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Friday, June 14, 2024

The UAE: A Brief History, Part 4 - Administering to a Tribal Society

by Erin Mc Cafferty

Illustrations by Guillermo Munro Colosio

The territories of the Gulf region were stretched over large tracts of land. Because of this and given the limited means of transport, the wali system of governance was employed by the Sheikhs

In previous articles we established that the society of the UAE was predominantly tribal with powerful Sheikhs ruling the various tribes that were usually spread across large tracts of land.

This was no mean feat given that modern means of transport – cars and motorboats – were only introduced to the Gulf in the 1960s when the oil companies came. Before that, only camels or traditional dhows were available as ways of getting around and communication was typically slow.

For this reason the Sheikhs usually elected a permanent representative or ‘wali’ to oversee their territor y. The wali was answerable to the Sheikh and it was common for him to be a close family member ie a brother or a son, to ensure loyalt y.

The Qasimi clan for example ruled a large tract of land, which in the early 19th century encompassed the area north of Sharjah on the west coast with Khaur Kalba on the east coast, but excluded the inaccessible area north of Sha’am and Dibah. There were an approximate 45,500 settled people living there at the time.

The patriarch of the Qasimi’s Sultan bin Saqr therefore delegated rule of the area to his brothers and later his sons.

Sali bin Saqr – his half brother was wali until 1838. He was considered an enlightened leader and was popular with the British who occupied the coastal region. However he was later replaced by Saqr – a son of Sultan bin Saqr – who tried to make himself an independent ruler of Sharjah by lowering the pearling tax and therefore increasing his popularity. His father intervened however and agreed to hand over rule to his son in return for a percentage of the revenue of Sharjah; and Saqr remained a virtually independent ruler of Sharjah until his death in 1846.

When this happened, Sharjah reverted back to the rule of Sultan bin Saqr, who during the course of his life (he died age 85 in 1866) installed a series of sons to rule this area. For a brief two years another of his sons – Sheikh Sultan Khalid not only ruled Sharjah successfully but managed to reunite it with Ras Al Kaimah – which had once been part of the Qasimi empire. However after his death in 1866, the two principalities were once again separated.

This joining together and later separating of various principalities was common place during the last couple of centuries with all of the territories in the Gulf region.

The district of Ra’s al Khaimah was much smaller than the area under the Qasimi rule. But was considered important because of its natural harbour. It consisted of about 1,000 households at the turn of the century – most of these made a living from pearling or agriculture.

Under the rule of Salim bin Sultan, a wali was appointed to collect taxes and customs; to organise defense of the town; and generally deal with day-to-day administration. These were typical duties for someone in his position. However his main task was to be available to oversee disputes between individuals and to dispense justice in consultation with a qadi or a mutawwa. The diving court, salifah al ghaus, was responsible for settling disputes arising out of preparations from the annual diving season and the debts and claims which often followed it.

At different times in the last century, the ruler of Ra’s Al Khaimah was either dependent on the ruler of Sharjah; de facto dependent; or completely independent. It was usual that when a wali was dependent that a percentage of the district’s taxes (from revenue on pearling, agriculture and date farming) were given to the rulers of Sharjah. But while Shajah was a powerful area – maintaining a steady revenue, Ra’s Al Khaimah was much poorer.

However Ra’s Al Khaimah itself had a number of dependencies. These included: the Shihuh – who although they were subjects of the Sultanate of Muscat usually owned property and had customary rights there. Sha’am, Jazeer Al Hamra and Rams are examples of Shihuh villages which came under the juristriction of Ra’s Al Khaimah.

Dibah – a sizeable settlement on the east coast which dates back to pre- Islamic times was an important Qasimi dependency throughout the last century. Its wealth lay not in trade or in pearling, but in dates. It had an estimated 10,000 date trees. But during the early 19th century Dibah had closer ties with Ra’s Al Khaimah than Sharjah.

Throughout Dibah’s dependency, its history is characterised by rivalry with its Shihuh neighbours. The wali installed by the Qasimis to oversee it therefore had to make allies to protect it from advances by the Shihuh.

The Shihuh became more powerful as time went on and increasingly tried to encroach on Dibah territory. In 1932, Rashid bin Ahmad, the wali of Dibah was forced to approach the Sultanate of Muscat for help. In return however Muscat unexpectedly demanded that they take over rule of Dibah and the ruler of Sharjah, realising he was going to lose the territory sought help from the British Government. They intervened and the territory remained under Sharjah’s rule.

For many years Dibah could only be reached by sea from the other Sharjah dependencies on the east coast – Khaur Fakkan and Kalba. In modern times however passes have been blasted through several rocky headlands making it more accessible. What’s more since the formal independence of Fujairah in 1952, the Sheikh of Fujairah has maintained a wali at Dibah.

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