RAK Ruler recalls the day the emirates became seven

This month marks the 40th anniversary of the entry of Ras Al Khaimah into the United Arab Emirates, completing the family of seven. In an exclusive interview, Sheikh Saud bin Saqr Al Qasimi, Ruler of Ras Al Khaimah, recalls the events that led up to the union and talks about his hopes for the future.

Sheikh Saud bin Saqr Al Qasimi, Ruler of Ras Al Khaimah. Jaime Puebla / The National
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This month marks the 40th anniversary of the entry of Ras Al Khaimah into the federation of the United Arab Emirates, a day that completed the family of seven emirates.

The Ruler of Ras Al Khaimah on that February day in 1972 was Sheikh Saqr bin Mohammed Al Qasimi, who was succeeded by his son, Sheikh Saud bin Saqr Al Qasimi, in October 2010.

In an exclusive interview with The National's Ali Al Shamsi, Sheikh Saud recalls the events that led up to the moment of final union and talks about his hopes for the future of Ras Al Khaimah and the people of the emirate.

In 1972 RAK joined the union of the UAE. What was the importance of that and how did it happen?

The union discussion didn’t start and end on that date. That took some time. His Highness Sheikh Zayed was a leading [voice], he had a vision, the will and the passion to see the creation of the United Arab Emirates. He was discussing with his brothers. His Highness Sheikh Saqr was one of them and both of them carried great experience, great vision, great passion for the country. All the success we have today is the fruit of the commitment, the sincerity, the wisdom and the vision of those leaders.

Of course Sheikh Zayed played the primary role in this. There was a passionate discussion of the shape, design and the make-up of the union. How we can succeed where everybody has failed? Because in the Arab world there were other federations that failed. It was very important for Sheikh Zayed to see the federation be successful and I’m happy these seven emirates today stand as a great success for what Arabs can do together. And to create, I think, the great miracle how it allowed the Emirati identity to take shape, how it allowed the Emirati to become a centre of this nation.

In your view what has RAK gained from being part of the union and what has this emirate brought to the union with its participation?

I’m very proud of the passion and the commitment of each citizen of RAK, their love of their country. RAK has played an important part through its people to take up posts in building the nation, through ministers and the different positions they have held.

So today we are a part of this great nation, this great success. We see the participation of women, the great leap in literacy rates, the transformation in the economy and the landscape in which we live. Today we have enjoyed tremendous prosperity [compared to] what we used to have. Tremendous leaps in health care. Today we see many of our citizens who have degrees; you see the industry, you see the hotels, you see the wonderful phenomenon of human existence.

This is great for us as Emiratis. As we walk around in our country we see the love of this country not just by us but the people who have come, the expat community who really have shared with us the same love for the country. It really is an example of tolerance.

What is the role of RAK in the union today?

We are one body and that body is the whole Federation. There is not just today one RAK. There is the UAE. We are one people, one country and today we feel the same way and we hope the same dreams. Actually, today we are happy for everything that happens anywhere in our country, very proud. And today when a visitor comes to the Emirates he sees the diversity of topography of the country and he sees the beauty of that diversity. Every piece of the country is a great piece and dear to our heart.

Tell us about the role Sheikh Saqr played in creating this union.

The generation of Sheikh Saqr was unique. They lived through tough times. They valued what they managed to bring [to the next generation]. They really cherished more than ever to see their children [grow] and [for life] not to be the way it used to be. They rewarded them with education and with things they didn’t have just to make sure that they are doing better. Actually before the union there was of course another semblance of a council which actually allowed the whole emirates to build some sort of cooperation. His Highness participated in that and at one point he chaired that. It showed, actually, that this country is one country really. Today, of course, the formation of the Federation formalised this one country concept and formalised the model of our government, how we as emirates could work together as a team.

Sheikh Saqr (was) a special and unique character. He had a passion for education even though he didn’t have any education. He had passion to expect of his people the best because he treated them as his kids, his own. He believed in the rule of law. He believed that being Muslims doesn’t conflict with being progressive and trying to modernise. Both of them go hand in hand. He had a great capacity to forgive. He had a great capacity to be humble. He never considered humility a weakness. Humility is not a weakness and arrogance is not bravery.

These are great character [traits], learnt through the real world. You see, life was not easy then so he knew how to bring his own emirate together. He knew how to push his own emirate forward. He knew how to face the daily challenges and turn those challenges into hopes and dreams and a programme for change. He knew how to really make sure always he has the courage to look at what he’s done and try to improve.

He had great capacity, he knew that for you to improve you have to know the truth. And for you to know the truth you have to be accessible to your own people. So really his passion was work. So for him it was his daily life, a routine. He wakes up before Fajr prayer and his life is a routine, every day. If you wanted to meet him you knew where you could meet him. He had no real hobby except to serve his people. He had no real agenda except to see his emirate improve.

How has the government of RAK tried to develop the economy?

I think it’s very important to point out that any investor, be it local or foreign, will still ask the same rule – they want to make money at the end of the day. So for us, even to encourage our own people, they still have to be incentivised to have a decent return.

That’s why it’s very important to create the underlying economic environment that allows people to work and benefit, reap their benefit. How to create what I call the easy road to create a company. We have done that. We have created actually one economic zone, a one-stop shop. We have created industrial parks because if you have a factory you want to build you have to have a place to invest into. So we have created that. And we have created a very efficient licensing system.

We have, of course, to recognise that the way forward for us, to enhance our people, to improve, is to empower them and arm them with knowledge – that is an education. Education is the only thing that will allow us to improve.

We are working of course to see how we can improve our education system here and that’s very important and primary for us to always look back at how we can overcome these challenges.

One of the serious issues that a lot of RAK people have to face is power – the availability and cost of electricity.

The thing you have to look at is not only the availability of power, what is the cost of power? What is the cost of energy I can get here? What is the cost of land? What is the cost of manpower? What is the availability of talent? What is the cost if I want to import raw materials, what is the cost of the ports? All of these have to be added before I do my investment.

I’m very happy that at the Federal level there is a competitiveness council. And it’s very important for us to face [the issue] ourselves. It is very important for us in our attempt to move up the ladder of competitiveness: what are the things that we can do to basically improve our competitiveness?

And not only that in general but you have to look at each specific location in our country. If we want to capture our potential, our potential lies in capturing the potential of every part of the whole UAE.

Do you feel that the Federal Council are supporting the balance of the economy in a way that satisfies you?

Well I think any federation as such, a good federation, always looks at the country as one country. It looks at  average per capita income and it will look at who is above that and who is below that. So for me, economic development means how we can actually address those places that are not doing as good to see how we can divert our energy to help that place. Not just in Ras Al Khaimah but parts of Ras Al Khaimah, parts of Ajman, parts of Sharjah, parts of Abu Dhabi.

Talking about oil …

We are at the moment trying to explore. We’re doing some seismic (research) and we’ll probably do some exploration. You know, in the oil business, you only declare what you have when you drill and find. So we are very hopeful and optimistic that we can be lucky, too.

Concerning housing for locals in Ras Al Khaimah. People are talking about this a lot. What message do you want to send to local people?

We are trying to do our part. We are trying to see how we can address these issues. The main part for me is how to create enough plots for each citizen to be living next to his place. If it’s not next to his place then what is the closest that’s available?

What part does Ras Al Khaimah have to play in security issues?

Ras Al Khaimah is part of the UAE. We don’t have an independent police, we don’t have an independent coastguard, we don’t have an independent army, so this is all federal, it comes under the federal mandate, which I think they are trying their level best in securing their borders of the whole UAE. And doing (it with) great success, in my opinion.

Now come to the local level, which is customs, we have a gateway with Oman [where] I think we’re complying with international best practice. Our border posts are equipped with the necessary equipment, necessary training and necessary personnel and we’re lucky that we have cooperation with overseas communities. They help us with training as well. And this applies as well to the ports. Today, the whole emirate has actually a licence for the ports so they go through the ISP, which means international certification that each port is compliant. I’m happy to tell you that Ras Al Khaimah ports are second to none in terms of compliance. We’re very proud of them, our team is first class, and it’s a great example of best practice.

Looking at the Arab Spring. The UAE is an example of the safest country in the region. Why do you think this is?

When you have wind, you see some of the trees get blown away. But not every tree. Actually the Emirates is a success story, it’s something that I think (is) a fusion between leadership and the people. The leadership across the whole Emirates, really each Ruler I want to say, his greatest happiness is to see his emirate develop, to see his people do well and thrive. Leadership and the people are one people. There is no gap. They have open houses, open majlises. They visit the people.

Actually, if you think, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed is travelling, visiting people. If you see every other Ruler, really, they maintain their majlis to say ‘Welcome everybody’. That doesn’t happen everywhere. They visit the people, they look after the people, they look at the problems and that’s really unique. This is not coming like out of the blue. This is carried through history. History has become part of our identity. So we and the people feel a duty to our country. And I’m very happy and we’re very proud of what we have today. This has been able to happen because of this wonderful relationship between the Ruler and his people.

Back to the strategy of Ras Al Khaimah in developing its education system.

The first leap across the whole of the Emirates was to fight illiteracy. Today we have a different challenge. We want our country to become not just literate but to go up the ladder of excellence. We want to live beyond the age of oil. Only knowledge and good work ethics will allow us to have sustainability. That means reform in the education system, improvement of the teachers because at the end of the day, to have a good education system you have to have excellent teachers.

What can you say about any new projects?

Our number one reality is how to serve our people, to see what matters to them, and to see how we can plan Ras Al Khaimah better. And create economic development because this is our guarantee that tomorrow we can have jobs. That’s the reality, so it’s very important for us to create an industrial park, to create hotels, to encourage education institutions to happen here. So it’s to allow us to create a sustainable development. Today I’m happy that we have good tourist projects happening, good industrial park that is very successful, excellent brand names. All these are testament of I think the success of what we have done so far.

Finally, with all the turbulence happening in the region, what do you think is the most important lesson for other Arabs to take from the experiences of the UAE.

I think what’s very important is that we have to look after economic development, we have to fight corruption, we have to educate our people, we have to encourage them to be part of the system, we have to connect to them so we understand what they want. I think that’s the reality. It’s very important that we listen, it’s very important that we improve the efficiency of our agencies.

Key facts about Sheikh Saud

Sheikh Saud became Ruler of Ras Al Khaimah on October 27, 2010 following the death of his father, Sheikh Saqr bin Mohammed Al Qasimi.

A member of the UAE Supreme Council, Sheikh Saud was born in February 1956 and is the fourth son of Sheikh Saqr.

After studying economics at the American University of Beirut he completed a bachelor’s degree in economics and political science at the University of Michigan, where he was also awarded a master’s degree.

In 1979, Sheikh Saud was appointed as Chief of the Ruler’s Court and in 2003 became Crown Prince. In 2005 he established the Ras Al Khaimah Investment Authority (Rakia).

Sheikh Saud has six children. His eldest son, Sheikh Mohammed bin Saud, was appointed Crown Prince in December 2010.

Top 10 RAK facts

• With a population estimated at 250,000, Ras Al Khaimah represents about 12 per cent of the country’s population. About 20 per cent hold UAE citizenship, almost double the national average.

• Ras Al Khaimah is the most northerly of the seven emirates. It is nearly 600 kilometres to the nation’s southern border, along the E11 motorway. With 2.2 per cent of the country’s land, RAK is the fourth largest emirate.

• The Jebel Jais range is the only place in the country where you can find natural snow. Frost covered the 1,700 metre peaks last month and in 2009 a fall of 20cm made headlines around the world.

• Ras Al Khaimah International Airport opened in 1976. RAK Airways serves a dozen destinations, with a new long-haul route to Bangkok starting later this year.

• Historically, the main city was known as Julfar from pre-Islamic times. A Muslim fleet was reported to have set sail from Julfar to attack Persia in 637AD

• At one point in the 19th century, the emirate had at least 60 watch towers, many of which still survive. They would also serve as places of refuge for communities during times of conflict.

• Until his death on October 27, 2010, Sheikh Saqr bin Mohammed Al Qasimi was believed to be the world’s second oldest reigning monarch. The Ruling family’s line can be traced back at least to the early 18th century.

RAK Ceramics is the world's largest manufacturer of ceramic and porcelain tiles. With production plants in the UAE, China, Sudan, Bangladesh, Iran and India, the company produces 12,000 pieces of sanitary ware per day.

• The village of Masafi is famous for its pure spring water. It also forms part of the emirate’s only enclave.

• Now largely uninhabited, Al Jazirah Al Hamra dates back to the 14th century and is the country’s best preserved coastal town.

Sources: RAK Ceramics, RAK Airways, Ras Al Khaimah International Airport, Rakpedia.com