In the first of an on-going series on the history of the UAE, we take a look at the tribal ties which have helped to shape the landscape of today
here are few countries in the world that have undergone such massive changes in such a short space of time as the United Arab Emirates in the last 50 years. What once consisted of small coastal villages and tribal societies, making a living predominantly from camel herding, pearl diving, maritime trade and date farming, is now home to some of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world.
Although often noted, there’s little reference to life before these changes took place. Yet the history of the UAE is as detailed as that of any other country. When examining it, it’s impossible to overlook the tribal organisations that have existed for centuries and which are, even today, an integral part of the society.
But where to begin and what historical records of its peoples exist to this day? As noted by Frauke Heard-Bey in her book From Trucial States to United Arab Emirates, there is evidence to suggest that as far back as the third millennium BC, a wave of migration brought early settlers – to Umm Al N’Ar near the bridge to Abu Dhabi Island in Al’Ain and to scattered settlements in the mountains. It’s not known exactly why, but the records die out soon after and begin again three to four hundred years later.
Once they had migrated – and before the arrival of Islam – it seems the people of the region began to form tighter tribal organisations. The Abd al Qais of Dhahirah were a powerful nomadic tribe who had long had an influence in the region, but with the wave of secondary dispersal that took place, other tribes – like the Malik bin Fahm, the Qada’ah and the Bani Riyam of inner Oman spread westward from the mountains, into northern Dhahirah and towards the coast.
Their lifestyles were predominantly shaped by a lack of economic resources and changed little over centuries. They were mainly dependent on camel, goat, sheep and cattle breeding; agriculture which due to the dry climate was conducted using artificial irrigation; fishing; pearl diving; trade by camel and ship; and to a small extent – crafts. The harsh climate, which resulted in a wide shortage of arable land, meant that they struggled and not everyone could lead a profitable existence.
Therefore in order to survive, tribes were at times nomadic – embracing a Bedouin existence and at other times settled – leading sedentary lives in towns and villages. They had to be versatile, often spending the winters with livestock in the desert and coming to the coast in the summer to fish; planting and harvesting dates at certain times of the year and at others – diving for pearls; steering a caravan through the desert on occasion and later – a ship through the Arabian Gulf.
Life in the UAE was not easy at this time. Whilst agriculture was limited because of a lack of arable land and access to water, trade and other maritime activities were limited due to competition from more easily accessed ports in Bahrain and Muscat. Pearling meanwhile was dependent on a receptive foreign market. Only fishing remained a constant and this never brought a huge amount of wealth. The limited resources in the area also discouraged immigration.
In fact before the discovery of oil in the mid 20th century and the new economic opportunities it afforded, the UAE population could not define themselves as merely settled inhabitants, merchants, fishermen, pearl divers or farmers, and as a result their tribal ties were all-important to their identity.
Amongst the main tribes were the Bani Yas of Abu Dhabi who numbered approximately 12,000 people (2,000 of whom were said to be nomadic) at the beginning of the 20th century. Their members were found in Dubai and Abu Dhabi; as well as in scattered settlements along the coast, with others in Bani Yas Island.
Like all tribes of this size, they had sub-sections and were allied to other tribes too. In fact to this day there are thought to be over 20 sub-groups which affiliate themselves with the Bani Yas, although their numbers have depleted in the last 100 years.
These sub-sections include the Al Bu Falah or Al Nahyan who tradionally provided the ruler of Abu Dhabi; the Al Bu Mahair – who were the most numerous; the Al Bu Falasah who in 1833 moved to the fishing village of Dubai (which had until then been controlled by the Al Bu Falah).
And there are numerous other subsections like the – the Qubisat; the Mazari; the Hawamil and the Maharibah.
Despite the various sub-groups and affiliations, the Bani Yas were a strong, coherent tribe due partly to the fact the various sub-sections and allied groups did not live separate lives – they helped each other whenever possible. For example they had arrangements where nomads of one group would care for the camels of another at certain times; and those who had no pearling boats would go on the boats of others. They frequently mingled and often intermarried too.
According to the writer Heard-Bey, after the Bani Yas, the largest tribe in the region was the Manasir. Known for their fighting abilities, the members were often called upon by the rulers of Abu Dhabi in times of war. This tribe had five distinct sub-sections – the largest were the Al Bu Rahmah, the Al Bu Mundir and the Al Bu al Sha’ar. The Al Bu Khail and the Al Bu Hamir were much smaller sub-sections of the tribe.
Like the Bani Yas, the Manasir were both nomadic and settled. They were however considered experts on tribal affairs and were frequently called upon for advice in this respect.
The Dhawahir were a third tribe who lived within the jurisdiction of the ruler of Abu Dhabi. As the principal date farmers, they formed the bulk of the settled people in the region for most of the year. However the entire tribe became nomadic in the winter months, turning to sheep, goat and camel herding in the desert.
Other tribes came under the ruling of Abu Dhabi but at times they disappeared almost completely into the desert. The largest and most politically important of these, according to this particular study, was the Awamir, but the Al Murrah who are based in al Hasa and Jabrin, also frequently visited and spent time in Abu Dhabi.
Because of the Bedouin nature of many of these tribes it was difficult to quantify the overall population of Abu Dhabi at any given point. What’s more tribal politics in this area were concerned with authority over people and not land, as pointed out by Heard Bey. “Since sovereignty over people was far from permanently binding, sovereignty over territory was even less tangible in the tribal politics of which Abu Dhabi was still a part in the 1950s,” she writes.
However she continues, on closer inspection, the tribes of the Trucial Coast had little allegiance to the Bani Yas or indeed Abu Dhabi. And of course Abu Dhabi, although now the capital, is just one part of the UAE and there were tribes throughout.
This difference between the tribes of this region and others was to become more pronounced in the 19th and 20th centuries and especially with the advent of the Second World War when the search for oil was taken up in earnest.
But more of this in the next issue when we will examine tribes in other parts of the region.
The information in this article is taken from the book From Trucial States to United Arab Emirates by Frauke Heard-Bey; published by Motivate Publishing, Dubai; 2004.