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The Geograpical Journal, (RGS) v19, 1902, p.54-64
abridged in Jour Am Geo Soc, v39, 1907, p.597-603:


OMAN AND EASTERN ARABIA
[Three Journeys in Northern Oman]

by S. M. ZWEMER, F.R.G.S.

    ...Sixteen years of residence and travel in Arabia have afforded me opportunity to study the country and its inhabitants.

    Eastern Arabia consists of the Turkish province of Irak or the river country, Hassa with the island group of Bahrein, and the region known as Oman [which included the present-day United Arab Emirates]. The latter is bounded on the west by the great unexplored tract of nearly 150,000 square miles area, known on our maps by the Arabs as Robaa-el-Khali, the empty abode. Although this vast area offers opportunity for geographical exploration and perchance archaeological discovery, it is of no commercial importance, as most of it is utterly desert and uninhabited. Historically, politically, and geographically, Oman itself has always been the most isolated part of Arabia, because, as far as outside communication with other Arabs is concerned, Oman was for centuries past an island, with the sea on one side and the desert on the other.
    The people are more primitive than Arabs in general. Only Maskat [Muscat] has its eyes open to the wide world; that is the only port in all Oman where steamers call. Ottoman rule never extended to Oman even under Suleiman the Magnificent; nor did any of the earlier caliphs long exercise their authority there. The whole country has for centuries been under independent rulers called Imans or Sultans. The population is wholly Arab or Mohammedan, and derived from two different stocks, the Kahtani [Qahtani] and the Adnani—rival races at feud or war with each other.

    The Jebel Akhdar region, or southern Oman, has been explored in part by Wellsted, Miles, Carter, and others. Northern Oman and the so-called Pirate coasts are less known. It was my privilege, while engaged in missionary labour, to visit this region on three journeys. The first was in May, 1900, when I crossed the Persian Gulf to Shinas and Sohar, on the Gulf of Oman, by way of Wadi Hitta. Afterwards, in February, 1901, I travelled along the Pirate coast, from Abu Thabi [Abu Dhabi] to Sharka [Ash Shariqah]; and the last journey, in May, 1901, was right across the north of Oman from Abu Thabi to Sohar by way of Bereimi [Bureimi].
    Abu Thabi (abu Debi) is the first town of importance on the so-called Pirate coast, and was settled some years ago by the great Beni Yas [Bani Yas] tribe. The town is under an independent ruler, Sheikh Zaid [Zayed bin Khalifa], whose influence is wide and strong over all the tribes inland as far as Jebel Akhbar. He is, however, as are all the tribal chiefs of the Oman coasts, under British protection.

    The population of Abu Thabi is not over 10,000, and except a dozen Banyans from Sind, is wholly Arab or Negro (domestic slavery is still prevalent in all Eastern Arabia). With the exception of a dozen houses and an imposing castle, the whole town is built of date mats, and extends along the sea coast for nearly two miles. The only industries of the town and of all the coast are pearl-fishing and drying fish for export. On Ptolemy's map of Arabia this region is named Ichthyophagoi; and Niebuhr wrote, "Fishes are so plentiful on the coast and so easily caught as to be used not only for feeding cows, asses, and other domestic animals, but even as manure for fields." His testimony is true to-day, and it is curious to see camels kneel down to their diet of dried fish!

Qasr al-Hosn (photo from 1907 or earlier), royal palace of Abu Dhabi until 1966

    About 80 miles north-east of Abu Thabi is the real metropolis of northern Oman, the growing town of Debai [Dubai or Dubayy]. In the Persian Gulf Pilot (edition 1890), the population of this town was given as 5,000; it is at least three times as large now. Between Abu Thabi and Debai the coast is desert, and so flat that a hill 225 feet high is called Jebel All (the high mountain). This is the only landmark on the coast, and visible 17 miles.
    The town of Debai has many houses built of native stone, and well plastered on the outside; the harbour is an inlet or khor, and the town is built on both sides of this, so that ferry-boats ply between continuously, and the place has a business-like aspect quite unusual in Arab towns. At present the rate of growth is such that Debai will soon outstrip all the other towns.

    Sharka is still a Wahabi centre, although this Moslem sect has lost a great deal of its old fanaticism. The people of Debai, however, consider their neighbours heretics, and make sport of a rival bazaar where tobacco is still sold secretly; other Arabs are all inveterate smokers. Formerly this entire region was noted for the savage ferocity of its inhabitants. Forty years ago Sir John Malcolm wrote: "Their occupation is piracy, and their delight murder; they are monsters." Thanks to the British trade and influence in the Persian Gulf, these fanatic Wahabis have become tamed, and they have settled down in many places to begin agriculture. Young date-plantations are a sign of the progress of civilization, and commerce is crowding the nomad spirit out.

    From Sharka the coast continues flat and sandy until you reach Ras-el-Kheima [Ras Al Khaimah, Ras Al Khaymah]. The low, sandy coast with coral-rock formation, so characteristic of all the Arabian littoral from Kuweit down the gulf, ceases here and gives place to rugged headlands so well described by Moore in Lalla Rookh as:

o'er the Sea
Of Oman beetling awfully;
A last and solitary link
Of those stupendous chains that reach
From the broad Caspian's reedy brink
Down winding to the Green Sea beach.

    Jebel-el-Harim, one of the chief peaks of these headlands, is 4,470 feet high, rugged, precipitous, and as naked of vegetation as are most of the peaks of Ruus-el-Jebel.
    Ras-el-Kheima, the largest of the northern towns, was identified by Bochart and Sprenger as the Raamah of Scripture (Gen. x. 7, Ezek. xxxvii. 22), while the Greek geographers speak of it as Regma Polls. There are said to be ancient inscriptions on the rocks in the region back of the harbour, but I did not visit the spot. There is coffee-house talk in Eastern Oman concerning a mysterious race of light-complexioned people who live in the mountains somewhere, shun strangers, and speak a language of their own. I think I have found the clue to this strange story that has puzzled travellers to Maskat. At Khasab, near Ras Musandum, live a tribe whose speech is neither Persian, Arab, nor Baluchi, but resembles the Himyaritic dialect of the Mahras described by Carter (Journal Bombay R. A. Soc., July, 1847). This language is used by them in talking to each other, although they speak Arabic with strangers. Their complexion is, however, like that of the average Arab, and their religion Islam. Perhaps this is the tribe the rumours refer to and they are a remnant of the aborigines driven northward by successive Semitic waves of immigration reaching the highlands of Oman.

    It may be of interest to note our mode of travel in this primitive country, where there are no beasts of prey but where every one goes armed for fear of his neighbour. I quote from my diary:

    We travelled with as little baggage as possible, to avoid awakening cupidity on the part of any Arabs we might meet. There were only four camels in the caravan, and all our belongings in two Bagdad-leather boxes. At noon we rested under the shade of blankets stretched over our boxes; there was no vegetation large enough for shade. It was over 104 Fahr. in the shade one day, and the water in the skins took on a fine taste after hours of jerking on the camels.
    On our halts we made soup from condensed vegetables, and had dates for dessert, but our companions were afraid of tinned provisions; they much preferred boiled lizards and rice. There are two species of lizards in Eastern Arabia—one is called dabb (uromastix acantkinuras), and feeds only on desert vegetation; the other is called waral (Weranus arenarius), and eats insects, birds' eggs, etc. The latter kind is considered forbidden but the former lawful food...
    Our guides proceeded mounted, but with their rifles loaded and cocked; then followed the baggage-camel, to which mine was towed in Arab fashion by hitching the bridle of the one to the tail of the other ; in like manner, my companion rode his beast fastened to the milch-camel, followed by its two colts. We were not troubled by the heat at night, but during the day it was intense; and it was refreshing to come to an oasis where water burst from a big spring, and trees and flowers grew in luxury.

    In the mountain passes of Oman the roads run almost invariably along the wadi-beds. Sometimes these are sandy water-courses with huge boulders; again deep, rocky ravines or broad, fertile valleys. Vegetation is fairly abundant. Tamarisks, oleanders, euphorbias, and acacias are the most common trees and shrubs.

    The population of Oman is estimated at nearly one and one-half million. Very few of the tribes are nomadic; the greater part live in towns and villages along the wadi-beds, and were it not for continual feuds between the tribes, agriculture would prosper, as irrigation is nearly everywhere possible.

    Every peasant goes armed, and one does not even pass a greybeard riding a diminutive donkey without seeing a rifle, or at least a crooked dagger at his side. Yet, in spite of continual warfare, they cultivate every fertile spot assiduously, and raise all sorts of crops—barley, wheat, sesame, vegetables, and even tobacco. In one village we rested on the wide threshing-floor, where the old-fashioned "threshing instrument with sharp teeth" lay idle.
    The Oman plough is better than that of Mesopotamia, where they use a crooked stick with a sharp prong to cultivate the sandy loam. In this mountain region the law of the survival of the fittest has given the peasants skill in making a real coulter of iron, fitted to a heavy frame and braced to an upright handle of three bars set at right angles to the frame...
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    The Trucial States of the Persian Gulf coast granted the UK control of their defense and foreign affairs in 19th century treaties. In 1971, six of these states - Abu Zaby, 'Ajman, Al Fujayrah, Ash Shariqah, Dubayy, and Umm al Qaywayn - merged to form the United Arab Emirates (UAE). They were joined in 1972 by Ra's al Khaymah.
    The UAE's per capita GDP is not far below those of leading West European nations. Its generosity with oil revenues and its moderate foreign policy stance have allowed the UAE to play a vital role in the affairs of the region.
CIA World Factbook: United Arab Emirates

Area of United Arab Emirates: 82,880 sq km slightly smaller than Maine

Population of United Arab Emirates: 4,621,399
July 2008 estimate This estimate is based on the results of the 2005 census, which included a significantly higher estimate of net immigration of non-citizens than previous estimates.

Languages of United Arab Emirates: Arabic official,
Persian, English, Hindi, Urdu

UAE Capital: Abu Dhabi (Abu Zaby)


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  Free Books on United Arab Emirates (.pdfs)

Travels in Arabia Wellsted 1838
Travels to the City of the Caliphs v1 Wellsted 1840
Travels to the City of the Caliphs v2 Wellsted 1840
Arabia: The Cradle of Islam Zwemer 1900
Zigzag Journeys in the Camel Country Zwemer 1911
Natural Emirates Vine 1997 online only
UAE: A New Perspective Abed 2001 online only
UAE Yearbook Al-Abed 2006 online only

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