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Embassy of the United Arab Emirates in France
The UAE has a long history stretching back for tens of thousands of years, if new archaeological finds made in 2006 are substantiated. Prior to this recent discovery, the earliest known human occupation for which there is significant evidence dated from 7500 years ago, when the climate was wetter. Even at this early stage, there is proof of interaction with the outside world, especially with civilisations to the north. These contacts persisted and became wide-ranging, probably motivated by trade in copper from the Hajar Mountains, as the climate became more arid and fortified oasis communities focused on agriculture.
Foreign trade, the recurring motif in the history of this strategic region, seems to have flourished also in later periods, facilitated by domestication of the camel at the end of the second millennium. At the same time, the discovery of new irrigation techniques (falaj irrigation) made possible the extensive watering of agricultural areas that resulted in a veritable explosion of settlement in the region.
By the first century AD overland caravan traffic between Syria and cities in southern Iraq, followed by seaborne travel to the important port of Omana (probably present-day Umm al-Qaiwain) and thence to India was an alternative to the Red Sea route used by the Romans. Pearls had been exploited in the area for millennia but at this time the trade reached new heights. Sea faring was also a mainstay and major fairs were held at Dibba bringing merchants from as far afield as China.
The arrival of envoys from the Prophet Muhammad in 630 AD heralded the conversion of the region to Islam with Dibba again featuring, this time as a battleground in the wake of the Prophet’s death. By 637 AD Islamic armies were using Julfar (Ra’s al-Khaimah) as a staging post for the conquest of Iran. Over many centuries, Julfar became a wealthy port and pearling centre of considerable importance from which great wooden dhows ranged far and wide across the Indian Ocean, trading to Mombasa in Kenya, Sri Lanka, Vietnam and China.
The Portuguese arrival in the Gulf in the sixteenth century had bloody consequences for the Arab residents of Julfar and other East Coast ports like Dibba, Bidiya, Khor Fakkan and Kalba. However, while European powers competed for regional supremacy, a local power, the Qawasim, were gathering strength. At the beginning of the nineteenth century they had built up a fleet of over 60 large vessels and could put nearly 20,000 sailors to sea, eventually provoking a British offensive to control the maritime trade routes between the Gulf and India.
Inland, the arc of villages at Liwa was the focus of economic and social activity for the Bani Yas from before the sixteenth century. But by the early 1790s the town of Abu Dhabi had become such an important pearling centre that the political leader of all the Bani Yas groups, the Sheikh of the Al Bu Falah (Al Nahyan family) moved there from the Liwa. Early in the nineteenth century, members of the Al Bu Falasah, a branch of the Bani Yas, settled by the Creek in Dubai and established Maktoum rule in that emirate.
Following the defeat of the Qawasim, the British signed a series of agreements with the sheikhs of the individual emirates, beginning in the 1820s, that, later augmented with treaties on preserving a maritime truce, resulted in the area becoming known as ‘The Trucial States’.
The pearling industry thrived in the relative calm at sea during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, providing both income and employment to the people of the Arabian Gulf coast. Many of the inhabitants were semi-nomadic, pearling in the summer months and tending to their date gardens in the winter.
Negative impacts caused by the First World War and the economic depressions of the 1920s and 1930s, compounded by Japanese invention of the cultured pearl, finally brought the local pearling industry to an effective end just after the Second World War, when the newly independent Government of India imposed heavy taxation on pearls imported from the Gulf. This was catastrophic for the area. Despite their resourcefulness, the population faced considerable hardship with little opportunity for education and no roads or hospitals.
Fortunately oil was on the horizon and in the early 1930s the first oil company teams arrived to carry out preliminary surveys and the first cargo of crude was exported from Abu Dhabi in 1962. With revenues growing as oil production increased, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, who was chosen as Ruler of Abu Dhabi on 6 August 1966, undertook a massive programme of construction of schools, housing, hospitals and roads. When Dubai’s oil exports commenced in 1969, Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum, de facto Ruler of Dubai since 1939, was also able to use oil revenues to improve the quality of life of his people.Following the British withdrawal from the Gulf, a federation of initially six and later seven emirates, to be known as the United Arab Emirates (UAE), was formally established on 2 December 1971 with Sheikh Zayed who had been instrumental in its formation, as its first President and Sheikh Rashid as Vice-President.
Development has taken place on an unprecedented scale in the UAE and there is a deep awareness that the traditions that were the mainstay of past generations may be lost in the clamour of modern life. Therefore, preserving this cultural legacy and introducing the youth of today to the customs of their resilient forefathers is a crucial component of UAE government strategy. As a visit to a local school, feast or festival is likely to confirm, Emirati music, dance, poetry, story-telling, and heritage sports such as falconry, camel-racing and sailing are alive and well.A key part of the preservation process has involved making sure that physical evidence of the UAE’s rich heritage is not lost and conservation of many of its unique archaeological and architectural sites and its manuscripts has been given top priority. Literature and customs are widely studied in schools, while museum displays, heritage villages and the rebuilding of vanished monuments have helped to create a context and feel for this cultural legacy.
Development of Saadiyat Island is the cornerstone of Abu Dhabi’s ambitious plans to transform the emirate into a major tourist destination, with cultural tourism being the driving force behind this inspiring project. Saadiyat’s Cultural District will contain a series of spectacular innovative buildings designed by four of the world’s leading architects: Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim, Tadao Ando’s Maritime Museum, Jean Nouvel’s Louvre and Zaqha Hadid’s Performing Arts Centre. The area will also have a National Museum, a number of individual pavilions and open-air spaces.As Frank Gehry commented: ‘There’s a great opportunity for infrastructure to be designed here rather than just engineered. . . . It’s not been done anywhere in the world since the 19th century. It’s never happened in contemporary times, perhaps the odd bridge here and there that’s beautiful, but they have an opportunity here to make a statement and not just with individual buildings, but as an entire coherent city.’