The UAE has a rich and ancient history of cultural exchange

From Bronze Age traders to Indian goldsmiths, this land has long played host to a diverse and welcoming society

Dubai - April 17 2012 - The exterior of a wind tower in Dubai's historic Bastakiya area. The majority of buildings, wind towers and residences in Bastakiya comprise of gypsum and stone and are thought to date back to as far as 1890. The historic area is now home so many guest houses, art cafes and galleries. (Razan Alzayani/ The National)
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We'll hear a lot during this Year of Tolerance about the UAE's open-hearted welcome for the diverse international communities that make up the overwhelming majority of the country's population. They come, so we're told, from around 200 countries, from every quarter of the globe, bringing to this land different languages, cultures and traditions, following many faiths, as they help to build the United Arab Emirates of today.

In my last column, I wrote of the fundamental role that the concept of tolerance plays in UAE society and argued that it can be explained as actively welcoming of the idea of diversity. It's important to acknowledge that from it come many of the strengths that make up our society.

The recognition of the value of that remarkable diversity is something that derives directly from the philosophy of the state developed by the nation’s Founding Father, the late Sheikh Zayed. As with so much about the country today, however, it goes back much further than that. If we look back into the history of the land that now makes up the United Arab Emirates, we can trace the welcoming of goods, ideas, traditions and people from other lands right back to the earliest origins of human settlement.

As far back as 7,500 years ago, trade by sea up and down the Arabian Gulf meant that goods from Mesopotamia – modern-day Iraq – reached here, brought on ships crewed, almost certainly, by foreign-born sailors. Appropriately, an artefact on display at Louvre Abu Dhabi bears testimony to that interchange, a pottery vessel from the Obaid civilisation in Iraq that was excavated a couple of decades ago on Abu Dhabi's western island of Marawah.

Later, in the Bronze Age, which began around 5,000 years ago, the ports of the Emirates were also trading with the empires of the Indus Valley, with goods also arriving from Central Asia. We can assume that merchants from those far-flung lands reached the Emirates too, bringing with them their languages and ideas. Certainly religious beliefs reached us from other areas, for an Iron Age cult belief connected to snakes that has been found widely throughout the Emirates – at Al Qusais, in Dubai, and at Bithna and Masafi in Fujairah, for example – has parallels elsewhere. Six centuries before the coming of Islam, the temple at Ed-Dur in Umm Al Quwain was dedicated to the pre-Islamic sun god Shams, known throughout Arabia. We know from the discovery of a monastery on Sir Bani Yas that Christianity had reached the UAE by the beginning of the seventh century AD. Meanwhile, an early medieval Jewish tombstone has been excavated in Ras Al Khaimah.

The cultural and commercial interchange was not just a matter of the arrival of goods and ideas. People from overseas didn’t arrive simply as traders; they came to settle as well. In the 15th century, residents of the Kingdom of Hormuz, which encompassed the great port of Julfar, in present-day Ras Al Khaimah, included merchants not just from throughout the Middle East, but from Venice, to the west, and from Russia, China, India, East Africa and elsewhere. Hormuz was described in 1472, decades before the first European imperial power, the Portuguese, reached the region, as “a vast emporium where there were peoples and goods of every description from all parts of the world.”  Some, surely, would have interacted with the people of the Emirates.

While it is difficult to determine the nature of the foreign communities in the Emirates during the medieval period, the picture begins to become clearer by the beginning of the 19th century. In 1823, according to a British report, the inhabitants of the growing town of Abu Dhabi, established half a century earlier, included a number of Indian "traders and goldsmiths," the forerunners of the UAE's large Indian population of today. By the latter part of the century, there was an influx of families from southern Iran into Dubai. New arrivals, from the town of Bastak, brought with them a new architectural technique, the barjeel or wind tower, some of which survive in Dubai's Bastakiya district.

And, although there has as yet, as far as I am aware, been little study of the topic, these incoming foreign communities also had an impact on the UAE’s native Arabic dialects. The word “bidfud”, meaning a large truck, which appeared only in the 1950s, is an adaptation of the name of the popular Bedford lorries that arrived around that time, but there must be many more words whose foreign origins can be traced back much further.

The welcoming of foreign cultures, traditions, beliefs, words and – yes – people into the Emirates has been part of our way of life since time immemorial. In the Year of Tolerance, I hope we will see not only more recognition that these exchanges took place, but also that they have played a large part in the making of today’s UAE. The richness of this history is just one of many reasons why the country is so well-equipped to play its part in an increasingly interconnected world.

Peter Hellyer is a consultant specialising in the UAE's history and culture