Bulletin 5 - July 1978: The People of the United Arab Emirates

The People of the United Arab Emirates

by Dr. Frauke Heard

To the casual observer, the easily accessible centers of the UAE appear modern and almost devoid of obvious traditional features. The foreigner does not easily form an impression of the local population, their customary way of life and how they go about integrating into this new environment of dual carriage ways and concrete blocks. The discerning observer will recognize that there are cultural values which are no less precious if they are not manifest in material objects made of metal and clay which can be taken away as souvenirs. He is compelled to admire the skills and the willpower needed in former times to survive at all with a large family in so barren a land. This short study is to assist you in discovering some of the largely invisible traditions which have moulded the local population of today into the hospitable, tolerant and graceful people they are on all occasions of personal contact. It will briefly discuss how and why and when their ancestors came here, describe the traditional tribal society and their economy, before venturing some speculation on the process of that society's integration into the modern state and environment.

I. The Roots of the Local Population

There is archaeological evidence of fairly well-to-do communities who lived in the area as much as 5000 years ago. The tombs at Umm an Nar, Hili and over the border in Oman are not spectacular, but the stone masons who built and decorated them with a few pictorial engravings must have been supported by a society which was affluent enough (maybe through copper trade?) to care in that manner for their dead. However, there is no evidence that their descendents remained in this area, although they may have been pushed into the less accessible mountain parts by subsequent migration waves. Because the local population do not relate their past to the prehistoric culture and people, they, in line with all other Arab tribes of the Arabian Peninsula, claim descent from tribes who once lived in South Western Arabia. For the purpose of tracing the original incursions of Arab tribes upon this coast one has to look at all of Eastern Arabia, and in particular Oman. The migration waves emanating from the South West, probably over a period of several millenia, cannot be easily identified from the legends which have crystallized around these historic events in Arab tribal genealogies and historiography. Already in the South Arabian homeland there seems to have been a distinctive division between those tribes that occupied the Yemen (called Yamani or -- after their common ancestor -- Qahtani) and those that lived further north (called Nizari or Adnani -- descendents of teh biblical Ismail). This division (which may also have coincided with a core of early settlers being Qahtani and the incursion of later immigration waves of Nizari origin) has remained a basis for the differentiation between the various tribes in Eastern Arabia until this day, because it became intensified once again in the civil war of the 18th century; then most Qahtani tribes joined the Hinawi political faction while the other tribes became Ghafiri. Probably between the 2nd millenium B.C. and the 6th century A.D. the bulk of the tribes from both divisions arrived in Eastern Arabia either directly from Yemen or via the Northern parts of the Arabian Peninsula and al Hasa and took possession of the well-watered valleys of Oman and its desert foreland. Repeatedly, their possessions were disputed by conquerors from Persia.

Most tribes of the Northern Emirates are closely related to tribes living on the fringes of Inner Oman and they have adapted their lives to the economic conditions in and near the mountains. The tribes of the desert west of the Hajar range, i.e. in Abu Dhabi, are mostly part of the tribal confederation of the Qahtani and Hinawi Bani Yas. They gradually immigrated from al Hasa, probably some time before the 17th century. The hollows of the Liwa, where the occurrence of sweet water allows date cultivation, became the political and economic center for these seminomadic people. From there they claimed the coast and made use of maritime resources, colonized Dubai and the island of Abu Dhabi during the last decades of the 18th century, and established a firm hold over Al Ain and parts of the Buraimi oasis area in the 19th century. This tribal confederation attracted others, usually Hinawi tribes, such as the nomadic Manasir and Awamis, as associates. The paramount sheikhs of the Bani Yas (from the Al Bu Fallah subsection) thus became territorial rulers.

II. The Traditional Tribal Society

The local society is a tribal society. This statement implies on the one hand that every individual in that society belongs to one of the about 70 tribes which can now be identified in the UAE. This also means that traditionally his existence was largely regulated by the tribal community. Through the tribe and its hierarchy, the individual had protection (an elaborate system dictated which relatives and tribal associates had to join in revenge or to put up blood money in an agreement); the system also served as a strong deterrent and thus as defense for small, weak groups on their own in the desert. In the first instance, most law cases between members of the same tribe are dealt with by the heads of the families, the leaders of the subtribes, or the sheikh of the tribe. The verdict has to be accepted by both sides and is based on the traditional tribal legal practices (urf), known to everybody. Where there is a gadhi (judge, trained in Islamic law), many cases are referred to him. The tribe also provides economic security for the individual: within the family and tribal unit tasks as well as resources are shared; every tribe has recognized rights to certain grazing areas (dar, pl. dirah), wells, beaches, harbors etc. The traditional tribal system even makes a young man's choice of his bride largely unnecessary because he had in any case a first option for the daughter of his paternal uncle. Most marriages formerly were between close relatives to guarantee the continuity of the economic unity of the family.

As important as the tribal structure of the local society is its Islamic tradition. Islam was already adopted by many of the leading tribes of Oman during the lifetime of the Prophet and eventually all of Eastern Arabia followed the new faith. In Oman, the Ibadhi version of Islam became dominant; according to its doctrine the community elects the most able and pious man as its political, military and religious leader. The non-Ibadhi tribes of Eastern Arabia, and all those now living in the UAE, are Sunni, following either the Hanbali or the Malikite schools of law. The doctrines of Islam are notonly concerned with the spiritual life but encompasses man's entire life and his relationship with fellow men and God. For all situations in life the do's and don'ts are clearly laid down - this includes inheritance, commerce, the domestic scene, marital life, and moral issues as well as taxation and the organization of state and government. The local Muslim manifests his being a Muslim many times a day, not only by praying wherever he happens to be at the set times but also through invocations of God's assistance, through frequent praise of God both in misfortune and as the giver of all good, or through recounting stories about the Prophet and his followers. The local Muslim is immersed in his religion which regulates his life and gives it meaning.

III. The Traditional Economy

The economic resources of the country were not enough for any one family to rely on only one way of making a living. In order to survive, people had to be versatile, people had to interchange roles within a group. There were very few fully nomadic tribal groups in the UAE. Most nomads who had large herds of camels also owned some date palms and a palm-frond house in desert oases such as the Liwa to which they returned regularly at the height of summer for the date harvest. In this area there was never a surplus of dates and the only cash income derived from selling camels or participating in the pearling industry. In the mountain wadis and the outwash plains where there are some sources of running water either by artificial underground channels (falaj, pl. aflaj) or occasionally even on the surface of wadi beds, elaborate farming is possible. Besides the date palm, other fruit trees, vegetables, alfalfa and even some corn may be planted successfully.

The life of most tribes in the Northern Emirates was a combination of this type of agriculture with maritime activities. The most important resource which could be gained from the sea was pearls. Since ancient times the pearls of the Gulf have been coveted. But during the 19th Century in the Indian Empire and later in Europe and the USA, too, the demand for pearls rose to unprecedented heights, only to slump suddenly in the late 1920s. During the pearl boom an increasing number of Bedouin of the western coastal region organized themselves into pearling cooperatives, using the Abu Dhabi island of Dalma as their center during the pearling season, from May until October.

In the Northern Emirates some tribal people moved to the coastal settlements of Sharjah, Dubai and Ajman, earning enough in a good year to maintain themselves and their families on the season's takings, and they depended entirely on this occupation.

The pearling industry relied on a complex credit system involving individual boat owners, captains, the divers, their deck assistants, as well as the local traders and the big Hindu pearl merchants who came to centers such as Bahrain or Dubai for the season. The export of pearls made possible the increase in imports of food and other goods, mostly from India. Dubai and the other ports benefitted from this and a certain amount of urbanization can be observed during the first two decades of this century (e.g. wind tower houses). Between the decline of the pearling trade -- because the markets became swamped with Japanese cultured pearls at the very time of the world economic slump -- and the first export of oil lay over 30 years of poverty aggravated by inflation of the price of imported food, world war rationing, locust plagues and dashed hopes of oil discoveries similar to those in neighboring Qatar, Saudi Arabia or Kuwait.

IV. The Traditional Society in the New State

It is not easy for a local citizen to adapt to the change and to stop thinking in terms of asking the tribal ruler for a decision and, instead, to accept the law courts in a dispute, or to send his children to school, or register his car, pass a driving test, obtain building permission, let the municipality fumigate his yard, obtain labor permits, etc. Younger people who grow up with these changes accept them more easily. At present, the females and the old people of any local extended family find it more difficult to adapt to the new conditions of life, because they do not have the same easy contact with innovations as the local businessman and his school-aged children have through their economic or educational activities. The fact that local families are now outnumbered by foreigners in most of the towns of the UAE does not facilitate the adaptation of new ways of life for all members of the family; rather, it encourages local families to underline their status by dress, life style and increased seclusion of their women.

V. Conclusion

It seems particularly worthwhile to study the traditional as well as the contemporary local society because the UAE is full of living examples of all aspects of both. They all exist side by side, from a kaleidoscope of traditional ways of life and values through to the most nonchalant acceptance of the latest innovations which the industrialized nations can offer. If one drives around the Emirates, one can still observe many of the traditional economic pursuits, crafts, and ways of building houses, fashions of dress and the traditional courteous behavior towards visitors. A European observer will be the richer for having this glimpse of the lives of people who have been able to wrest a living from such inhospitable surroundings -- a life with dignity and faith.


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