Pieces of the desert: the treasures of Al Maha

The Al Maha Desert Resort in Dubai is home to more than 2,000 antique items from across the region - an assortment of rare, beautiful and often valuable artefacts.

The Al Maha Desert Resort & Spa, a holiday complex and nature reserve 45 minutes outside Dubai, has been in business for a decade. It hasn't seen a huge number of guests in that time - even when full it sleeps barely more than 90 people - but it has managed to amass an impressive hoard of Arab antiques. The trick, apparently, was that it got an early start on the rush that Gulf artefacts have experienced in recent years and bought in bulk from the start. Now, its managers and advisers say, it may be the largest private collection in the region. It includes more than 2,000 items - clay pots, silver necklaces, rifles, daggers and decorated chests, scattered throughout the resort's central compound and tent-like chalets. Antiques occupy every nook, right down to the guest bathrooms.
Imthikaf Hussein manages what is called the gallery. It's a gift shop, really, though it includes some very expensive gifts alongside the key rings and display cases filled with Omani coins. Officially only the artefacts in the gallery are on sale, though this, I am given to understand, is negotiable for the right guest. Hussein, a Sri Lankan, has been with the resort since before it started and has formed some general ideas about the habits of buyers. "Arabs collect us for their galleries and private collections," he says. "Europeans love the khanjars" - the curved daggers that are traditional throughout the region.
Hussein gives me a tour of the collection, pointing out the date pots that stand outside each chalet door and the smaller earthenware pieces that sit in alcoves in the bathrooms. He takes me to the men's majlis, in which swords and rifles are suspended from the walls. "These are Martini-Henry guns, English guns," he says reverently, "and very old. They came to this part of the world a long time back." He shows me the silver binding and carved Arabic characters on the stock. "Arabs always decorated their guns," he assures me.
Hussein points out some of his favourite pieces. In the gallery there's a large khanjar with silver thread woven into its belt. "You can sell it for any amount, this piece," he says. "About Dh10,000, even Dh20,000, because you don't find these pieces." He produces several more guns, flintlock pistols and a huge, blunderbuss-sized thing inlaid with birds and flowers in mother-of-pearl. A stamp in its metal casing dates it to 1814. "Anything in this part of the world above 80 years is sort of valuable," Hussein explains. Most attractively, there's a redwood bridal chest on which crinkled brass sheets have been nailed in imperfect geometric configurations. "They tried to match but it's never identical; they always make a mistake," says Hussein. "It's like the rugs, you know? You will never find two identical handmade rugs." It's that rare commodity in the UAE: the charm of the homespun.
"There's something about old pieces that adds value to life, I think," says Arne Silvis, Al Maha's South African manager. "There's nothing glitzy or glamorous about the resort. It's certainly luxurious, but what we are trying to achieve here is a real, authentic desert experience." The desert part takes care of itself. Al Maha's suites look out over miles of rolling, tawny dunes, dotted with the occasional oryx or gazelle. The resort may be nestled in a patch of cultivated greenery but that's an island in an ocean of sand and space. It appears to suit Silvis, whose tan announces him as the outdoors type. He came to Dubai seven years ago after working at a series of East African safari lodges. Indeed, life among the dunes may be a little tame for his tastes. "The problem we have here with the wildlife," he says, "is that it cannot possibly offer you what Zambia or Botswana can."
In the absence of ferocious fauna, the resort has had to fall back on genteel pastimes. An easel and art supplies are set up in each guest room, encouraging a meditative engagement with the landscape. "And we've included activities like archery and horseback riding, which you cannot do in Zambia," Silvis says brightly. "The lions would eat you." Still, Al Maha's major selling point is its connection with the desert's native culture, and the key to that is the antiques.
The collection was put together by an Englishwoman named Linda Shephard, though that isn't the only crack in the Arabian facade. "I'm not sure you can call anything purely Arabic," says Shephard when I meet her at her shop off Jumeirah Beach Road. "Everything has been influenced by workers that they've brought over for centuries... Even in Oman a lot of the heritage there cannot be described as purely Omani because a lot of the ancestry is based in Zanzibar and Africa, and previous to that they were actually conquered by the Portuguese."
Shephard runs Dubai's Creative Art Centre, the dealership that has supplied Al Maha with its artefacts since the resort was set up 10 years ago. It's a pokey little place, cluttered with bits of frame and tables full of ornaments. Outside, a sign advertises fine art, framing, antiques and gifts - a homely, small-time touch and legacy of a era when Gulf antiques was a homely, small-time business. Shephard arrived in Dubai in 1994, having spent the previous seven years in Oman, which is where most of the pieces she sells come from. In that time she has seen the trade expand from an expat hobby to a quasi-industrialised scramble.
"Initially, when the expatriates were working here, say, in the 1960s, they would just collect the stuff and value it," she says. "The locals didn't really want it. The locals wanted new - anything new. And they would easily sell their beautiful silver Bedu jewellery in order to just buy Indian gold. It was a tragedy." Today, Shephard has teams of Omanis combing the country's remote inland villages in search of valuable items. "They negotiate with the villagers and basically a truck would arrive with a collection of antique doors, antique chests, antique window shutters, khanjars, silver," she says. "And we would basically have to buy the truckload. Take the rubbish with the good." Her team then sorts through the haul, restoring what can be restored, casting metal fittings to replace missing parts and cannibalising fragments of damaged pieces. They make display tables from bits of carved Omani window frame and key rings from loose coins. Slices of decorated door sell for around Dh400. "That's fine for somebody who's here going back to London in a small flat and wants a little piece on the wall," she says. "It's horses for courses."
The real prizes require much more care, of course. "You can find serious antiques in Oman," Shephard says, "because of the importance of the country historically. If you look at antique maps of Arabia, Muscat is always there, as a very, very important port for the caravans and the silk route. Dubai is not featured on these maps. But Sharjah is. Qatar is." She mentions troves of fifth-century Chinese pottery and Portuguese military chests that must have been brought to Oman before 1650, when the Europeans withdrew.
"I spoke to a museum in Portugal in Lisbon to see what sort of illustrations of military chests they had, and they were identical to ones that we were pulling out of Oman," she explains. "That was actually really exciting to see." Today, she estimates, such an item would command Dh25,000 in the UAE and a good deal more overseas. "We're surrounded by these artefacts here, and a lot of us live here, so we get a bit blasé. And yet when you take them out of their situation and context here and you see them in chalets in Switzerland, they're worth a bomb."
Shephard had to come up with a huge number of pieces for Al Maha. "It was a big project," she says. Even if you only look at the various storage cases she sent them, "you're talking about maybe 40 units with two chests [apiece] ... We probably supplied, including the public areas, well over 100 different antique chests". In the high winds of 2004, many of the clay pots outside the guest rooms blew over and shattered. "I suddenly got a call saying we need 20 more pots; they're all broken." In addition, she has to keep the gallery supplied. The task keeps getting trickier. "We are finding it hard to source genuine things now," Shephard says. "Five years ago I was still able to bring doors through. Now I'm searching and scratching the bottom of the barrel to find things. It is running out."
A large part of the shortage is due to an awakening Arab interest in these artefacts. "Over the years, the locals have become much more highly appreciative of their heritage," Shephard says. "Now in Oman the Ministry of Culture will tell Omanis, rather than sell their doors and allow them to leave the country, that the ministry will buy them off them." She views the new situation with equanimity. "It's good," she says. "I think it's been a partnership. People like us have restored and given the artefacts a value, and put them on a plateau, and this has now been caught up with by the local ministries who have said, yes, we need to save our heritage."
Indeed, without the burgeoning antiques market, it's possible that these objects would have been lost altogether. "If we hadn't saved these artefacts and restored them and given them a beautiful home, and given them a value, they would have been burnt," Shephard says. "I have been through villages where you can see an old chest that's not in use any more - because they're only utility pieces - actually on a fire. I've had to rescue it." She calls the western market in Arab workmanship a "double-edged sword", but the warlike metaphor seems out of place. The point of it, after all, is preservation.
And it would be difficult to deny that the Al Maha collection has found its way to a beautiful home. It's all the more beautiful for being, if not the items' spiritual home, a simpatico neighbour. They certainly look comfortable. As I got ready to leave Al Maha, Arne Silvis reflected on the resort's gallery. "Some of those pieces have been sitting there for five years and they are very, very expensive," he told me. "One day someone will come along and will really like it and if they're offering the right money, we'll sell. But some of the older items in there, if they don't move, I'm not particularly worried."
elake@thenational.ae

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