When is a road more than just a road, was there ever a moment when Ras Al Khaimah and Sharjah might have fallen under the sway of Arab nationalism, and what did the British ever do for Ajman?
These were just some of the questions that the academic Matthew MacLean set out to answer in his talk, Spies, Subversion, and Skulduggery: the Thrilling Story of the UAE’s First Paved Road, which he presented to a packed auditorium at New York University Abu Dhabi on Tuesday night.
Could a road really be that interesting? To some members of the audience, MacLean’s title sounded more than a little overblown, but the scholar delivered on his promise by revealing what was, for many, an unknown history of the period between 1956 and 1969 when colonial panic and Cold War politicking played out against Arab nationalism and, ultimately, oil revenues helped to determine the fate of the Trucial States at a pivotal moment in their history.
These were transitional years, MacLean explained, when empires and age-old political certainties were giving way and the countries of the lower Gulf – Qatar, Bahrain, the Trucial States and Oman – shifted in their orientation away from the Indian Ocean towards the increasingly nationalist and post-colonial Arab Middle East.
It was also a moment when rapid urban and economic development in places such as Egypt and Kuwait stood in stark contrast to the Emirates and when seemingly innocuous infrastructure projects such as schools and roads became the forums where the British, Saudis and Egyptians tried to outmanoeuvre each other to gain influence over local rulers and their subjects.
None of these projects assumed as much importance as the proposal for the first paved road between Dubai and Ras Al Khaimah. It was not the first in the Trucial States – paved roads had started to appear in Dubai in 1957 – but it was the first to connect different emirates, and the decisions surrounding its funding and construction became a focal point for the political ambitions and anxieties of the various players who were vying for power.
As far as Sir William Luce, Britain’s Political Resident in the Gulf, was concerned, the question of who would control and fund the development of the Trucial States’ infrastructure was an issue on which the outcomes could not be underestimated.
“If Arab League development offices were allowed to open in Sharjah and Ras Al Khaimah we will lose the Cold War,” said MacLean, paraphrasing a letter written by Luce to his political masters in Downing Street in 1965.
“The Trucial States will see propaganda, demonstrations, riots and then armed rebellion just like in Aden and Dhofar. Saudi Arabia and Iran will then lose confidence in Britain and the West and look elsewhere for assistance and security,” Luce continued. “And Egypt and quite possibly the Soviet Union will gain access to the Gulf’s oil and threaten the free world’s economy.”
If Luce’s alarm reads like the desperate attempt of a diplomat trying to capture Whitehall’s attention, the view from London was no less apocalyptic.
On May 10, 1965, the British prime minister Harold Wilson met with his cabinet at 10 Downing Street and viewed the strategic situation in the Trucial States with sufficient seriousness to grant £1 million (Dh5.3m) in funds for the development of key infrastructure projects in the hope that the move would counter what was seen as increasing Egyptian, Kuwaiti and Arab nationalist influences.
In many ways the picture MacLean painted of life in the Emirates before unification could not be more different from today. It was a time when there were only two immigration officers at Dubai airport and when Ras Al Khaimah’s population stood at 8,000, but as with today, it was also a time when issues relating to infrastructure went to the very core of the nation’s politics and sense of identity, an identity that continues to be forged in transit.
“People who live here can talk about mobility forever,” MacLean said at the conclusion to his talk. “We can all complain about traffic more than people do in Los Angeles or New York or anywhere else and people can complain about car accidents and talk about airlines and airports and flights because this is one of the most mobile parts of the world. “Mobility is really critical to identity [in the UAE] and the road network plays a part in facilitating that mobility and has contributed, over time, to forming a UAE national identity but also to shaping expatriate identities as well.”
As I leave the conference centre of the NYUAD campus, Vishnu, my 27-year-old Keralite taxi driver asks for directions to my final destination. “Take Salam Street,” I say. “Then turn right on Delma and left on Airport Road”.
“But that is too much traffic. Too, too much,” Vishnu complains as he accelerates his car through the curves of the Sheikh Khalifa Expressway.
As MacLean correctly predicted, the shared experience of moving through space sponsors a transcultural and transit-focused dialogue that develops and drives us forward, not because of where we were born, but because of where we live.
Nick Leech is a feature writer at The National.