Memories of '71: How three Egyptian friends came to know 'everyone in Dubai by name'

Egypt was asked to send young, trustworthy professionals to work in the new Dubai - and life changed for ever for Mahmoud, Farouq and Mohamed

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In the days of the new UAE, unification meant different things to different people. Some arrived in the years before 1971 to lend their expertise. Others came in search of a better life. And for some, the union meant something as simple yet vital as electricity. In the second of a three-part series to celebrate the UAE's 49th National Day, we speak to two friends from Cairo who came to Dubai in the 1960s.

Mahmoud's sad letters brought Farouq Mohamed and Mohamed Zakaria to Dubai in 1962.

The trio had studied accounting at university in Cairo during the peak of Gamal Abdel Nasser’s pan-Arabism, graduating in 1959. Within a few years, they reunited in Dubai and witnessed the decade before the formation of the UAE.

Mahmoud came to Dubai because of his uncle, a general in Nasser’s revolutionary government. The general had travelled to the Gulf with a delegation representing Egypt’s new pan-Arab government.

At the majlis of Dubai’s then Ruler, Sheikh Rashid, the envoys were asked to send young, trustworthy men from Egypt.

The airport was sabkha. No roads, no people

Mahmoud was volunteered by his uncle. But Dubai was a world removed from cosmopolitan Cairo. Homesick, he pleaded with his friends to join him.

“When he came here, he was alone, lonely,” said Mr Zakaria. “So he sent for his friend, me. He said: ‘Come join me in this desert’.” Mr Mohamed  got similar letters.

“We wanted to have the same group that we had in university because it would make life better for Mahmoud,” said Mr Mohamed.

"I liked a challenge. But when I came, I came with the idea that the return ticket was in my pocket. So I said: ‘Let’s see. If I'm happy I shall stay and if I'm not happy I shall return to Cairo’.”

Mr Zakaria was offered a job and a one-way ticket to Dubai by the merchant Ali Al Owais, chairman of Dubai Refreshment Company, which made Pepsi Cola and had Dubai’s first ice factory.

Cairo-born UAE citizen's fond memories of his last 50 years in the UAE

Cairo-born UAE citizen's fond memories of his last 50 years in the UAE

When he collected his ticket from Cairo’s BOAC office, he asked where Dubai was.

The clerk unrolled a map, squinted hard and said: “There is nothing called Dubai. There are two towns only: Muscat and Sharjah.”

Days later, Mr Zakaria was aboard a 12-seater plane, peering out a window in confusion as the pilot announced they were about to land in Dubai. Mr Zakaria saw nothing but sea, sabkha salt flats and a winding creek.

“The pilot said: ‘We are now over Dubai’ and I looked down and said: ‘There is nothing I can see, absolutely nothing. Where is the airport? There is no airport there.’ I was very surprised, because the airport was sabkha. No roads, no people, no water, no electricity – nothing really.”

'Have you ever seen chicken in a can?'

Mr Zakaria and Mahmoud shared a flat in Deira and Mr Mohamed lived across the creek in Bur Dubai at the vegetable bazaar.

There was no air conditioning, so Mr Mohamed carried his mattress on to the roof each night to catch the breeze, only to be woken at dawn each morning when the vegetable auction began.

There was no water connection, so Mr Mohamed took buckets of water from a steel tank on the roof to fill his bathtub so he could have a cool bath at night. In the tub, he’d catch up on the news by reading newspapers printed days earlier in Kuwait or Egypt.

Mr Zakaria worked as an accountant at Dubai Refreshment Company, becoming chief executive in 1968. This was a hit with the fishermen and grocers who previously relied on canned goods, most of which came from Bahrain.

The man who knew Sheikh Rashid

The man who knew Sheikh Rashid

“By the way, have you ever seen a chicken in a can?” said Mr Zakaria. “This is how we ate chicken in 1963. Canned chicken. You opened the can and took the chicken out from inside, one full chicken.”

The factory was on the Dubai Creek, where dhows set off for India, Iraq, Kuwait and Zanzibar. It had a platform on the crowded waterway and everything arrived by dhow, including sugar, concentrate and Pepsi signs. Even the water to make cola was distilled from the creek.

Most dhows were used in the Indian gold trade, which was at its peak. As head accountant to prominent merchants and captains, Mr Mohamed oversaw accounts for the captains who commanded ships laden with gold.

“At that time, Dubai was closer to India [than Egypt],” said Mr Mohamed. “The currency was the rupee; the only foreigners here were Indian. There were also a few Pakistanis and lots of Iranians who were born here.”

Most Arabs were Egyptian teachers, supported by their government, or doctors from Egypt, Palestine and Iraq, who were supported by Kuwait in a show of pan-Arab solidarity.

“At that time, when you walked in the street you knew everyone by face and by name,” said Mr Mohamed. “When you were on the airplane, you knew everyone on the airplane. Those were the days when you had a small community and our only ambition was to meet every night for dinner.”

Boats on the Creek in Dubai, with the Customs House in the background, 1967. (Photo by Chris Ware/Keystone Features/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Dubai Creek in the 1960s, when traditional dhows still plied routes to Africa and India. Chris Ware / Keystone Features / Hulton Archive / Getty Images

The British withdrawal

In 1968, the British announced plans to withdraw from the Gulf. Rulers worked to unify the emirates into a single state but Dubai’s business community was preoccupied with trade.

“The concentration was only on business,” said Mr Mohamed. “You had weekly shipments to India and when you are shipping goods to India you are waiting to get news that they have arrived. You get this news after seven days and during these seven days you are not thinking about anything except your money.

"You don't have time for concentrating on anything other than that."

“At that time, the Arab world was boiling about independence,” he said. “Nasser had nationalised the Suez Canal so the whole Arab world was pro Nasser and everyone was waiting to hear Nasser’s speeches.

“Here, they were very careful. Sheikh Rashid didn’t really want to involve himself. He said: ‘I like you but I don’t want to destroy my country.' They managed to compromise.”

'You'd look out and find black carpets'

Oil was discovered at Al Falah field in 1966 and Dubai soon had its first export. Government spending on infrastructure spurred private investment in retail, construction and property.

“The government moved towards infrastructure with Jebel Ali, the Dubai Port, the World Trade Centre,” said Mr Mohamed. “Many things started to be made by the Dubai government, which encouraged the people to spend money.”

Car dealerships were especially popular, even before paved roads. Landscapes transformed overnight.

British companies laid roads as Dubai slept.

“In the morning, you’d look out and find black carpets,” said Mr Mohamed. "Sand became black.”

The impact of unification

Unification, known as ittihad in Arabic, opened Abu Dhabi to other emirates.

“The people in Dubai, Sharjah, Ras Al Khaimah and Ajman, they were much closer together than Abu Dhabi,” said Mr Zakaria. “From the beginning, it was almost like one country, people went here and there. Except for Abu Dhabi, of course. If you didn’t have an Abu Dhabi [permit] you would never enter Abu Dhabi.”

Prior to unification, it had been difficult for people to cross into Abu Dhabi without a permit and setting up business in the capital required a sponsor or partner from Abu Dhabi. In contrast, free movement and business between Dubai and the Northern Emirates was common. With unification, Abu Dhabi became more integrated with the other emirates and it experienced a flush of investment from the future capital.

“After ittihad, people were very happy because so many jobs came,” said Mr Zakaria. “The education in the Northern Emirates was much more advanced than anywhere else. This is a fact. So people who had good education found opportunities in Abu Dhabi. Maybe more than 40 per cent of its workers were from Sharjah, Ajman, Ras Al Khaimah.” Mahmoud left Dubai in 1963, after his employer passed away.

But his Cairo friends, now Emiratis themselves, have never looked back.


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