UAE currency: a history lesson in your wallet

Each banknote in the currency depicts objects, buildings and personalities that have been instrumental in the birth and growth of the nation.

From left, Qatar riyals, a 100 rupee bank note of India issued in 1959 and different denominations of bank notes of Bahrain used in Abu Dhabi from 1966-1973 are some of the currencies from Mr Al Mutairi's collection.
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ABU DHABI // Just a few decades ago, it was difficult to convince tribesmen and bedouins to accept money in paper form. They trusted what they could hold and weigh and, in their eyes, nothing would ever top or replace precious metals.

"The bedu preferred to deal with something they could feel and measure in their trade and negotiations," says Abdullah bin Jassim Al Mutairi, an Emirati who studies the evolution of currency. "They were one of the last groups to switch to paper money."

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There was a practical reason, too, given the hot, dry climate. "Paper just didn't last as long as metal," he says.

However, carrying around multiple metal coins became impractical, when there was a much lighter and more manageable form of currency. The use of paper money gradually phased out the use of coins.

In what is now known as the UAE, money kept changing form and name until it was nationalised and unified with the formation of the Emirates almost 40 years ago.

Mr Al Mutairi has been collecting coins and notes for more than four decades. He likes to trace the history of his home country through the different currencies that went into and out of circulation.

"The history of money is fascinating, as it shows you who was in power when, and the impact of trade routes and foreign intervention," he says.

The history of paper money is relatively recent, with coins of different makes and sizes dominating the financial scene until the early 19th century.

"This area, like much of the known world at the time, first started using Greek coins," Mr Al Mutairi says.

The drachma, in both silver and copper versions, was in widespread use in the region in the 1st century AD, and is thought to have been the origin of the word "dirham".

As excavations across the UAE have shown, the use of coins here goes as far back as the 4th century BC.

One of the oldest coins at Al Ain National Museum is a silver-coated bronze example, bearing the head of Hercules, the mythical son of Zeus, and adorned with a lion skin. According to the museum, the Aramaic inscriptions on the reverse indicate that the coin was minted locally.

"Coins have a deep and complicated history," Mr Al Mutairi says. "Paper money is more recent and didn't travel as far before the onset of air travel."

The first paper currency in the Emirates is thought to have come into use in the mid-1930s. However, these printed notes, along with hand-written pieces of paper indicating a value, signed and sealed by the ruling sheikhs, were not always accepted by fishermen and nomadic traders.

"You can't debate with a piece of metal in the same way you can debate and question written documents and testimonies," Mr Al Mutairi says.

After the First World War and diminishing Ottoman influence in the area, the Islamic coins disappeared from the Gulf region. The Indian rupee appeared on the financial scene with the expansion of trade between the Emirates and India.

The rupee, or rubiya as it was locally pronounced, was paid out instead of gold. Indian traders refused to pay gold against pearls because the value of pearls fluctuated. The pearl industry was one of the area's biggest industries at the time. The first rupee note appeared in circulation during the reign of King George V in Britain, from 1910 to 1936.

The "external rupee", or Gulf rupee as it became known, replaced the Indian rupee in 1959 as the official currency in the Emirates and the Gulf countries. This form of currency was widespread after the trucial agreements with Britain in the early 19th century, and remained in popular use until as recently as 1966.

The rupees bore the heads of various British monarchs, including William IV and Victoria, but were later replaced by the three-headed lion of Ashoka, and elephants.

When the Gulf rupee devalued in 1966, the Trucial Sates - the precursor to the UAE - adopted the Saudi riyal from June to September 1966, as a transitional measure. Then, based on political alliances, new currencies went into circulation.

"Abu Dhabi had its own currency, and Dubai and the northern emirates had their own," says Mr Al Mutairi. "It was a different time with different politics and it was reflected in the use of currency. Abu Dhabi was close with Bahrain, and Dubai was close with Qatar."

Between 1966 and 1973, Abu Dhabi made use of the Bahraini dinar, while Dubai and the rest of the emirates used the Qatar and Dubai riyal.

The Trucial States became known as the United Arab Emirates in 1971, with Ras al Khaimah joining in 1972. The UAE dirham was put into circulation for the first time on May 19, 1973.

Today's Central Bank of the UAE was established in 1973 under the name of UAE Currency Board to issue the national currency, replacing other currencies that were in circulation. The Bahraini dinar and the Qatari Dubai riyal were replaced within weeks, at the rate of one dirham for one riyal and 10 dirhams for one dinar.

According to the Central Bank of the UAE, "a total of 12.9 million dinars and 131 million riyals were replaced by 260 million dirhams in circulation".

In the end, despite all the reservations by the men of the area, paper money triumphed.

"When coins were de-throned, the simpler, less expensive life was gone with them," Mr Al Mutairi says.