Sunday, 16 August 2009

A vital paper trail that tells the story of a nation

It was the mid-1960s, the 48-year-old Sheikh Zayed had just become ruler of Abu Dhabi, and he had already set his sights on ending the British protectorate status of Abu Dhabi and its sister emirates along the Trucial Coast.

Sheikh Zayed realised that to be able to deal successfully with the British he would need proper documentation of essential details such as border demarcations, and copies of all the treaties signed by his forefathers and other rulers of the Gulf emirates. So, upon his order, the Centre for Documentation and Research was established in 1968. Its role in providing details and archiving important documents proved to be instrumental in the negotiations that led to the formation of the UAE on December 2, 1971.

As Sheikh Zayed focused on strengthening the ties within the UAE and institutionalising the union, the Centre continued collecting invaluable documents to record the living memory of Abu Dhabi’s emergence as a regional centre for diplomacy and economics, including the formation there of the Gulf Cooperation Council in 1981 and the founding of the Arab Monetary Fund in 1976, headquartered in Abu Dhabi.

When Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed was appointed chairman of the Centre by his father in 1999, its second stage was launched. Sheikh Mansour sought the expertise of Dr Abdulla El Reyes, an Emirati linguistics graduate from the University of Wisconsin who was part of the team involved in setting up Zayed University. Grand plans for the Centre were laid, beginning with a new state-of-the-art building with a 3-D Imax cinema that greets visitors with a film about the history of Abu Dhabi and the UAE.

But perhaps the most important development for which the Centre has been responsible was the ground-breaking publication of a book containing first-hand accounts of the modern history of Abu Dhabi. Dr Jayanti Maitra, an Indian historian and researcher, was working on the treasure trove of documents that the Centre houses when Dr El Reyes noticed a first draft of the book on the historian’s desk. Until then it had not been given official approval to be printed.

Sheikh Mansour recognised the value of the information contained in the manuscripts and authorised the Centre to publish what became Qasr Al Hosn: the History of the Rulers of Abu Dhabi 1793-1966, possibly one of the most detailed and frank accounts of any ruling family in the Gulf region. Bear in mind that within the tribal structures of the Gulf, documenting history is a sensitive issue that most governments shy away from to avoid the risk of irking the family and descendants of those mentioned.

Today, at its HQ in Zayed Sports City in Abu Dhabi, the Centre chronicles the history of the Emirates during four principal eras. In the first of these, the Portuguese era in the 15th and 16th centuries, several Portuguese fortresses were established across the northern emirates, with a mostly military mandate.

During the second era, the Dutch one, there were growing commercial ties between that European power and the southern Gulf that lasted through the 17th and 18th centuries, to secure trade between the major ports of Basra in Iraq, Java in Indonesia, and Amsterdam. The UAE islands of Abu Musa and the Greater and Lesser Tunbs, currently occupied by Iran, are first mentioned in the Centre’s records from the mid-17th century.

The Centre’s third major era is the British Political Residency, which existed, initially at least, mostly to support the activities of the East India Company, and lasted from the late 18th century to Britain’s withdrawal from the Gulf in the early 1970s. Finally, the fourth era that the Centre covers is from the formation of the UAE by Sheikh Zayed and the other rulers of the Emirates all the way to the present day.

When it reached its 40th anniversary last year the Centre’s mandate was expanded to include archives of not only Abu Dhabi but also the six other emirates, and its name was changed to the National Centre for Documentation and Research to reflect this enlarged mandate. Under federal law, all government departments in the union must maintain original copies of all signed official documents to preserve those that have historical significance.

The Centre has spared no effort in acquiring significant documents, and has also been successful in attracting private collectors of historical manuscripts from inside and outside the UAE. It keeps, among others, more than 200 books donated by Sheikh Falih bin Nasser Al Thani of Qatar, to be preserved and archived.

The historical significance of such documents cannot be exaggerated; one of the first destinations of Saddam Hussein’s army in Kuwait was its National Archives. Almost two decades after the invasion in 1990 the looted historical documents have yet to be returned, and Kuwait continues to refer to them as “Kuwait’s Memory”.

By the end of this year the National Centre for Documentation and Research – the UAE’s Memory, if you like – will open an interactive exhibition that will give visitors a valuable opportunity to learn more about this fascinating nation that defied the odds and emerged as the only successful union in the modern history of the Arab world.

*This article first appeared in The National on Sunday, 16th August 2009

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