugurated with Sheikh Rashid in attendance. This is the starting point of the documentary exhibition +40 Years of Culture, which features images, videos and other archival material that bring to light this little-known piece of history between the UAE and Norway.

Organised by the UAE's Ministry of Foreign Affairs Office of Public and Cultural Diplomacy (OPCD), the exhibition opened in Oslo's Mesh (the Nordic Creator's Community in the Norwegian capital) last November and eventually travelled to Abu Dhabi, where it is on display inside the ministry. The Norwegian Seamen's Centre is the axis of the show, and most of its material has been drawn from the centre's archives. A series of photographs chronicles the centre's construction, which was aided by private companies in Norway that provided pre-fabricated wood and paint. Volunteers from the church, with the help of local labourers, built these traditional Norwegian houses that have maintained their structure ever since.

"We call ourselves 'a home away from home'," says Lena Nielsen Geving, the centre's general manager. "We believe that having a place where you can maintain your own traditions is good for all people and, in return, we see that this helps expats to settle in Dubai and enjoy their stay here."

Telling the story of a community's history

The photographs are testament to this, capturing a moment in time when this small community began to grow in the UAE. In these images, we see the slew of social and cultural activities that kept seafarers, staff at the centre and other Norwegian citizens busy, such as excursions to Hatta and the desert, Christmas and Easter celebrations, and gatherings for Norwegian national day. Decades later, the centre still runs these activities, with the participation of the broader Scandinavian community. Geving notes that as of 2017, about 1,200 Norwegians reside in the UAE.

"Forty years ago, we mainly served seafarers, as 80 per cent of Norwegian tank fleet traffic frequented the Gulf," says Geving. "These days, people work for Scandinavian and international companies, and they live in the country. We therefore serve more families than in the old days. But the mission and the activities are very much the same."

Perhaps what is most impressive about +40 Years of Culture is the Norwegians' meticulous record-keeping, with scans of the Dubai Municipality's site plans from 1974, a collection of guest books and an album of the centre's most high-profile visitors over the decades all part of their archive. Taking these elements, the OPCD was able to visualise the historical beginnings of ties between the UAE and Norway.

Research for the exhibition began last year, with cultural public programmers Farah Sabobeh and Jonatas Barros leading the project. Apart from their desire to highlight these cultural links, Sabobeh also notes how the office wanted to tackle preconceptions of the UAE in Norway.

The exhibition serves as a kind of reminder of a history that may not feature prominently in the media. "We really wanted to shed light on the kind of relationship we have had between the UAE and Norway that goes beyond trade and economy," she explains. "We wanted to talk about the cultural relationships and the one-to-one relations."

Building lives and families

A section of the exhibition is dedicated to the stories of Norwegians who have become long-term residents of the UAE, primarily because of marital or familial ties. These video portraits offer a more personal view of these diplomatic bonds. "The story started at the centre, but once we dug deeper, we came across many Emirati-Norwegians and it was more interesting for us to speak to them and learn from them about their experiences and how they perceive what it means to be Norwegian and Emirati," Sabobeh says.

Dubai, United Arab Emirates - August 07, 2019: The story focuses on the growth of the Norwegian community in the UAE, so we speak to Norwegians who have settled here. Dr Sofie Skogen Haraldseid has lived in the country for 30 years, practicing as a licensed homeopathic physician in Dubai. Wednesday the 7th of August 2019. Al Wasl, Dubai. Chris Whiteoak / The National

One such individual is Dr Sofie Skogen. A homeopath in Norway, Skogen arrived in the UAE in the late 1980s and paved the way for homeopathic practice to be recognised in the country. "They hadn't had any homeopathic physicians in the country before, so I set out to implement the homeopathic system of medicine into the healthcare system of UAE," she says. "I worked on that for 10 years. Then in 2000, I became the first licensed homeopathic physician in the UAE. Now I estimate there about 100 of us."

She draws parallels between Norwegian and Emirati family dynamics. "I come from the south-west coast of Norway, where family is a main focus, so we would have big gatherings for Christmas, like Emiratis have for Eid," she says. "Extended family was very much part of my tradition the way that it is here."

She fondly remembers her Emirati mother-in-law, who welcomed her into the family. “I am a Christian and she was a Muslim, but she celebrated Christmas with us and I celebrated Eid with them.”

One thing I would say which makes it stand out is the ­generosity<span style="background-color:rgba(255, 255, 0, 0.3)"> </span>– open houses, open arms, taking care of one another. That's how my mum grew up in her village, too. It's the same values.

Her daughter, Amalie Beljafla, is an artist and design consultant whose artwork tributes to Sheikh Zayed, the Founding Father, were included in the exhibition's first iteration in Oslo. She describes her work as "surrealist" and it incorporates disparate elements of nature in kaleidoscopic colours. "I have the best of both worlds," says Beljafla, citing the influences on Norwegian and Emirati cultures on her approach to art. "In my artwork, I'm not afraid of expressing myself."

As an example, she cites a series of work on religious unity that includes elements from Islam, Christianity and Judaism, with anthropomorphised animals as her subjects.

Growing up in the UAE, Beljafla recalls being part of a tolerant household that accepted her mother's religion and background. Speaking of her Emirati side, she says: "We have a beautiful culture. One thing I would say which makes it stand out is the ­generosityopen houses, open arms, taking care of one another. That's how my mum grew up in her village, too. It's the same values."

Combining archive and personal narrative, the exhibition does more than highlight the UAE’s past diplomatic efforts. It reveals the character of a country that thrived on opening its doors to foreigners.