Abu Dhabi: When people think of the UAE, the images that frequently come to mind are the nation’s impressive feats of modern architecture, rapid modernisation and technological development.
The Arabian Gulf Digital Archive — a major new digitisation project between the UAE and the UK — provides a fascinating insight into the early stages of this transformation. It provides details of specific projects undertaken, of the political interests that lay behind many of these plans, and of local reactions to the changes that were taking place.
From political telegrams to rare records, photographs and project plans, visitors to the Arabian Gulf Digital Archive can burrow into a huge swath of documents about the history of the UAE and other member states of the GCC.
The records, which were accessible only to people who spent long hours searching through smudged file boxes and in reading rooms in the UK National Archives in London, are now freely available online for anyone to review and download.
Dr. Abdulla Mohammad Al Raisi, Director-General of the UAE National Archives, said the bilingual online portal contains a treasure trove of hundreds of thousands of priceless records, spanning two centuries, documenting events and personalities that have shaped the region. The majority are text records and come from British Foreign Office files about the Arabian Gulf but photographs and video footage from the UAE are also available.
According to a record, one of the earliest large-scale projects undertaken in the Trucial States was the enlargement and modernisation of Dubai Creek.
“This was first envisaged in 1955, when the British company Sir William Halcrow & Partners was commissioned to provide a report with proposals for improvements. Among the report’s recommendations were the dredging of the channel at the entrance to the Creek, the building of a groyne to protect the opening of this channel, and the construction of new training walls. All of this would allow large vessels to enter the Creek, so enabling it to accommodate a greater volume of maritime trade,” reads the document entitled “Development and improvements to Dubai and Sharjah harbours, 1955”
These proposals were ambitious and expensive, and it was a few years before the necessary funding had been raised. The plans were eventually implemented from 1959-60.
The expansion of Dubai Creek set the course for Dubai’s development as a centre for shipping. A few years later, a larger port was constructed along the coast at Jebel Ali, and this would make Dubai’s port facilities the largest and busiest in the Middle East.
Development projects were expensive, and often required funding from external sources. In the post-World War II period Britain was keen to encourage and accelerate the development of its protected states in the Gulf, and in the early 1950s it established the Trucial States Development Scheme (TSDS) for this purpose.
Through the TSDS, Britain provided funds, as well as assistance in the planning of projects and the contracting of staff and companies to carry them out.
Dr Al Raisi said there are many files that document these activities, providing details of the wide variety of projects that were proposed, as well as records of the funding contributed and the work completed.
He quoted Shaikh Mansour Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Presidential Affairs, as saying “If we do not present our history to people, those who do it will come and distort it.”
A record of the Arabian Gulf Digital Archive said a wide range of projects were carried out, encompassing agriculture, education, health and many other areas.
“However, Britain was not the only country that took an interest in the development of the Trucial States. Saudi Arabia and Kuwait both provided funds for projects, and during the 1960s the Arab League increasingly sought to become involved,” the record said.
It added for this purpose, the Arab League sought to establish a development office in Sharjah. This was not welcomed by Britain, who feared that the Arab League might be seeking to use development as a way of increasing its political influence in the Gulf. In response to this, the Trucial States Development Fund (TSDF) and the Trucial States Development Office (TSDO) were both set up in 1965. These served to centralise the administration of funds and projects for development in the Trucial States. Though it was officially under the control of the Trucial States Council, the TSDF and the TSDO effectively allowed Britain to continue its role in directing development in the Trucial States.
The Arabian Gulf Digital Archive, therefore, reveals how development became a means for different countries to compete for influence in the Gulf. In particular, it was one of the key ways in which Britain sought to safeguard its special position in the 1950s and 1960s.
Al Raisi said there are also plans to expand the amount of documents available in the treasure trove to include more maps from the Arabian Gulf.
How to use it
The Arabian Gulf Digital Archive site is accessible anytime using an online fixed or mobile device via www.agda.ae Within its design:
• It holds easy-to — use search filters, each with its own extensive list of additional search terms
• It enables additional search functionality based on a selected date range
• All search results can be downloaded, shared, bookmarked with any comments saved.
• Results pages can be viewed as a single or multiple images, or as text and in various viewing formats
• It is designed to aid accessibility for all users with tools to manipulate size, colour and positioning of images and text
• It is simple and intuitive functionality. It is also optimised using external search engines
WHO IS IT FOR?
The Arabian Gulf Digital Archive is open and free to view and use by anyone. It makes primary source material, with descriptions in both Arabic and English, available to students, scholars, researchers and any interested members of the public.