Digital archive lets us walk in the shoes of UAE pioneers

A collaboration with the UK, this project tells us much about the UAE of yesteryear

Sheikh Zayed on a visit to New York in April, 1957. Courtesy National Archives
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As Sheikh Zayed once said, to succeed in the future, we must first understand our past. That is the thinking behind a host of recent initiatives in the UAE, from Louvre Abu Dhabi – whose permanent exhibition charts the development of humanity over thousands of years – to archaeological sites from Fujairah to Abu Dhabi. These ancient artefacts are the key to understanding the land on which we now stand. Such efforts took a crucial step forward last week, with the completion of the Arabian Gulf Digital Archive. This is a landmark digitisation project between the UAE and the UK. By making thousands of historical documents publicly available, it helps us to better understand the more recent history of this region.

“This is accessible to all and will benefit all,” said Abdulla Al Raisi, director general of the UAE’s national archives. “It is a magnificent achievement.” The database contains around 250,000 documents, letters, maps and photographs, curated over the course of two years. Together, they paint a fascinating picture of political intrigue, war and progress. From the “general maritime treaty of 1820”, which established the Trucial states and laid the groundwork for the modern UAE, to photographs of Sheikh Zayed in New York in 1957, citizens and those with an interest in the Middle East will find immense joy in perusing it. And, on a more profound level, it allows us to walk in the footsteps of the region’s pioneers.

It is also an impressive example of international co-operation. Jeff James, keeper of the UK's National Archives, told The National that his organisation has never before collaborated on such a large scale. It is fitting that the UK, which had an administrative role in the Trucial states until the UAE gained independence in 1971, should play such a role. In both reaffirming the nation's commitment to preserving its heritage and pursuing international co-operation, this project is a source of genuine pride to us all.