Who are the Emiratis?

The United Arab Emirates was established in 1971. However, the constituent elements of the country have much deeper roots. Successive waves of migrants have settled in the lands of the Emirates over the past 10,000 years. This short presentation will explore the main episodes of migration and discuss the resulting synthesis – both ‘melting pot’ and ‘mosaic’ – which defines the national character of the Emirates. It is further argued that a distinct regional identity existed from early times and that this provided a solid foundation on which to build a successful nation state. Dr Timothy Power is an archaeologist and historian focusing on Arabia and the Islamic world. He is a consultant to the Abu Dhabi Department of Culture and Tourism and freelancer for The National newspaper. His forthcoming book ‘A History of the Emirati People’ will be published in 2021 to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the Emirates.

Production Highlights

    Event, conference, 3 cameras, interviews
  • Location:
    Cambridge (UK)
  • Cameras:
    3 x Canon C200
  • Sound:
    SoundDevices MixPre 3 II, 1 x Sennheiser MKH-416 (XLR), 5 x Sennheiser AVX ME (XLR wireless lapel mics), 2 Zoom H4N
  • Monitor/Rec:
    Atomos Sumo 19''
  • Editing:
    Davinci Resolve, Premiere Pro, After Effects, Audition
  • Crew:
    Samuele Lilliu (Director), Oggi Tomic (General setup, Cam B), 2 freelancers.
The following article was edited from the transcript of Timothy Power's talk "Who are the Emiratis?" for the inaugural event of the Cambridge University Emirati Society (28 November 2019, St. John's College, Cambridge University).

DISCLAIMER: This article is not referenced and represents a transcript of the video. The views expressed here are those of the speaker and do not represent or reflect the views of Samuele Lilliu.

Timothy Power (TP). History, archaeology, despite what people might led you to believe, is not an objective science, and even scientific aspects are subject to interpretation. This is my interpretation of the history of the Emirati people. What I wanted to talk about today was a slightly controversial and engaging question ‘Who are the Emiratis?’

Hopefully I’ll try to answer the best I can in this presentation, but, again, I’ll stress this, this is my interpretation over the past 10 years living and working in the Emirates. There are others and they are all, well, equally valid, let’s say.

The idea of this 125,000 years of Emirati history comes largely from the site of Jebel Faya and another one that Peter [Hellyer] mentioned [called] Jebel Barakah, from the Palaeolithic period. They are interesting because they show that people were active in this period. People have argued on the basis of this, there is a southern route of human dispersals moving out of Africa and to the rest of the world. The trouble is that there is a massive gap of about 115,000 years before human beings return to this area of the world in what is known as the Holocene repopulation of Arabia after the Ice Age, when we get the Neolithic revolution in the Fertile Crescent leading to overcrowding and overpopulation driving emigration from Syria-Palestine. About 8,000 BC people from Syria-Palestine reached South East Arabia. We think they are from Syria-Palestine because of the tool typology, the things they are using, they were carrying, fits with the Neolithic revolution coming out of Syria-Palestine. These people constitute the baseline gene pool of the present Emirati people. [For example], two Emirati friends had their DNA tested and they found that ‘Lebanese’ DNA was very significant. It is not actual ‘Lebanese’ DNA, it’s actually the DNA from ancient nomadic pastoralists [herders], who were moving out of that region many thousands of years ago.

It is not until about 4,500 years ago that we get evidence for craftwork and farming, metal working and ceramic production. All of this was introduced from South East Iran / Baluchistan [Pakistan]. These pots on the left are Baluchi, while the ones on the right are local [Emirati] imitations of these older ceramic traditions. Ceramics appear in the Emirates perfect, the technology is already fully developed, there is no developmental stage. They are clearly developing through direct technology transfer. Already we are seeing that that people in the Emirates have relations with those neighbouring regions.

The domestication of the camel, which has been much discussed, during the Iron Age allowed these Arabian caravan networks to develop. This brought South East Arabia much more fully into the Arabian Peninsula. Up to that point, without the camel, South East Arabia is kind of cut off from the rest of the peninsula. There is the Rub Al Khali [Empty Quarter desert], these big deserts on one side, on the other side you’ve got the ocean. Without the camel you can’t cross the deserts and the interaction with the rest of Arabia is quite difficult.

This led to about 300 BC, at the end of the Iron Age with the collapse of the Iron Age civilization we have another possible migration event, with people coming in from the regions of Western Arabia, but basically you can see that we have these tower tombs, these sort of Hellenistic rectilinear forts. Here famously Palmyra [Syria], Mada'in Saleh and Qaryat Al Faw [Saudi Arabia], and these architectural features are found in the Emirates at the site called Mleiha. We know a little bit more, really, about the identity of these people than we do for any previous group, because of writing.

This tombstone dates to the third century BC. It mentions the investigator – I am not quite sure of  this word – of the King of Oman. It’s the first time that we have an endonym, a self-applied ethnical geographical appellation [name]. This is not someone else calling them something, this is their own name for themselves. Oman is something that is going to kick around over the next 2,500 years. The Arabic sources all call this part of the world Oman. Later on, the British when they turned up they called it Trucial Oman and some of the older generation of Emiratis remember the name as Al-Sahil or Sahil Uman Al-Shamal. We also have the linguistic evidence. It’ s really fascinating because the Emirates is on a sort of linguistic divide between these Southern and Northern groups. The Southern groups is still spoken today in modern South Arabia, Harsusi, Soqotri, Jibali, these kind of languages in the region between Yemen and Oman, which are actually related to modern Ethiopian languages.

What you are looking at is a sort of Northern Arabian language, not Arabic, from the Eastern region of Saudi Arabia, Al-Hasa, which has been written in the South Arabian script. In the centre and all around the edge you have Aramaic, which is the lingua franca of the Achaemenid Persian empire. Here we’ve got a fantastic sort of micro-history, worth a lecture of itself as a matter of a fact, which shows many of the cultural influences, which were affecting the Emirates in the earliest stages of its development.

Is there any evidence of this period surviving today in the Emirates? Well, arguably. There is a tribe in the Northern Emirates, the Shihhuh, who speak a strange dialect. Now, some people interpret this as a dialect of Arabic, other people suggest it’s a separate language, that is a modern South Arabian language related those spoken on the border between Oman and Yemen. It may actually be a survivor of the pre-Arab population of South East Arabia. A little bit like the Celtic fringe of the British Isles, where Gaelic is still spoken and parts of the West.

The political unification of the Arabian Peninsula under Islamic rule in the VII century AD in many ways marks the culmination of the domestication of the camel and the integration into these Arabian caravan networks. But at the same time through the first millennium AD there is a consistent expansion of Indian Ocean trade at beginning of the Greek-Roman period and expanding significantly with the Islamic civilization. The gentleman asked about the Chinese ceramics, really that belongs to the mid-eighth century around the time of the foundation of Baghdad, the Caliphate of Harun al-Rashid, remembered as a sort of golden age of Islam. If we look at the historical sources and the archaeological evidence of this period of the ascendency of Islam and the expansion of the Indian Ocean trade, we actually find evidence for communities of Indians and Africans living in what is today the UAE. We have this nice pot. In Al-Tabari, where he talks about the Ridda movement, the apostasy after the death of the Prophet. He mentions two Indian groups, the Zutt and the Sababijah, who were living in the region of Al-Khatt, which is in modern Ras Al-Khaimah. Lisan al-Arab, which is a sort of later dictionary, gives a definition of the Sababijah, as people from Sind and Hind, which is the North West [Indian] Subcontinent. We also have these really fascinating descriptions of the conquest of conquest of al-Basrah [Iraq] in the time of the Caliph Umar (b. al-Khattab), where we have two phrases mentioned talking about the Gulf: Farj al-Hind, the opening of India, and Ard al-Hind, the land of India. They are talking about the Gulf. Now, there is debate today, whether we should call it the Persian Gulf or the Arabian Gulf, which is fed by modern nationalism, but if you look at the these early Arabic sources they do not call it either the Persian or the Arabian Gulf, they call it the Opening of India. I think we can see Indian influence very heavily in the Emirates in this period. At the moment I am working on an archaeological site from the first millennium AD and the ceramics there show very significant influence from India. Vegetal tempers, paddle stamping, burnishing, the copying of Indian vessel forms, all suggest that South East Arabia is to a large extent under Indian influence and that the Arabs at the Hejaz [Saudi Arabia], during that [UAE, Oman, etc.] conquest encountered a culture, which was Arab in some sense but also alien to them and that had close links to India.

I’ve put this other stuff on here, because it is not just Indians living in what is today the Emirates but arguably also Emiratis living in what is today India. This mosque on the right, which is supposed to be the oldest mosque in Malabar [India], was built by a guy called Malik Ibn Dinar, who was a mawla or client [a dependent] of the Banu Sama bin Lu’ayy bin Ghalib al-Qurayshi who dominated the region of Tuam, which is identified with modern Al-Ain / Buraimi [UAE/ Oman]. So you are looking at not just Indian communities in the Emirates, but also Emirati influence in the Indian Ocean. It’s a two way process. So too with East Africa. In 704 AD the Al Julanda, rulers of the Emirates and Oman in the pre-Islamic period, where ejected from the region by an Umayyad invasion. They settled in Qanbulu, which is Pemba near Zanzibar in East Africa and established an Emirate there, which survived for many years. At the same time we have Ibadi [a Muslim sect] sources referring to the time of the first Ibadi Imamate referring to the first 8th-9th centuries AD, which refer to the slaves of Batinah, the costal territory of the Emirates and Oman.

We’ve got these historical references for people from South East Arabia living in East Africa and also East Africans, enslaved East Africans, living in South East Arabia. Not just that but we actually have the evidence for it. On the right these are vessels, vessel forms, cooking pots, cups from Unguja Ukuu, the capital of Zanzibar in this period. On the left from our excavation in al-Ain / Buraimi, are local vessels, copying or imported from East Africa. Again it is very interesting studying the local copies because if we have local copies it suggest you’ve got maybe African people using local clays to produce cooking vessels which were familiar with so that they can cook the food they were used to eating.

So, we’ve got archaeological historical evidence for Africans and Indians in the Emirates in this early Islamic period, but also evidence for people from South East Arabia - which includes the Emirates and Oman - in India and East Africa. I think it’s really striking that the creation of ethnic communities, the Mappila in Malabar in Kerala [India], the Swahili in East Africa is going exactly on the same period as an Arab identity taking root in South East Arabia. So the first millennium AD is in many ways a sort of [pivotal] axial age, it’s the coming of age, when we start to see something that is sort of recognizably Emirati, beginning to emerge.

There is another big migration which has to do with the migration of Amr bin Sasa bedouin tribes into the Emirates and Oman. These are an important group because many of the significant tribes of the Emirates and Oman are from the Amr bin Sasa, including the Bani Yas, the Bani Naim, Al Bu Shamis, Bani Kaab, these are famous tribes and they have their origin in the migration of Bedouin tribes out of the Najd [Saudi Arabia] in the 11th and 12th centuries. These tribes eventually created emirates in the 18th century, particularly the Bani Yas who established Abu Dhabi and Dubai.

On the other hand we have the Arab Faris, these are the Persian Arabs living on the coastal regions of Iran and also down into Makran in what is today’s Pakistan. The most significant of them really are between the 14th and the 16th centuries. We have the Kingdom of Hormuz. This was established or claimed descent from an Omani dynasty from South East Oman, who established or took over Hormuz and then went on to establish a very significant Kingdom, which ruled most of the coast of the Gulf on both sides of the shore. Hormuz was fantastically wealthy and it was, if you like, the Dubai of its age. It is mentioned here in Britain. Milton uses it as a vision of earthly splendour in Paradise Lost, whilst Marvell described “jewels more rich than Ormus.” It’s hugely important for the development of the Gulf and this was really ruled by a dynasty of Persianised Arabs of Omani origin.

When this all collapsed due to the Portuguese Empire, there was a major reconfiguration of the Gulf. In the 18th century some of the Arab Faris, in particular the Qawasim, from the region of Lengeh in South East Iran, crossed the sea, established their authority in the Northern Emirates and established their capital at Ras Al-Khaimah. So we have then these two groups, these Bedouin descended from Amr bin Sasa coming in from the Najd and we have Arab Faris coming in from South East Iran.

But there are pockets of the earlier population, not just the Shihhuh, that might actually be extremely old, but also we have the Dhahiri tribe, named after the Dhahira plane in Al-Ain, and the Sharqi tribe in Fujaira: Sharqi means ‘Eastern’. These are not part of the great genealogies of the Arabs. In the literature these are in-digenous rather than people who migrated in the later period.

We also have these references to Bayasirah. These are lower class, low state people, they could be elements of the inserfed pre-Arab population, they could be migrants from neighbouring regions of India or they could be the offspring of Arab fathers and African slave mothers.

These groups, if you talk to particularly the older generation of Emiratis, they know about these guys and they will tell you all about them. They tend to be found in the agricultural areas like Masafi Oasis in Fujairah and Al-Ain / Buraimi down in Abu Dhabi [Emirate].

Also in the early modern period we have this massive spike in the pearl industry. It was a huge deal actually. [Gifford] Palgrave, the British explorer met the Sheikh of Qatar in the 19th century and he told him ‘We are all from the highest to the low slaves of one master: the pearl’. The whole of the economy, the cash economy, the monetary economy was oriented towards pearling. To expand this, East African slaves were brought in and according to British censuses of the early 20th century, about a third of the population were enslaved Africans on the coast. Zwemer, an American missionary, visited Al-Ain / Buraimi around the same sort of time and put the enslaved population at about a half of the Al-Ain / Buraimi Oasis. We have African influence, a significant African influence, in Emirati culture and heritage, today. The African lyre, the tamboura. This is a photograph in Dubai, with the barasti house and the Afro-Emirati community before him. The tamboura is very important for the Nuban dance named after the region of Nubia, where slaves were taken and sold through Sawakin [a Red Sea port of Sudan]. It is also used in the Zar cult, which is a sort of Arabian-Islamic creole cult, which comes out of East Africa again. We have the lawa dance, which is of Swahili origin, found throughout the Gulf. Here it is being danced in the Emirates. In terms of the music dance and folklore in the Emirates, there is a great deal East African influence.

We also have the Baluch, these are the people of modern Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan. They come in in the 18th century and they are really being used as mercenaries. I couldn’t find any photograph [taken] in the Emirates, but this was done in Zanzibar. We have another migration in the 1930s with waves of Arab Faris and Ajam coming in to settle in the Emirates. They are particularly important for the history of Dubai and the neighbourhood of Bastakiya, which really was kind of the beginning of Dubai’s rise to significance.

In the 60s and 70s because of political upheavals in Hadramawt [region in Oman and Yemen], Dhofar and Zanzibar, we have waves of migration and Sheikh Zayed settled these communities in the Emirates - particularly Yemenis in Abu Dhabi.

In 1971 with the foundation of the Emirates there is a new kind of Arab nationalist spin on Emirati identity, which sort of took root and is still very significant today. But this idealized version of Arab identity is really coming out of Bilad al-Sham [Syria-Palestine] and Egypt and is important to the Emirates and Gulf.

Finally, I would say that internal migration to the big cities has led to greater intertribal mixing that has undermined the al-asabiya al-qabiliya, the old tribal affiliation. There has been quite a lot of mixed marriages, not so much today, but in the 80s and 90s, plenty of Emirati men married foreign women creating a kind of bicultural section of society.

I think what’s really fascinating about this mass migration at the beginning of the 1970s is that it has really transformed the historic tribal ethno-linguistic groups into an Emirati tribe. I think whether you have Afro-Emiratis, Baluchi-Emiratis, or Ajami-Emiratis or Arab-Emiratis they are in some ways an Emirati tribe in a larger and multi-cultural society. They have more in common with each other than they do with the rest of the world. I think this has created a new sense of Emirati identity, which has really emerged in the past 40 years.

So the Emirati people have been different things in different times, like every other nation on the Earth. All I have tried to do with this lecture is sort of to pull out some of the multi-culturalism of the Emirates, partly be  cause I think it’s a fascinating story when you look at the Emirates reaching out to the world.

Audience. I wonder if you could say a little bit about your final points. There is this kind of tribal structure of society, your suggestion is that is now perhaps breaking down and people are seeing themselves beyond the tribe. Can you say a bit more how far that has gone?

TP. It’s a slightly complex issue because we’ve got seven Emirates and the degree of mixing and consolidation of a single Emirati identity varies tremendously. I taught at Zayed University in Abu Dhabi for six years and there were Emiratis of different backgrounds, different places, some half-Emiratis, some naturalised Emiratis, some from Ras Al-Khaimah, from all over the place, but they were all there at a state school and they were all shown the same curriculum, they were all wearing the same kind of uniform, the national dress, there is also the military service for the men, they work together and again, this helps creating this single Emirati identity. I think it has partly to do with the creation of the state’s structure, state’s institutions, which created a single identity but I think really it’s the fact that Emiratis are a minority in their own land. There is so many people from all over the world. They sort of banded together a little bit more I think because of that.

Audience. I was wondering if you though that any of the particular groups that migrated to the UAE had a more significant impact than others?

TP. How do you define significance? I think generally speaking what happens is that the Bedouin Arab communities formed the political military elite because the Bedouin had the military skills necessary to enforce political authority. At the same time African labour certainly at peak episodes of economic activity supplied a good deal of the man power. The main market for Emirati produce was always India, to a lesser extent Persia. But the pearls, the horses, the dates even, where all going off the [Indian] Subcontinent. So in terms of which was more significant, well, is it the economy, is it the politics, you can define it in different ways.

Bedouin basically means someone who leaves in the badiya, which is the kind of the desert steppe territories. It’s a way of life, it’s nomadic pastoralism, moving from place to place herding animals, according to the season of the year. So the Bedouin are one aspect of the Emirati population. They are an important aspect, as I said, because they tend to provide the military force, the political elite, which rules in the Emirates. However a survey, which the British did at the beginning of the 20th century, put the Bedouin population at about 15%. So, although numerically not actually huge, most of population were actually sedentary, they were arguable the most politically and militarily important component of society.