Several decades ago, when the UAE was still known as the Trucial States, and each emirate was ruled by an independent ruler, the lives and needs of the people were very different.
In 1904, John Gordon Lorimer, an official in the Government of British India, was dispatched along with a group of researchers to study the tribal make-up of the land. Lorimer and his team, whose findings were later compiled into a single encyclopaedic publication called The Gazetteer of the Gulf, Oman and Central Arabia detailed up to 44 tribes in the emirates comprising 80,000 people.
Lorimer noted that, “the country is tribally one of the most composite and perplexing.”
The pre-unification years
One of the sites discovered by a French archaeological team in Al Bithna village near Fujairah
Scarcity of resources, and the density of population in relation to resources, gave rise to the phenomenon of the versatile tribesman. Tribal groups often relocated based on genealogical, geographical, occupational, economic or religious affiliations, and the territory was divided among small groups who obtained possession of areas through one or more modes of secondary dispersal.
There was constant threat of warring factions, and protection was of paramount importance. Although they were expensive to build, forts and watchtowers became commonplace as measures to guard territories, trading posts, palm groves or precious irrigation systems. Some of them simply served as a landmark to travellers crossing the desert.
In the years immediately preceding the country’s unification in December 1971, the seven emirates had resolved many of their differences, and the people began understanding the greater vision of their rulers, led by Shaikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan of Abu Dhabi and Shaikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum of Dubai. Some of the large constructions built for protection soon became residences of rulers or seats of local governance.
One of the earliest business entrants in this new, peaceful milieu was the Al Ghurair family, led by Abdullah and his brother Saif, who had the vision and the gumption to establish a private bank in 1965.
After a first branch was established in Deira – then Dubai’s business hub – they rapidly made inroads into the neighbouring emirate of Abu Dhabi, and thereafter across the rest of the country. Now in its 50th year of operations, Mashreq has woven itself into the country’s history as a living sentinel.
Together with the forts and watchtowers, the stories of the tough times they faced in setting up the UAE’s earliest branches showcase some of the earliest instances of far-seeing vision and fear-reaching consequences.
All this helped shape the destiny of the UAE.
The earliest structures
Built in 1787, Al Fahidi Fort is believed to be Dubai’s oldest building. It was converted into today’s Dubai Museum in 1971, housing numerous antiquities
Despite being considered a young and modern nation, a rich lode of history and heritage lies just beneath the UAE’s gleaming facades and surfaces. For instance, in its World Heritage Listing, Unesco describes the cultural sites of Al Ain as ‘a serial property that testifies to sedentary human occupation of a desert region since the Neolithic period.’
“Remarkable vestiges in the Hafit, Hili, Bidaa Bint Saud and Oases areas include circular stone tombs, wells and a wide range of adobe constructions. Hili also features one of the oldest examples of the sophisticated aflaj irrigation system which dates to the Iron Age. The property provides important testimony to the transition of cultures in the region from hunting and gathering to sedentarisation,” reads the official citing.
Peter Hellyer, Adviser to the National Media Council, and author of six books on the UAE’s archaeology and history, is keen to emphasise the country’s long and rich history that stretches back for over 100,000 years. “This history provides evidence of our skills at innovation, our adaptability, our maritime heritage, our knowledge of the environment. All of those things are of fundamental importance today,” he says.
The Hili Grand Tomb in Al Ain
While Al Ain claimed the Unesco distinction in 2011, authorities are also vying for the coveted inscription elsewhere in the country, including Dubai Creek’s 1.75 sq. km stretch from Al Shindaga to Al Fahidi, the Al Bidya Mosque, Sir Bu Nair and Umm an-Nar islands, and no less than eight other sites in Sharjah.
“Very simply, the inscription of any site on the Unesco World Heritage List is a recognition not only of the fact that the site is of value for the culture, environment, heritage or history of an individual country but also of the fact that it has a global significance, that it is of value for all mankind,” explains Hellyer.
Concurrent to this exercise, authoritative bodies are also engaged in preservation and restoration works. Scattered across the length and breadth of the UAE are forts and watchtowers that were built decades ago at vantage locations. Over time, some of these large constructions served as residences of rulers or seats of local governance, and in a set of quaint coincidences, have also had short stints as police stations.
“Some of the larger forts were residences, not only in the main towns where the tribal leaders lived, but also in places of strategic significance, like the forts at Bithna and Awhalla, in Fujairah,” explains Peter Hellyer. “When the rulers moved out to modern palaces from the 1950s to the 1970s, other uses were found for these buildings.”
Many of these historic buildings have been restored or partly reconstructed and now house museums that showcase a forgotten way of life. Some such as Al Hosn and Dubai Museum stand smack in the centre of today’s bustling city streets and pay poignant homage to the past through the eyes of everyday visitors.
The old alongside the new
“It is only when we know our history that we can plan and build for the future,” says Aladdin O. Al Deesi, Regional Head of Distribution at Mashreq’s Retail Banking Group.
“There is so much synergy between the history of the UAE over the last 47 years, and the progress made by Mashreq in the last 50 years. Our bank was established before our country was formed, and we continue to share the same sets of beliefs and the same backdrop for progress. We are fortunate to have leaders – in the bank and for the country – who have the foresight and the fortitude to carefully conserve the past, while steadily building for the future.”
An example he uses to highlight this juxtaposition is the location of Mashreq’s flagship branches in all seven emirates, with each paying tribute to adjacent historic monuments in its appearance and architecture, while serving up cutting-edge and contemporary customer needs.
“Whether we are restoring old buildings or opening new branches, there has to be careful consideration of the milieu and concern for the local communities especially trade. The new must not be allowed to wipe off the old,” says Al Deesi, “and this combination-approach must have welfare and well-being at its heart.”
Al Jahili Fort lies in the southeastern section of Al Ain City, near the Al Ain Palace Museum
Tareq Al Balooshi, Visitor Services Supervisor at Jahili Fort in Al Ain also reinforces the collocation between the old and the new at one of the largest forts in the UAE. Al Jahili Fort was built in the 1890s as a private residence for Zayed The First, and as he explains, “It is a perfect example of maintaining our traditions while introducing modernisation in the museum wing which attracts 40,000 to 60,000 visitors every year.
“Jahili Fort is living history. Just as it did 100 years ago, it has the local community at its very heart.”
7 forts, 7 emirates: Through the passage of time
Qasr Al Hosn, Abu Dhabi
Qasr Al Hosn was built by Shaikh Dhiyab Bin Eisa in 1761 as a watchtower to guard an island that contained sweet water
The shiny coral and seashell covered watchtower that was built in the 1760s acted as a navigational tool for seafarers, and was then expanded into a fort.
In the 1950s, the fort got enclosed within a palace that served as the rulers’ residence, before it was transformed into a museum.
Ajman Fort and Museum, Al Bustan
The Ajman Museum was the ruler’s residence before opening to the public as a museum in 1980
Located in the Al Bustan town centre, the late 18th century Ajman fort, now Ajman Museum, served as the ruler’s residence until 1970, after which it became a police station.
The fort has a working wind tower on one of its bastions, and now houses a museum that illustrates aspects of Ajman’s past.
Al Fahidi Fort, Dubai
Construction of the Bastakiya began in the 1890s. Today, it's a popular destination for visitors seeking to learn more about the UAE's pre-oil heritage
Built in phases in the 1800s, Al Fahidi Fort and Dubai Museum in Bastakiya is this is the oldest structure that exists in Dubai.
Fortified by three towers, the sturdy fort served as the residence of the local rulers until 1896, and had brief avatars as a prison and a garrison before becoming a museum in 1971.
Fujairah Fort, Old Village
Fujairah Fort dates back to 1550
Estimated to be almost 400 years old, the fort built of mud, gravel and mortar was damaged by a British bombardment in the early 20th century, but has since been restored to its former glory.
Located on a hillock 20 metres above sea level, it oversees the city of Fujairah.
Dhayah Fort, Ras Al Khaimah
Dhayah Fort in Ras Al Khaimah. The structure's position atop this hill was a tactical advantage during tribal battles
Dhayah Fort in Al Rams is a tourist attraction today. Built during the 19th century, the fort and its steep flanks defended the tribes of Ras Al Khaimah during the 1819 British attacks against them, after which it was restored to include a stairway.
The only hilltop fort in the UAE, it offers great views of plantations, mountains and the sea.
Al Hisn Fort Museum, Sharjah
The Al Hisn Sharjah Fort Museum is located in the heart of the emirate, once serving as the headquarters of its government
Built in the 1820s for defensive purposes, the Al Hisn Fort was considered the largest and most important construction of its time.
It has also served as a royal residence, seat of governance and a police station. Distinctive features of the square construction include thick walls, watchtowers, wind-scoops, columns and crenulations.
Sited on Hisn Avenue and now a museum, the fort and its environs are a striking example of old and new side by side.
Umm Al Quwain Fort, Old Town
A model of Umm Al Quwain Fort on display in Al Ghurair City in Dubai
The most impressive of Umm Al Quwains’s seven forts is the eponymous fort in the Old Town. The fort's main gate flanked by defensive cannons, and now houses a museum.
Overlooking the sea on one side and the creek on the other, the beautifully restored 1768 fort served as the local ruler's residence and seat of government until 1969.