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Saturday, July 20, 2024

The UAE: A Brief History, Part 3 The Multi-Tribal Qasimi Empire

by Erin Mc Cafferty

Illustrations by Guillermo Munro Colosio

Having examined the various tribal groups from both the Abu Dhabi region and the Trucial Coast area in recent articles, we now turn to the multi-tribal Qasimi empire

Unlike the ruling family of Abu Dhabi who evolved from the already coherent tribe of the Bani Yas, the Qasimi clan rose to prominence by unifying a number of divergent tribes.

The clan had over the years acquired authority over the ports of the Trucial Coast including the port of Ra’s Al Khaimah. They also owned a sizeable share of the profitable trade of Qishim and Lingah. By 1850, the Qasimis had established firm control over the most of the area North of Sharjah town and Khaur Kalba too.

But, as pointed out by Frauke Heard-Bey in her book From Trucial States to United Arab Emirates their control antagonised the other major powers in the area – notably the Persians, the Omanis and later the British.

The Qasimi authority was not confined to the ports, but included the local creeks and coves and extended into the hinterland. They thus managed to bring a wide range of different tribes together – not by force but because of the benefits of being under their protection.

In particular they controlled all maritime activity on the Arab North Coast and East of Dubai, although most of these ports and inlets came under the influence of the British in the early 19th Century.

For years the Qasimi sheikhs enjoyed a decentralised administration – ruling many of the tribes in the mountainous areas, as well as those on the coast. When it came to the usually non-aligned Bedouin tribes north of Dubai however, there was a continuous tug of war going on between the rulers of Abu Dhabi and the Qasimis. At times the Bedouins took one side and at times – the other.

In the 1820’s, the British fleet imposed a general peace treaty on the nine Arab sheikhdoms and established a garrison in the region. They took control of all maritime activity in the area and it became known officially as the ‘Trucial Coast’ until the establishment of the UAE in 1971.

At the same time the pearling trade was growing, providing a steady income to the Qasimis and many of the tribes which they ruled. This however was severely affected by the First World War and afterwards the Great Depression of the 1920s which lead to a massive reduction in the market for pearls. The final nail in the coffin for pearling was the development of cultured pearls, particularly in Japan, which lead to a collapse of the industry in the 1930s.

One of the tribes which came under the Qasimi jurisdiction were the Sharqiyin. They were the most numerous tribe in the Trucial States after the Bani Yas and resided mainly on the Eastern coast, and also in and around Dibba. They were estimated to be as numerous as 7,000 in the late 19th century.

Fujairah became the main focal point of the Sharqiyin. Although they ruled this area as a separate sheikhdom for many years it was not acknowledged by the British until 1952 when the concessions for oil rights were being negotiated.

This tribe forged allegiances with different groups at different times, but all were short-lived. They lived a relatively hand-tomouth existence, being involved mainly in agriculture and fishing. And unlike other tribes under Qasimi protection, they did not engage in pearling.

The Al ‘Ali of Umm al Qaiwain were also part of the Qasimi empire. Some of these were also to be found in Sharjah and in Ras Al Khaimah and the census of 1968 showed that a considerable number of them had settled in Ras Al Khaimah.

The Za’ab, although not very numerous, played a considerable role in the politics of the Qasimi realm. They could be found in Khatt in the Jiri Plain where they owned date gardens, but they also participated in pearling at certain times of the year.

They were also to be found too on the East Coast and by the 1960s many of them had moved to Ras Khaimah. However late in 1968 the Sheik of the Za’ab had a major disagreement with the Sheikh of Saqr of Ras Al Khaimah which lead to a large part of that Za’ab population migrating to Abu Dhabi and falling under the rule there of Sheikh Zayad.

The Tanaj were another tribe, which although small in number were important in disputes in the Trucial Coast at the time. They represented the largest Bedouin element of the Qasimi Empire and were often called to fight in tribal disputes. They were located around Daid, Ras Al Khaimah and Hamriyah.

The Naqbiyan meanwhile were the natural rivals of the Sharqiyan. The entire tribe were settled and they survived by fishing and agriculture. They mainly inhabited the areas of Shamailiyah, the Wadi Ham and Khatt, as well as Dibba.

The Ghafalah were another Qassimi tribe and this small Bedouin group, which numbered little more than 500 at their height, inhabited mostly the area of Ras Al Khaimah and Umm Al Khaimah.

In general, the above tribes remained under the influence of the Qasimis up until and sometimes after the 1960s, but there were exceptions with certain splinter groups favouring the sultanate of Oman at various times, or Arab tribes living on the Persian side of the Gulf. Some of these even settled in Dubai and Abu Dhabi.

Another tribe located on the Trucial Coast, and one whose origins have long been disputed, were the Shihuh. These people were essentially Arabic but were thought to have some Persian traits. However research has discovered that they may have originated in Yemen and migrated in the second century AD. They were socially, economically and linguistically different to other tribes in the region.

At the turn of the century the Shihuh numbered close to 21,000. They were divided into two sections – the Bani Hadiyah and the Bani Shatair – and both were further divided. Like many of the tribes in the region the Shihuh adapted their lifestyle and habitat to the seasons – although they were not Bedouin, they spent the winter months high up in the barren limestone mountains where they usually lived in stone dwellings. They returned to the coastal lowlands north of Ras Al Khaimah or the date gardens of Liwa in the summer season.

The majority of the tribe however resided in the sultanate of Oman and those that did live in Sharjah, Fujairah and Ras Al Khaimah were mostly very poor and often involved in incidents with the Qasimi clan who had little power over them due to a lack of an army. This lack of social cohesion was a common feature amongst the Qasimi tribes – unlike the Bani Yas tribes who had a very tight social interdependence.

In the nex t i ssue we examine how the shei khdoms of the Trucia l Coa st were admini stered.

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