Bulletin 8 - July 1979: Development Anomalies in the Bedouin Oases of Al-Liwa

Development Anomalies in the Bedouin Oases of Al-Liwa

by Frauke Heard-Bey

(Dr. Heard-Bey, who studied history at Berlin and Heidelberg, has lived in Abu Dhabi for eleven years. The present article is based on observations made during visits to the Liwa in October 1969 and in February 1974 and will form part of a larger work on the restructuring of society in the member states of the United Arab Emirates. This is her third article to be published in Asian Affairs (see also the February and October issues of 1972).)

Abu Dhabi, the richest of the seven member-states of the United Arab Emirates (1) has a territorial area of 26,000 square miles. Over 90 percent of the land is uninhabitable sandy desert or salty mud flats. The country has two natural centers for settled habitation besides the coastal town and capital named Abu Dhabi, like the State itself. One is an oasis west of the Hajar mountains of Oman: it is internationally known as the Buraimi oasis (2) but locally referred to under the name of the principal village in the Abu Dhabian part, al-Ain. The other area for settlement, al-Liwa, is located in the extreme south. The nearest of its villages is 90 miles from Abu Dhabi town as the crow flies. About 60 solitary date gardens and settlements are spaced out in an east-west lying crescent that spans the latitudes 23 to 2310. The most northerly settlement of the crescent is about 65 miles due south of the Gulf and is the southerly limit of the gently rising Bainunah that has medium-size dune belts and sandy or gravel plains.

The Liwa played a key role throughout the two-and-a-half centuries of traceable history of the emirate. It was the focal point for the Bani Yas until in 1792 their paramount Sheikh, Shakbut bin Dhiab, moved the center of his leadership to their settlement of Abu Dhabi, founded 30 years earlier. The Bani Yas are by far the largest tribe within the local population of the emirates of Abu Dhabi and of Dubai, numbering some 12,000 people at the turn of the century. It is a confederation of tribal Bedouin groups who had migrated possibly sometime during the sixteenth century from the northwest into what is called al-Dhafrah. The latter region, two sub-divisions of which are al-Liwa and al-Bainunah, comprises all the sandy desert of Abu Dhabi territory with the exception of the eastern desert of al Khatum. The various sub-sections of the Bani Yas have since their arrival shared this territory with the unrelated tribe of the Manasir and with a small tribal group of the Marar. (3) For all Bedouins of al-Dhafrah, the Liwa has been of vital economic, social and political importance in the past due to its position and its geographical peculiarities.

The country south of the Liwa (Batn al-Liwa) and the adjacent Empty Quarter (Rub al-Khali) share with the Liwa certain geographical characteristics. Large oblong gravel plains extend for one to two miles in an east- west direction. They are separated from each other by an extensive mass of superimposed dunes that rise up to 600 feet above the floor of the gravel plains. Each dune has a moderate gradient when approached from the north and a precipitous, crescent-shaped slipface on the southern side that, if viewed from the floor of a gravel plain, presents a formidable wall of sand bounding the entire northern limit of each plain. These slipfaces are impossible to negotiate in their entire height even for camels. At their eastern and western extremities the merging of the superimposed dunes usually create saddles that form the only communication routes between the plains. Thus, one of the main characteristics of the Liwa and the country to the south of it is the obvious difficulties its internal geography presents to communications.

The Liwa differs from the tracts to the south in that a certain amount of sweet water can be found, while the ground water in the Batn al-Liwa and beyond, although often found within a few feet of the surface of the gravel plain, is very salty, often to the point of saturation. Water in the whole area originates from the very occasional rainfall and the more frequent heavy dews. In the Liwa this water, accumulated over millenniums, gathers in the dunes. Owing to the capillary function of the sandy reservoir, water found a little way up the dunes is usually sweet and can be used by man and beast for drinking, (4) whereas that lower down near the bottom of the dunes tends to be more salty or bitter, although still suitable for supporting date palms.

The amount of water available in any one place in the Liwa is limited. The quality of the water decreases if the off-take is excessive. Sweet water, being lighter than the more salty water, floats on top of the latter. Therefore there are many wells that provide only a limited amount of potable water before turning salty, and they have to be left for several hours to recover. The availability of good water dictates the distribution of the date gardens and hamlets and is indeed a precondition for their very existence. This explains the absence of large settlements, although some of the gravel plains are comparable in size to the area occupied by the nine villages of the al-Ain/Buraimi oasis. The date gardens in the Liwa huddle against the slipfaces of the big dunes and in hollows formed by the crescents of superimposed smaller dunes. These are the most favorable positions where the date palm, once established, can reach the groundwater table. This is also where most shelter from the prevailing north wind is found, for the sand-laden wind in the desert has abrasive effects on the vegetation. For these two reasons, no date garden is found on the southern part of any gravel plain or on the gradual ascent of the dune belts.

The nature of the country and the economic opportunities it affords dictate that the settlements of the Liwa are seasonal, and always have been. The importance of the Liwa's potable water and its date gardens radiates way beyond the confines of this string of oases. It is the socio-economic center for the whole of Al Dhafrah, the desert that is bounded by the mountain foreland of the Hajar range in the east, the Subkhat Matti in the west, the Rub al Khali in the south, and the coastal flats of the Gulf in the north.

Potable groundwater is found in the Liwa in only very modest amounts, thus limiting the size of a community in any one place. Each settlement is therefore only a small hamlet with rarely more than 20 houses usually built on a shoulder a little way up the south facing side of the dunes, sited to catch the cooling breeze in summer and at the same time to be sheltered from sandstorms. Each house (bait) consists of a small compound containing two or three separate buildings (khaimah) as well as a kitchen and a shaded corner for water storage.

Traditionally, all the building materials used were derived from the date palm. The trunks were used for vertical supports, doorposts and beams. The fronds were stripped of the sharpest spikes, straightened by being placed in a flat bed of moist sand and then tied together with locally made rope to form a mat; the leafy ends were not usually trimmed but left to give a slightly irregular appearance to one end of the mat.

Each building is rectangular, about 12 feet wide and up to 30 feet long, the length being determined by the size of the palm-trunks used as beams. There are no windows, but there is a door in the center of each of the end walls. When the doors are closed-the whole building presents a uniform box-like appearance. The walls are two layers of palm-frond mats stood on end and held in place between supporting posts; the leafy ends rise up above the roof and hide it from view. The doors are formed by the same mat sections that are folded back for entry. The roofs are either flat, slightly rounded or gabled -- the type can only be discerned from inside the house. They are constructed of a grid of thick palm branches overlaid by several layers of tightly woven palm-frond mats. The floor of the house is bare sand. More recently, metal pipes, imported timber and Basrah reed mats for the roof have been incorporated into the structure of the houses.

The few items of furniture commonly found are a wooden chest or a metal trunk, a wooden bed, perhaps a sewing machine, a sand-filled rectangular wooden cradle suspended from the roof and hooks and lines for hanging garments, rugs and other possessions. The rugs are laid on the floor when guests are received and for sleeping on. The sand in the rooms and in the compound is blown by the wind. The small amount of refuse -- before the introduction of tinned goods -- was deposited at the rear of the house outside the compound and soon removed by animals or covered by the moving sand. The uniformity of the com pounds and the tidiness of the wind-blown sand around the houses perched on the dunes is characteristic of all these settlements.

There are a few stone-built forts on the plains, which are now in ruins. These consist of a walled enclosure for camels and goats and a small tower. However, all the dwellings in the Liwa are of the type described above which is by far the most suitable construction in a climate where summer temperatures rise well above 120F. (50C).

The people who seasonally inhabit the Liwa are at other times found throughout al-Dhafrah or on the coast of the Gulf. This temporary character of habitation in the Liwa is a result of the limited economic opportunities that the land can offer. The latter circumstances led to the evolution of a well-coordinated pattern of several economic activities. Many individuals take part in all of these activities if the circumstances permit. In some cases certain tasks are "farmed out" to another group within the community.

The root of the subsistence-level economy that was possible in al-Dhafrah was the Bedouin symbiosis of man and camel. This animal used to provide transport, meat, hides, hair and fuel -- the latter in the form of dried camel dung. Camel milk was the daily and at times exclusive diet of the Bedouin. At the height of the summer, however, when grazing is scarce, no Bedouin would depend to the same extent for his livelihood on the less well- watered and well-fed camels. The main supplementary diet for the Bedouin is dates. Boiled, slightly compressed and sewn into palm-frond sacks, they are a lasting staple diet. In this form they can be easily transported and are consumed out in the desert encampment or on the pearling boat. Dates have the highest calorific value of almost any fruit.

It is therefore not surprising that the part of al-Dhafrah desert where it was possible to establish and maintain date gardens should in time become an indispensable asset for the Bedouin of the area. They no longer needed to move away from al-Dhafrah for the summer. In historical terms this meant that the once fully nomadic immigrant tribal groups who make up the Bani Yas adopted a semi-settled existence as they developed their date gardens in the Liwa. (5)

The date palm, phoenix dactylifera, needs little care once it is established. It has to be watered by hand or by irrigation channels for the first few months until the roots reach to the ground water. After about three years the female date palm can produce fruit and may go on doing so for as much as a hundred years. In a date garden only one or two male trees are planted. Thus, the chances for natural pollination by wind or insects -- moths are numerous -- are greatly reduced. Instead, the two or three male pods that grow on each male tree are cut off when they are about to burst open. The 18-inch-long pointed sheaths are cut open. Inside are several panicles studded with numerous little waxen flowers. Finger-long pieces are broken off the panicle and put between a bundle of female panicles that are also frequently released by hand from the erect pods in which they are ripening. A flick or two with a finger will shake enough pollen on to the minute knobs that will eventually become the6individual dates. The male panicle is left inside the bundle. (6)

Pollinating takes place in early March and requires several rounds of the gardens because not all pods are at the same stage of ripening. Care has to be taken that the male panicle does not get humid; if it is kept in a dry place it retains its fertilizing capacity for months or years. Those owners of date gardens whose male palms have not produced good pollen at the right time may obtain some pods from a neighbor, and they are also found for sale in every market near a date-growing region. Unlike female date palms, which have through mutation developed into hundreds of varieties, no distinction seems to be made with regard to the male tree.

The date harvest takes place between July and September -- depending on the variety. By this time, not enough water and forage are available in the desert, and most Bedouin families from al-Dhafrah return to the Liwa. This means that all the necessary hands are available to help with harvesting the dates. It also means that most of the dates are eaten there and then by this enormous influx of population, since the daily diet at every meal during the harvest will consist of nothing but dates, possibly a little camel milk and coffee. Camels too would often be fed on dates of lesser quality. A family used to be considered well off as a date grower if it had enough fruit left to conserve some in sacks -for the winter. When dates were the staple diet, surplus had to be imported from abroad for the winter, usually from Basrah or from al-Hasa in Saudi Arabia. Some families would buy dates for the winter from neighbors, exchange them by barter or get them as payment for services.

With barely enough dates in the gardens of the Liwa to supply the Liwa-based population of al-Dhafrah, supplementary food had to be paid for somehow. Cash or kind had also to be found to pay for a number of other necessary items of daily use which were not produced locally, such as rice, flour, sugar, household goods, cloth, camel trimmings, jewelry and weapons. The much-sought-after riding camels bred by the inhabitants of al-Dhafrah were sold for cash or exchanged for goods.

The other method of obtaining cash for such purchases was to participate in diving for pearls. At the height of the profitability of this industry over 400 boats sailed for the annual pearling season from creeks along the coast adjacent to al-Dhafrah and from Abu Dhabi town and its twin harbor of Batin. The majority of these boats was owned and manned by people who at other times in the year cultivated their date gardens in the Liwa or who owned camels which were grazing in al-Dhafrah. (7) In about May, just before the main pearling season began, some members of the tribes in al-Dhafrah used to go to Abu Dhabi to prepare the boats which had wintered there, to purchase provisions for the four-month--long season and sail to an anchorage on the coast nearest to the grazing areas where the respective crews usually spent the winter. While at the hottest time the families, the camels and a small number of men returned from the various parts of al-Dhafrah to their date gardens in the Liwa, a great number of men from all the tribes of the Liwa spent up to 130 days on the pearl banks.

The proceeds from the catch were customarily divided among the participants in a boat's season according to set percentages for the owner, the captain, the crew and possibly the owner of a slave who might participate. Marketing the catch was usually done while the boats were on the banks: The dealers - mostly members of tribal groups resident in Abu Dhabi -- paid frequent visits to the boats. The income from pearling and the proceeds from inshore fishing -- mainly from selling dried sardines as manure -- were only adequate to maintain life in al-Dhafrah at a subsistence level.

This emphasized the pressing need for economic diversification for the community of inhabitants of the Liwa. Life revolved around camels, dates and pearls. To extract the maximum benefit from these three commodities, special attention had to be devoted to each one at certain seasons in the year, as has been described already. Certain necessary seasonal occupations coincided, such as date harvesting and pearling. The need to absent oneself from one's date garden, from one's camels or from one's boat led to the evolution of "caretaker" arrangements, which throw much light on the social organization of the tribal community in the Liwa. It was, for instance, a widespread practice for those tribal groups who owned pearling boats or who traditionally joined in the pearling as crew, to leave their camels in the care of other tribes. The Manasir have never had boats of their own and, being closely associated with the Bani Yas, they frequently look after the latter's camels. The camel owners pay an annual fee for which the Bedouin would water the camels -- which is necessary about every two or three days in the summer and once a week in the winter. The camels find their own food in the grazing areas of those parts of the desert where rain has fallen within the previous 12 months.

One reason for not keeping large numbers of camels near one's home in al-Liwa during the winter is that at this time most houses are empty and hardly anyone is to be found in the gardens. If, however, a camel destroyed a date palm by eating it, claims and counterclaims can become a burden on the owner of the camel. Such claims used to be settled with the help of the leaders of the tribal groups and families, or else were ruled upon by the governor or wali of the area who represents the Ruler. He now resides in the village of al-Mariyah, regardless of which part of the Liwa he comes from. Such claims and counterclaims could easily get out of hand if there was no witness to say whose was the offending camel and what was the extent of the damage. Therefore the Ruler used to employ someone called duri whose duty it was to go round all the settlements of the Liwa in the winter and find out the facts pertaining to such incidents and apprehend the animal involved. The latter would be taken to the wali at al-Mariyah who would usually impose a fine of a number of units of weights of dates to 'be handed by the owner of the camel to the owner of the damaged garden during the subsequent harvest. The wali would aim at a fair assessment of the expected crop. In cases where the owner of the camel has no date garden of his own, he has to make payment in cash and is given about one week to produce the money. After that time the upkeep of the camel is considered a burden on the administration and the camel can be sequestered and slaughtered by the armed guards employed by the wali. No duri was needed during the summer because all date gardens are teeming with people who feast daily on the crop. The institution of duri was discontinued in about 1967, but the fear of getting entangled in claims discourages owners of large camel herds from keeping them near the Liwa settlements in winter. A few camels are kept near at hand for milk, and someone -- usually a child -- had to be with the camels constantly during the daytime; the animals are tethered at night. If the camel owner can afford it, he pays someone from the neighborhood to mind his animals for him.

Another field where "caretaker" arrangements often become necessary is in date cultivation itself. As mentioned earlier, every female date panicle has to be pollinated by hand very soon after it emerges from the pod. Since this occurs at different times on different trees throughout the span of about three weeks during late February and early March, such moments have to be observed and several visits to the same garden are necessary. For reasons that will be explained later, one man's possessions may be miles apart. He may own a cluster of trees in almost every location where his tribal section has any property. Not every owner is in the position to leave his camels in al-Dhafrah, his fisheries on the coast, or his business in Abu Dhabi and spend three weeks moving from one of his gardens to the next. Instead, the owner will pay someone a fee for pollinating his palms. A tribal community often finds it convenient to employ one man to pollinate all the trees throughout all the gardens belonging to that tribal group and even to its associates. Some oases are shared by two or more tribal groups, as is the case in Muzarilah where half of the several thousand trees belong to Sheikh Ahmed bin Hamed and his family. He inherited them from his Qubaisat ancestor who was a brother of the present Ruler's mother Salama. In this garden pollination is carried out by a retainer of the family who is paid for the service. The other half of the oasis is owned by a number of Muharibah families several of whom now employ one Man from the Hawamil to see to the pollination. (8)

In the larger oases the palms may be owned by a great number of different people who themselves may own property in several different locations. The ownership of the gardens is therefore remarkably disjointed for a region in which moving from one place to another across high dunes requires so much effort. One of the main reasons is that most of the numerous small gardens which often comprise as few as between 30 and 70 trees were started by one man, perhaps with the help of a brother or a son. The same man would usually have a number of established trees somewhere else. Upon his death the gardens are divided among the sons, the widow also receiving a share, according to the local interpretation of the Islamic law of inheritance.

It may be pointed out in this context that every tribesman whose tribal group has a recognized right to live in and off the area, can choose a suitable place, dig a well and start a date garden, provided that one has not existed on this site within living memory. If there is any doubt about previous rights to land which might have supported a garden in earlier times and has since died through neglect or a severe sandstorm or drought, the wali would listen to all the evidence of people who might remember whether the place is the property (mulk) of someone else or of his heirs. Someone who starts a new date garden would usually do so near to property traditionally belonging to his tribe.

Another reason why an individual's property is so dispersed is that not infrequently date gardens are sold. This is again an indication of the very personal character of property in the Liwa. Gardens are usually not owned by a large extended family. This statement is generally true as far as the Bani Yas groups are concerned. Among the Manasir date cultivations used to be joint tribal property, but the records of recent years show a tendency to private ownership in this tribe too. 'Asab, a hollow just to the northeast of the Liwa, is an example of a well-established garden with about 70 trees and two wells which were sold by the Hamili (pl Hawamil) owner to a Mansuri family (pl Manasir) of about seven to 10 members who live there now in the summer.

When a new garden is started the questions concerning the sharing of seasonal work and of caretaking arise again. As has been stated before, the young date palm which is more often an off-shoot from near the stem of an older tree and is rarely grown from a stone, needs a great deal of care during the first few weeks after being transplanted. The more frequently it is watered, the quicker it will grow and produce fruit. A very well-to-do family in the past would have been able to add to their possessions and to start many new date gardens by using a slave's labor for digging the wells and watering the young plants. Not many people in the Liwa could, however, afford to buy a slave or even less to feed a slave from the community's scarce resources. There are stringent rules for the proper care of slaves in Muslim law, which were observed as a matter of routine in this unquestioningly religious community. Therefore few families had such additional help either to take care of the gardens and animals or to go pearl diving, thus enabling the master to engage in some other economic activity -- for no one could afford to be idle. When slavery was abolished the slaves usually stayed on working with their former masters for a fee. Others joined the small number of non-tribal individuals who were available to be employed for a wage. In recent years people from Baluchistan have been employed as so-called bushkar in the Liwa for work in the gardens.

The foregoing explanations show that life in the Liwa has always meant that most of the inhabitants spend a large part of the year away from it. After the decline of the profitability of pearling during the 1930s, this very important source of cash income, however small it was, all but dried up. When new opportunities for earning an income arose from the exploratory work of the oil companies, there was keen competition for the few jobs that were initially available. Some of the most distinguished and able members of the tribal community served as guides for the early topographical survey and geophysical exploration parties. As soon as the first wells were drilled in Abu Dhabi, a large number of inhabitants of the Liwa found employment on the rig floor, as drivers, watchmen or laborers. Each one of these early exploration wells took between 12 and 20 months to complete. In 1951 and again in 1957 the drilling rig was moved outside Abu Dhabi that meant that the available jobs were taken over by the subjects of the sheikh of another emirate, and most of the people from the Liwa lost their jobs on the rig. The nature of their lives and their various traditional commitments, however, were usually in- compatible with permanent employment anyway. Even in later years, when drilling and geophysical prospecting were in full swing simultaneously in many parts of the desert and also offshore and when work was plentiful, a tribal man would rarely stay in employment for long. He would work for as long as the attraction of earning the much-needed cash outweighed his concern about domestic affairs. At any time a tribal employee might leave his job in order to assist hi-s family with the seasonal work or with some unexpected problem, staying for a few weeks or months in the desert or in the Liwa. Eventually employment is usually taken up again with one or another of the companies.

Often the earnings soon exceed the cash needed to buy the necessary supplementary food, the few traditional essentials of daily life and the customary modest luxury items, which were brought into the Liwa from outside. More often than not the surplus would be invested in a Landrover or another four-wheel-drive vehicle. The owner himself or one of the family would use it as a taxi between Abu Dhabi town, the scattered villages and the nomadic encampments. Since the benefits from the oil exports started in the late 1960s to transform the capital Abu Dhabi and the area of al-Ain, almost every male in tribal families from the Liwa has taken up regular employment at least for a time. Others have found ways of earning an income either with their own taxi or by acquiring property in Al Ain or Abu Dhabi. On average, every Liwa-based family has by now at least one son working somewhere in the Federal Government or in one of the local administrative organizations. Another son usually joins the Defense Force or is a partner in some business, and one might run a taxi frequently visiting the Liwa, while the father still leads the traditional life -- from which, however, pearling has completely disappeared.

Not all the social changes that accompany this new pattern of occupation and of life in the tribal society of the State can be discussed here. Only the reality of daily life throughout the seasons as reflected in the Liwa settlements are dealt with in this article. The fundamental statement that precedes all other observations on the life in the Liwa in 1974 is that very few changes are actually apparent in the Liwa villages themselves. This is due to a number of reasons. The decline of the pearling economy drove many tribal families, who considered themselves in the past as based in the Liwa, to find an alternative to this decreasing source of income. Often this was found in the purchase of land where at least fodder for the camels could be grown in addition to dates. Therefore many families gravitated to the al-Ain area. The trend to buy their way into this fertile and comparatively much more accessible oasis has, after all, been the outstanding characteristic of many Bani Yas sub-sections throughout the latter part of the nineteenth century. Food shortages during and after the Second World War and the rations occasionally-supplied by the British Government of India were also conducive to drawing families more permanently to the accessible population centers, while previously in the traditional full circle of economic activities whole families from al-Dhafrah rarely moved into Abu Dhabi for more than a few months.

Many younger members of those families who originally came from the Liwa, but have been permanently settled for at least 30 years in Abu Dhabi or Al Ain, enjoyed good educational opportunities because many of those families subsequently emigrated to the more developed town of Doha in the neighboring emirate of Qatar. Upon their return after 1966, they were ready to shoulder some of the new responsibilities in the creation of an administration or in the development of the economy in the private sector. Now, they have neither the time nor the incentive to visit and cultivate the date gardens in the Liwa.

Change is therefore not brought into the Liwa by way Of frequent visits from these families who had already severed most of their connections with their ancestral homes-before the impact of the oil economy. Even at the time of their exodus, however, their departure left the Liwa settlements themselves almost unaffected. The gardens were either -used by relatives who remained in the Liwa or they were sold to tri- bal families from other groups who were eager to grow more of the nourishing dates in the vicinity of their camels' grazing grounds, but who could not afford themselves to move to the al-Ain area. As far as the members of those ex-Liwa families are concerned, the Liwa is "a thing of the past."

This is not at all the case for the people who left only recently to take up occasional employment. They view "emigration" to the new world of a wage economy in much the same way as the more desert-bound families of the Bani Yas viewed their visits to the pearl banks. It is just a way of acquiring the necessary cash. They do not consider their employment -- even if it is now a permanent job with the Government -- as a total break from their traditional way of life. Therefore they return to their home in the Liwa without fail every summer for the date harvest and as often as possible at other times to see to their gardens. These recent emigrants, however, are becoming more and more integrated into the life of the bigger population centers, and some have set up their own businesses there. Their families today live in Abu Dhabi, al-Ain or Dubai in houses often provided by the Government. Most of these families can easily afford to pay someone to do the necessary work for them in the date gardens during their absence and to look after their camels in al-Dhafrah. Many of them are so well off that it does not even make sense economically to cultivate dates in the Liwa that can be purchased from elsewhere. Yet, there are innumerable families who move back to their homes in the Liwa during the summer, leaving shop, office or workbench for at least a month. They have no problems whatsoever in adjusting to the life of the Liwa because their minds seem to be preoccupied for the rest of the year with thoughts of their property there, which is of the type that they feel they can always fall back on at any time. One can find a businessman or an employee in federal and local government departments who puts most of his savings into lining his wells with concrete, installing a water pump, building a concrete water reservoir or putting up fences to keep out roaming camels. Three years ago, only one motor-driven pump was seen in operation in the dozen villages visited in the eastern part of the crescent -- this was at Gharmidah and was a gift from the Ruler, Sheikh Zayed, to a Mansuri tribesman. In February 1974 the same villages were visited again and five more gardens were found with motor pumps and several new concrete-lined wells and storage basins. These were mostly paid for by the owners themselves, who live and work elsewhere for most of the year.

The installation of pumps and the cementation of wells is however, the only sign in the Liwa villages of the phenomenal economic changes seen in other parts of the State of Abu Dhabi. Considered on its own, the area of the Liwa is conspicuously lacking in any of the usual items of basic development: communications, schools and medical facilities. As has been described at length, it is not now and never has been an area where many people live permanently. This fact restricts the urge to do very much in the way of development. There is at present an airstrip and a tented military camp at Radum in the northwest of the crescent. The Pakistani doctor treats local patients if they come to him and very urgent medical cases can be flown to a hospital in Abu Dhabi. Radum is connected by a track to another army camp next to the new township of Bida Zayed in the desert half way between the Liwa and the coast. Bida Zayed is built to serve as the new center for the population of al-Dhafrah. It has at present 40 compounds each containing several concrete air-conditioned buildings to accommodate an extended family. There is a clinic with two resident doctors -- husband and wife -- and a primary school for boys and girls between the ages of 5 and 10 years. The older boys can go to a school attached to the military camp, but there are so far no educational facilities for older girls. Bida Zayed has the only shops in all of al-Dhafrah. The Wali, who traditionally resides in al-Mariyah, also has a house in Bida Zayed and spends half his time there, since the inhabitants are mostly the people of al-Dhafrah. This is also where the only mosque of the area is to be found, except for the one built by the oil company at Bu Hasa which is itself the most southerly mosque in the State. There are no date gardens in Bida Zayed and probably never will be many. An agricultural station is about to be established a few miles south of the township where there is more water. Bida Zayed is at present supplied with drinking water by road tanker, the ground water being too salty for heavy off-take. A pipeline is under construction from nearby water wells.

The inhabitants of Bida Zayed are the tribal people from al-Dhafrah who all have date gardens in the Liwa. When they moved into these comfortable spacious houses with concrete verandahs raised above the sand -- which is so much part of life in a house in a Liwa village -- they did not consider this as a complete break with their previous way of life. Traditionally, the winter was in any case spent away from the Liwa either in al-Dhafrah or in Abu Dhabi town. The family now stays in Bida Zayed while many of the male members work in Abu Dhabi or in the Defense Force, drive a Landrover taxi or tend the camels in the desert. As ever, the summer is spent in the Liwa.

The existence of Bida Zayed thus inhibits moves to intro- duce development amenities in the Liwa settlements them- selves. This means, however, that the small number of people who stay in their houses in the Liwa all year round miss the general betterment of conditions of life. Their children, as of old, are fully occupied keeping the camels from straying into and eating other people's gardens. Minor health complaints are not easy to attend to, since the doctor in Radum is difficult to reach even with a Landrover. The sharp spikes of the date palm all too easily cause serious eye injuries that require the immediate attention of a doctor, but such basic medical help is inevitably delayed because of problems of communications. It is even difficult to get hold of someone who can write a verse from the Koran on a piece of paper, which is traditionally placed in a flat silver container on a chain round the neck of a restless or ailing child.

The fact that the living conditions in the Liwa settlements have not changed at all does not mean that no efforts are made to help the inhabitants of the Liwa to participate in the phenomenal development of the country. Not only is every tribesman given a minimum yearly sum of 800 Dirhams, but everyone who asks for it can get any amount of help for establishing gardens, digging wells, obtaining seedlings, etc. from the municipality in Abu Dhabi or al-Ain. In principle it is not difficult for a -tribesman to get a house in Bida Zayed if he chooses to live there in the winter; or else there are also low-cost houses available for these families in Abu Dhabi. All parents receive up to 150 Dirhams for a child who goes to school and everything including a school uniform is provided free for all pupils.

There are, however, families who do not make use of the many ways open to them to better their standard of living. The reasons are manifold and vary from one family to another. But the underlying general problem seems to be the fact that those families who have so far not changed their way of life -- or only temporarily -- have riot been able to grasp the magnitude of the changes in the State as a whole. They are disoriented, if not lost. In the past they would have been able to walk into the majlis of the Ruler and find out what is their due. Even now, many Bedouin still go straight to the palace upon reaching the capital. They are received most graciously by the Ruler and never go away empty handed. They are the ones who have learnt to ignore or how to bypass the wali of protocol that is inevitably built up around every statesman, whether he himself likes it or not. The infrequent visitor from the desert is out of his depth in the sprawling, changing town. He is easily discouraged at the palace gate, and he would also not be able to pursue what is due to him, such as a low-cost house, water pumps, etc., through the maze of unfamiliar faces in a government department. The administration is only too willing to extend such help, but the process of-obtaining all the necessary signed and sealed papers of entitlement often present too great a hurdle to the bemused recipient. It is thus largely due to psychological factors that more practical help is not channeled into the villages in the Liwa. The recipient is likely to be so wary of the red tape involved in obtaining a water pump, or the money to buy a Baluchi helper (bashkir) that he prefers to pay for it all himself. The administrators, mostly Arabs from the north, Pakistanis or Indians, are equally out of their depth in the host country almost as soon as they leave their office chair, i.e., their familiar environment. They are therefore unlikely to initiate projects and to go out and bring help to the people in the Liwa. They wait for them to come in and ask.

There are many exceptions to this generalization. It is, however, significant that those tribal families who engage in agriculture in the al-Ain area are well provided with a vast amount of financial, technical and educational assistance from the well-organized department of agriculture in the municipality. There, the farmer works under the very eyes of the administrator and the assistance is tailored for the recipient according to programs that have matured over several years in experimental farms in the oasis and through mutual co-operation between the administrator and the local farmer. Similarly, suitable assistance is extended to those people who are encouraged to live in new agricultural settlements founded and organized by the said department in desert locations in the al-Ain area. Assistance for the communities in the very remote Liwa requires understanding of the functioning of that society which, although urbanized for part of the year, retains all the traditional aspects of its desert wav of life. In this case it is the society in the Liwa that has to establish the terms under which assistance is to be extended. The physical remoteness makes it very difficult for the planners in any field or department to understand the delicate balance of programming a life shared between dates, camels and modern salary-earning occupations.

To obtain help for improving this traditional property of theirs, the inhabitants themselves have to develop a certain amount of initiative. Then, help is forthcoming, as is shown by the three or four gardens where official assistance enabled the owners to diversify by growing crops other than dates because a mechanical pump has been installed and frequent flood irrigation is possible. These crops include melons, cotton, figs, pomegranates and vegetables.

These new types of gardens highlight the problems that the more permanent inhabitants of the Liwa have to face. The owner finds that instead of having a garden full of trees that do not require frequent attention, he now has a number of plants in his new garden, which unless irrigated several times a week, do not produce anything, edible or commercial for him. Either the owner has to be on the spot at least once a week all the year round or else he has to employ someone to start the pump, to move the hoses or to open the irrigation channels. In one such case, the owner tried to come regularly during the winter months from Bida Zayed where the family had settled for the sake of the children at school. But his visits were obviously not often enough, because the plants seem to have barely survived, making little progress in three years and certainly not producing much food. The owner found it difficult and expensive to get a faulty pump repaired and to employ a Baluchi to look after the garden. Since the work in such a garden virtually requires a resident helper all the year round, the traditional seasonal caretaker arrangements between tribal men are out of the question.

Such cases seem to lead to the conclusion that in spite of all the changes people from the Liwa experience in their personal lives when away from the Liwa, the quality of life as led in the settlements remains as harsh and backward as it has always been. This means that communications to the Liwa and between the settlements need to be improved by keeping at least one route constantly graded. The services of a regular touring doctor would make life so much more comfortable in the villages, and the health education, which is eagerly accepted by families in the population centers and in Bida Zayed, would spread to the rest of the tribal families. Regular education is more difficult to organize for the very few children living permanently or for long periods in the Liwa. A few Landrovers could round up most of them on several days in the week so that they could at least start to learn reading and writing. For in due course they will all move either to Bida Zayed or elsewhere and go to school.

The foregoing remarks can be summarized in the statement that considering the breathtaking speed with which the population centers of the UAE are developing their modern infrastructure, time has stood still for the Liwa. However, for the majority of its occasional inhabitants themselves time has not stood still. This apparent contradiction has its root in the customary migration dictated by economic necessity. While away from their desert home for months of the year, some of the people of the Liwa are drawn into a radically changing way of life. The many opportunities for an economically more rewarding and altogether more comfortable life are available to all the members of a desert tribal community. However, as shown above, many do not know how to use those opportunities or to obtain what is due to them. They are still more at home in their property in the Liwa and their minds are as intently focused on the traditional care of it as ever.


  1. It was founded on 2 December 1971 after the British revocation of the emirates' special treaty relations with the United Kingdom. Return to text.
  2. Due to a border dispute between Saudi Arabia on one side and Oman and Abu Dhabi on the other side, which was dealt with inconclusively by an international tribunal in 1955. See J.B. Kelly, Eastern Arabian Frontiers (London 1964). Return to text.
  3. In J.G. Lorimer's Gazetteer of the Persian Gulf published by the British Government of India in Calcutta in 1906, one finds the following remarks about the Population of the area: "The number of Bani Yas ordinarily in Dhafrah may be reckoned at 5,100 souls, while that of the Manasir is the entire strength of the tribe or 1,400 persons: and besides these there are about 70 Bedouin families of the Marar tribe who are accustomed to wander in the Liwa. The whole population of Dhafrah may therefore be estimated at 6,500 souls, but it is fluctuating" (p. 415). Return to text.
  4. Most of the available information on the hydrology of the area is collected in a Water Resources Survey by Alexander Gibb and Partners. The Interim Report of April 1969 to the Government of Abu Dhabi contains a chapter on the Liwa (pp. 91-97). Return to text.
  5. Unlike most other large and coherent Arab tribes, the Bani Yas do not have a common ancestor. Legend has it that the tribal groups who jointly used al-Dhafrah for grazing all came to use a water hole dug in the Liwa by someone called Yas. They were subsequently distinguished from the other tribes in the region as the "sons" (bani) or the people of Yas's well. The fact that the Manasir who share the grazing of al-Dhafrah and the hollows of the Liwa with the Bani Yas have until recently not established more permanent settlements there my indicate that the Liwa as a population center was largely a creation of the Bani Yas. Return to text.
  6. Pollinating and harvesting necessitates climbing to the crowns of the trees that may reach a height of about 30 feet in the Liwa. A wide safety belt made of knotted rope is worn and passed around the tree to support the worker, and a small shallow basket is tied around the waist to hold the male panicles or, when it comes to harvesting, the ripened dates. Return to text.
  7. The Sudan (sing. Suwaidi), inhabitants of Abu Dhabi town, Batin, Dubai and al-Ain, are an example of a tribal group which had a very considerable share in the pearling economy of the whole coast but never owned any property in the Liwa. Return to text.
  8. All the names of tribal groups refer to sub-sections of the Bani Yas with the exception of the already mentioned Manasir, Marar and Sudan. Return to text.


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