History tells us the UAE has beaten uncertainty and threats in the past too
In Ahmed Mansour M Khateeb’s excellent memoir Sand Huts and Salty Water: The Story of Abu Dhabi’s First School Teacher, he describes the capital as “nothing like I had ever experienced before” when he arrived in this “simple and chaotic place” in 1958.
He had moved to Abu Dhabi after accepting a job to become the first teacher at what is recognised as the city’s first school, Al Falaheyyah.
Several prominent figures of the modern era benefited from his tutorship, although such is Khateeb’s humble writing style it wouldn’t be appropriate to name check them here.
It was, however, the city's freeform mid-century brand of urban planning that instantly captivated him.
“Abu Dhabi gave the impression that one could build a house wherever one wished … for there were no roads. To get anywhere meant that you would have to walk over sand,” he wrote. Overhead photos from that era thoroughly support that observation, revealing compounds, abutting each other, arranged in irregular patterns, clustered along the coastline with no obvious routes to navigate around them.
Khateeb spent more than three decades working in the city – his life and times are documented in full in his charming book, published in 2016 – first as a teacher for a couple of years and then, after a seven-year gap, returning in 1967 to work outside the education sector. He left in 1996, when he retired, aged 60.
The threat to how the entire world lives feels vast. The assumptions we made about our lives yesterday seem like enormous presumptions to make today
By the time his second stint in Abu Dhabi began in the late 1960s, a few months after Sheikh Zayed had become Ruler of Abu Dhabi, he could see the beginnings of the city we now know. The dirt roads were becoming proper streets and new buildings had begun to replace the arish houses of old. The hardships of the late 1950s were gradually dissipating.
Khateeb returned to the UAE once more in 2014, by now in his 70s, to visit his son, who was working in the country. He arrived in what he described as a glorious place. “The vision of Sheikh Zayed”, he concludes, had “built something beautiful”.
To some degree, Khateeb’s narrative arc hoves close to the conventional telling of the UAE’s history as one that moves from sand to skyscrapers. The one where development, progress and certainty are seen as a form of guaranteed destiny.
Right now, of course, we find ourselves in a moment of great uncertainty, with confirmed cases of coronavirus rising every day around the world, including more than 660 positive tests in this country. Antonio Guterres, UN Secretary General, described the Covid-19 outbreak this week as the “worst global crisis since the Second World War”.
The threat to how the entire world lives feels vast. The assumptions we made about our lives yesterday seem like enormous presumptions to make today.
But it’s not the first time this territory has faced great uncertainty and threat.
Although Abu Dhabi was rapidly modernising, the Trucial States of the late 1960s faced the toughest of challenges.
A monetary crisis on another continent put the Gulf into a moment of great jeopardy, after the UK pound was devalued by 14 per cent in mid-November 1967. The action set off a precipitous chain of events that had wide-ranging implications.
Two months later, British prime minister Harold Wilson announced that his country could no longer afford to meet its overseas obligations, with the consequence of throwing the future of the Trucial States into doubt. He said Britain would withdraw from the region and cancel security arrangements by the end of 1971. By doing so, he set the clock ticking on negotiating a complex political settlement.
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The news could hardly have arrived at a worse time in the Gulf. Abu Dhabi’s economy showed signs of growing pains in the late Sixties. Iran’s rumbling territorial designs under the shah complicated the picture. The Arab-Israeli conflict of 1967 had further shaken the region. Were seven of the Trucial States ready to form an independent nation? How could so many separate parts be brought together into a single entity?
Sheikh Zayed carefully balanced short and long-term goals during this period, seeking out a range of opinions from across the political spectrum, while also demonstrating a brand of humane, decisive leadership to progress a path forward for what would later become the UAE.
According to historian Jayanti Maitra in her thorough book Zayed: From Challenges to Union, he was “a careful listener who always showed his readiness to accept advice” as Abu Dhabi moved relentlessly on with its development.
But the Founding Father also believed in the idea of being stronger together. He set about marrying the range of interests of the seven emirates at a time when it might have been easier to focus on nearer horizons and self interests. He worked tirelessly with Dubai’s Sheikh Rashid to make this happen.
Arab unity was Sheikh Zayed’s guiding principle and that goal was achieved through perseverance and diplomacy over a sustained period, which concluded at the moment the UAE was born on December 2, 1971.
Those characteristics, seared into the collective national identity long ago, were on show again this week when Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, directly addressed the challenges the world faces, remarking that “we are honoured to serve all people who live in the UAE … we will overcome this through solidarity.”
The UAE’s story tells us great challenges can be beaten and the best way to do so is through courage, purpose, a willingness to adapt and a belief in unity. It is a message that we should all embrace today.
Nick March is an assistant editor-in-chief at The National
Updated: April 16, 2020 03:32 PM