When we think off the UAE these days we see an amazing array of architectural sights, of palatial hotels an luxurious consumer goods and most importantly a seemingly oasis of stability and good will in the viperous cauldron of racial, ethnic, and religious hatreds that characterize the Middle East today. It was not always that way. The ancestors of these paragons of liberality once lived off of the thriving slave trade from Africa and piracy. They were described as “monsters.”A quote from an old British official in the Persian Gulf used by JB Kelly in his terminal work on. the Persian Gulf
“Their occupation is piracy and their delight murder and to make it worse they give you the most pious reasons for every villainy they commit…if you are their captive and you offer everything to save your life , they say. “No it is written in the Koran that it is unlawful to plunder the living , but we are not prohibited for stripping the dead.” To end the piracy and stop slave trading the British took control of the Gulf and until the late sixties they were the ultimate power.( J.B. Kelly: Britain and the Persian Gulf, 1795-1880)
The two missiles fired at Abu Dhabi by the Houthis brought to mind my time with the Trucial Oman Scouts in 1968. I was a Foreign Area Specialist ( Now called FAO) assigned to the American embassy in Beirut and my boss, the Army attache, sent me down to spend a summer with the Scouts while the American University of Beirut was in recess. It was one of the best tours of my time in the Arab world, and I learned a lot. Luckily I caught on to the tail end of the British lingering bits of colonialism and benevolent imperialism. I learned a lot from some of the old British hands in the Gulf, as my AUB mentor, Dr. Joseph Malone knew them all, oil facility managers, professors, and Gulf Arab personalities. Except for the problems that Nasser was fomenting,. and the coming to power of the Ba’athists in Iraq, it was a good time to learn and soak up Arab culture.
I wrote about my time with the scouts in this blog…“The waning days of old Arabia.” but enough reminiscences for now, as the important facts to know about the UAE is that is a federation of seven sheikdoms, in order of importance, Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Sharjah, and after that four others, Ajman,Umm Al Qaiwain, Ras al Khaimah and Fujairah. Each of the Emirates has its own ruler, always a family affair, and at one time were basically independent of one another, protected from potential outside enemies by the British officered Trucial Oman Scouts. One example being the dustup at the Buraimi oasis 1952-55 in which the Saudis tried unsuccessfully to take over the area. The emirates themselves were not always good neighbors among themselves and up to the seventies there were minor clashes between rival emirate police or ruling sheikh guard units. There was also a great deal of intra family fratricide that made ruling a perilous duty.
The Gulf that I spent the summer in was only slightly more modernized than that of David Holden, the Sunday Times correspondent which he described from his visit in about 1963. ( Farewell to Arabia)
“..Dubai was the biggest town on the coast. Perhaps 40,000 people were gathered there then: and it was a measure of both its importance compared to the rest of the Sheikdoms and its insignificance in most other other contexts that seaman in the gulf knew it simply as the light –after the solitary electric illumination in the middle of the town, over the offices of Gray, Mackenzie, the British shipping agents.” Holden described the a salt water creek that divided Abu Dhabi from Dubai as a “stinking lavatory” and there was no way of crossing other than ferry. He described the Sheikdoms as a picture of “unrelieved poverty and barrenness.” I remember the first roundabout built in Abu Dhabi. It went no where. I also remember that passengers disembarking at Abu Dhabi from the BOAC flights from India would strip down and take the sun on the runway.
In 1962 the first shipment of oil from Abu Dhabi took place and from then on the world of the mostly bedu and settled nomads (Hadara) on the Arab coast began to change for ever. Dubai became the entrepôt of the Trucial States and Abu Dhabi became the richest little country in the world. But as some contend riches come with a downside as well.
Now the UAE has become the darling of the Western media with its seeming assimilation into the Western civilization, what some call, westoxfication, liberalizing many aspects of the very conservative gulf societies. Women drive, fly aircraft, open luxury stores, have a high educational level, and serve in the military. The UAE has established cordial ties with Israel, and the Israeli TV network K24 constantly airs clips on the great life in Abu Dhabi and Dubai. Indeed, the cities are an amazing place of pristine streets and breathtaking buildings…. or more truthfully grandiose structures.1 It is a living, working Disney land of luxury stores, restaurants and living accommodations, with luxury goods difficult to find anywhere else in the world. For westerners it is a paradise with over 100 golf courses, many Hash House Harrier clubs, and plenty of booze. Now it would seem that since only about 20% of the population are citizens that would be a problem of the patricians vs. the helots, but in reality the South Asians that do the manual labor, Filipinos that do the nanny duties, are so happy to have jobs and send back money to their families that they have no desire to rock the boat– even through their status is similar to that of indentured servants. Westerners and Levantine Arabs do much of the managerial work and the Emiratis are free to do as little or much as they desire.
JB Kelly, the indefatigable chronicler of the Gulf wrote,
“Masses of money and hordes of migrants have poured into the Gulf States and with migrants have come novelties and gadgets of a material kind, but also political, intellectual and cultural ideas, most of them strange ……..Altogether these forces have debauched the people of then Gulf as severely as they were ravaged by periodic outbreaks of plague and cholera in previous centuries, and to an extent as alarming as the span of time in which the contagion has been occurring has been brief,” Arabia the Gulf and the West.
Well it would seem that JB Kelly’s depiction of a bleak future has been avoided but the advanced age of this analyst produces a degree of pessimism.
The UAE armed forces has come in for high praise, General Mattis called it a “little Sparta” and the ruler has deployed his forces in peacekeeping roles to Lebanon, Somalia, Afghanistan, and I believe Kosovo as well. They apparently functioned professionally. However when they deployed to Yemen in defense of the Yemeni “internationally recognized government” things went awry. The rebel Houthies have always been a thorn in the side of foreign invaders, Egyptians, Saudis, and Emiratis. The performance of the UAE troops in Yemen has been less than sterling, and after one particularly bloody incident in which 21 Emirati soldiers were killed, they changed their strategy, withdrawing most of their combat troops from the front lines and using their unlimited funds to put together a surrogate force that has apparently been doing quite well.
Both Athol Yates ( The Evolution of Armed Forces of the United Arab Emirates) and Zoltan Barany ( Armies of Arabia:Military Politics and Effectiveness in the Gulf) are cautiously optimistic in their assessments of the UAE military forces and political stability. Both books are a must to read if you want to understand the Gulf military issues. They are both excellent books and essential reading.
There is little I could disagree with in either book. My last time I was in the Gulf was a week or so in Qatar on the way in and out of Iraq in 2004. My problem with the rags to riches stories in the Middle East is that they tend to be short-lived. Middle Easterners have been through these seemingly near miraculous propulsions of Middle Eastern countries into a form of westernization. During my time in the Middle East, first it was Nasser with his ” “Socialism with an Arab face”, ending with a quagmire in Yemen and a disaster in the 1967 war. The Shah of Iran supposedly transformed his country into a technocratic Western state with Persian trappings, then Turkey, the once model Islamic country “coexisting with secular Western culture” has retreated into a haven for Muslim Brotherhood cutthroats. Lebanon, the once renown as bridge between the East and West is a horrendous mess controlled by Hezbollah Islamists. Even Iraq under the Caligula of the the Arab world, Saddam, in the mid 1980’s was seen by some as the westernizing beam of light. The promises of none of them have been fulfilled.
The longer one studies the Middle East the more skeptical, bordering on cynical, one gets. The miracle of the UAE is, as always in the Middle East, based on the strength and acumen of the leader, in this case Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayad al Nahyan. More importantly his father, Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan ( previously they used Al Bu Falah as family name) set the stage for a stable development and controlling the massive infusion of money, mollifying the envy of his fellow emirs. His personality and will power, plus negotiating skills, have wrought about the miracle of Abu Dhabi and Dubai wisely using (mostly) the huge infusion of money. He skillfully manipulated his fellow sheikhs and ran rough shod over them when necessary- which was often. His son, the present Sheikh Khalifa, has followed suit better than most expected. (When I saw him at a Bedu sword dance event in the sixties he seemed rather effeminate to me). However small the fiefdoms the other emirs, possessively, and sometimes resentfully, guard their prerogatives based on their tribal and family lineages. This is particularly true of Sheikhs of Dubai, particularly the present somewhat erratic Emir Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum.
The frequent spats and disagreements among the rulers are now in abeyance midst the flood of money and extravagances, but the jealousies and envy continues among the seven potentates, ever protective of their small fiefdoms, held together by their mutual survival instincts. The question is… surely circulated by the Iranian strategists among the Houthies …. how long will the other emirs of the emirates buy into Sheikh Khalifa’s interventionist policies if the missiles continue to come down on the Glass and Steel girder fairyland of the UAE? How long before the tribalism and Islamism reasserts itself?
I really hope this bold venture into a better and more civilized Middle East is successful and perhaps even spills over into the rest of this wretched region of the world, but history doesn’t provide much optimism.
1. Not every one agrees on that. JB Kelly wrote,” Abu Dhabi….has expanded to into a kind of Arabian Torremolinos, a bloated, disordered mass of Architectural vulgarities and grotesqueries…”