United Arab Emigrants
Stories of pioneer Arab migrants who became Emirati.
تنويه مهم من الكاتب: قد توجد أخطاء في الأسماء أو التفاصيل بالرغم من محاولتي قدر الإمكان تلافي ذلك والتأكد من صحة المعلومات. يمكنك إن كنت أحد ذوي الشأن ذو الصلة بعائلة أي من الشخصيات المذكورة أن تطلب حذف الإسم لأي سبب خاص. الرجاء إعلامي بذلك وسأقوم بالحذف على الفور.
Note from author: Although I tried my best to ascertain the information in this essay there are bound to be errors. If some of you wish me to remove a certain name either for reasons of accuracy or for privacy I will gladly comply.
Three years ago I suggested in an article in the Dubai based Gulf News that the United Arab Emirates takes steps towards controlled and systemic naturalisation. The article, Give expats an opportunity to earn UAE citizenship, created a mini-storm on Twitter and the reaction was covered by the Reuters newswire. Since then I have continued arguing the case for migration and naturalisation in private and in public using the USA and New York City as examples of places that have benefited from migration.
Even before the establishment of the UAE as a union in 1971 the people of the Trucial Coast as it was then known exhibited such openness that despite the harsh living conditions many Arabs chose to call it home. My late father who used to handle salaries distribution for judges and teachers for the Kuwait Office (then located in Deira, Dubai) told me that the government of Kuwait paid a hardship allowance in the 1960s for teachers who agreed to work in the emirates due to the harsh living conditions.
For the past century immigrants came to the emirates from all over and naturalised as citizens of the UAE including South Asia such as photographer Noor Ali Rashid (who was born in 1929 in Gwadar in what is now Pakistan), Westerners such as British born journalist Peter Hellyer as well as Baluch, inner Arabian Peninsula Arabs and Ajam and Arabs from Southern Persia (See The National: The ‘Ajamis’ of the Emirates: a celebrated history). However one group of migrants that has not been documented are those who arrived in the emirates from other Arab states, from the Gulf to the Levant and North Africa. Because these states had introduced institutionalised and modern education before the UAE their citizens were educated in various fields such as law, medicine and engineering. Therefore their presence proved to be a major boon to the UAE both pre and post federation and helped catapult its modernisation.
This essay is also a testament to the native people of the UAE who have welcomed this swelling of their population and embraced the new arrivals generation after generation. In fact according to the Population Division of the Department of Economic and Social Affairs of the United Nations Secretariat the population of the Trucial Coast emirates in 1960 did not exceed 90,000, roughly one percent of the population size today. Furthermore, the non-Emirati contingent in that figure was probably less than 10,000 a number that has swelled to well over eight million today.
Through this essay I seek to highlight some of the many Arab immigrants that have come to what is now the UAE during the second half of the 20th century. The reason why I opted to include as many names as possible of these pioneers is because merely mentioning a few cases runs the risk of some casting them as all too isolated cases of naturalisation. These immigrants have been naturalised and yet our national identity has not disappeared or eroded as some may fear. In fact, in addition to their skills and talents that were essential during the formation of the federation, UAE heritage and culture was protected and preserved since many of these migrants documented the country, its various characters, including tribal leaders and citizens, its architecture and its dialect through their cameras and notebooks. Additionally, many UAE citizens had married non-native Emiratis whose sons and daughters are today diplomats, doctors and artists (See The National: Mixed marriages bring strength upon strength to the UAE).
According to Paul Dresch’s Monarchies and Nations: Globalisation and Identity in the Arab States of the Gulf, in order to cover a deficit in population Emirati citizenship was “widely granted amongst tribes” from Yemen along with other Arabs from across the region. Afterall Yemeni tribes share common traditions with their counterparts in the Gulf. (See Jadaliyya: Tribalism in the Arabian Peninsula). That said, statistically, the hundreds and perhaps thousands of Arabs who were naturalised in the 1960s and 1970s when the population of native Emiratis was in the tens of thousands constitute a much larger number than the few hundred that the UAE could potentially naturalise nowadays when the population of citizens is well over one million.
Unless otherwise indicated all the individuals featured below were or are UAE passport holders. For the purpose of this essay I do not distinguish between those who only carry a UAE passport and those who hold a citizenship booklet called Kholasat Qaid. (See The National: Book that proves some Emiratis are more equal than others). It is also important to note that the list below of individuals is by no means an exhaustive one. Much of the information was gathered through research in Arabic and English language websites and interviews as well as through the power of social media crowdsourcing for which I am very grateful to the contributors. Additionally, most immigrants who settled in the UAE and naturalised are private citizens who were not in the public eye and therefore information about them is not easy to come by. I apologise to those who were not included and ask readers to assist me in filling in any gaps and correcting any misinformation in the essay.
It is also important to note that the vast majority of Arabs, and even more non-Arabs, lived and contributed to the development of the UAE and formation of its national identity without ever becoming citizens. Amongst these is Baghdad born Hisham N. Ashkouri, the architect of the Cultural Foundation which opened in Abu Dhabi in 1981. The influence of Egyptian musician Saad Abdul Wahhab (1926–2004), the nephew of another great musician Mohamed Abdul Wahhab reverberates on a daily basis across the UAE. Although he never attained UAE citizenship Abdul Wahhab played a major part in the formation of the UAE’s modern cultural identity through his role as the composer of the UAE’s national anthem. Although in widespread use, the UAE has not officially adopted the lyrics to the national anthem that Aref Al Sheikh Abdullah Al Hassan wrote in 1986. That said, students across the country recited during the school morning assembly another poem that was symbolic of the atmosphere then.
وطننا … من المحيط إلى الخليج / أملنا … أمة عربية واحدة / نموت وتحيا … دولة الإمارات العربية المتحدة
Our homeland… (extends) from the (Atlantic) Ocean to the (Arabian) Gulf / Our hope … one Arab nation / We sacrifice our lives so the … United Arab Emirates would live.
Immigrants from Palestine and Jordan
While Levantine Arabs have traditionally been emigrating to places such as Egypt, West Africa, Europe and the Americas a new wave of migration occurred in the early years of the second half of the 20th century when many of them moved to the Gulf cities seeking new opportunities. A large contingent of them came from Palestine and Jordan and settled across the Gulf States. Amongst the most prominent of this group of naturalised Emiratis was Judge Ahmed-Adi Nasib Al Bitar who was born in Jerusalem in 1924. As a young man Al Bitar survived the King David Hotel attack committed by the Irgun Jewish terrorist group in 1946. In 1964 Judge Al Bitar moved to Dubai where he became the legal advisor to the ruler of the emirate and eventually Chief Justice of the emirate. In the run up to the formation of the UAE Judge Al Bitar was appointed as Secretary General to the Trucial States Council from 1967 to 1971 and went on to author the UAE constitution. His son, Omar Al Bitar, currently serves as the country’s ambassador to China.
Nasib Al Bitar, Judge Bitar’s elder son, was a long time member of the management team of Dubai TV but would best be known to people in the UAE as the founder of Channel 33 which was launched in 1979. During his tenure Channel 33 became synonymous with the best of Western and Eastern programming. The Thursday night Indian hit movie was the event of the week watched by Emirati and South Asian families. Channel 33 was also a pioneer in purchasing the rights of the latest US television programs such as Beverly Hills, 90210, Twin Peaks, the Wonder Years, Northern Exposure, 21 Jump Street, Knight Rider and The A-Team.
One of the most notable media personalities who were naturalised is Jerusalem born Ghassan Tahboub, who worked as editor of a number of UAE newspapers including the Sharjah based Al Khaleej and became an advisor in the office of the UAE Prime Minister. Palestine born Dawud Al Siksek came to Abu Dhabi in 1964 to work in the Diwan of then Ruler Sheikh Shakhbout. He then became head of the financial affairs department in the Royal Court of Sheikh Zayed the Ruler of Abu Dhabi and President of the UAE. His son Zaid Al Siksek, who holds a degree in Biomedical Engineering from Johns Hopkins University, held numerous posts including CEO of the Abu Dhabi Health Authority. Also naturalised were Kafr ‘Ana brothers Sidqi, Hassan and Mohammed Diab Al Mousa, an advisor to the Ruler of Sharjah, who was born in Palestine in 1933 and founded in 1954 the modern schooling system in Sharjah. A further group of educational pioneers of Palestinian heritage included Gaza born Abdulsalam Al Sousi, Ibrahim Al Barghouti, who was principal of Ajman Boys School in the late 1950s, Hassan Hattab, Mansour Jaber, Mohammed Kayyali, Rafiq Jaarour and Zuhdi Al Khateeb who served as the UAE’s Cultural Attaché in Amman after years of working in the educational field.
One of the earliest arrivals in the UAE was Gaza born teacher Laila Al Mazeeni who arrived in 1958 to teach Arabic, history and religious studies in Fatima Al Zahra School in Sharjah. Amongst the late Ms Al Mazeeni’s students were Amna Salem Al Hajeri and my own mother Nama Majid Al Qasimi who were honoured in December 2014 as the first national teachers in the UAE. When the Secretary-General of the Arab League Mohammed Abdul Khalek Hassouna visited Sharjah in 1965, one of his stops was Al Zahra School where he was met by the staff. Ms Al Mazeeni, who later became director of Al Andalus School, was married to Abdul Mo’ti Murad, another Gaza born teacher who became director of Al Qasimia School.
Palestinian Judge Yusri Dweik was legal advisor to Sharjah Ruler Sheikh Khalid Bin Mohammed Al Qasimi in the 1960s during the legal deliberations with the British government regarding sovereignty over Abu Musa Island now occupied by the Islamic Republic of Iran; while Jordanian Kamal Al Dajani, a former minister in Jordan, represented Ras Al Khaimah in negotiations over the status of the occupied Greater and Lesser Tunb Islands. Furthermore, Judge Dweik and Kamal Al Dajani also represented Sharjah and Ras Al Khaimah in the team that led the legal side of the negotiations into the formation of the UAE federation. Other members of the group were Saleh Abdul Rahman Farah, Sheikh Zayed’s Sudanese legal advisor for Abu Dhabi, Ahmed-Adi Al Bitar for Dubai, Naji Jawad for Fujairah, for Ajman Jawdat Aayesh Al Barghouthi (a Palestinian who arrived in the 1950s to teach in Al Rashidia School), along with Hussein Al Baharna for Bahrain and Zuheir Al Najdawi for Qatar (needless to say the latter two were not naturalised as Emirati).
Amongst the most prominent Arabs who had migrated to the UAE is Zaki Nusseibeh, who began his career as a journalist in Abu Dhabi in 1967 when he was 21 years old working for Reuters, the Financial Times, The Economist and the BBC. Sheikh Zayed personally recruited the Jerusalem born Nusseibeh within months of his arrival in Abu Dhabi as his personal interpreter and Press Advisor, a post he held until the passing on of Sheikh Zayed in 2004. Today the University of Cambridge educated Nusseibeh, who is also the father of the current UAE Ambassador to the UN Lana Nusseibeh, is one of the leading cultural figures in the UAE. In an interview with Bidoun magazine Nusseibeh thus described the rush to a little known emirate in the Gulf following Israel’s occupation of Jerusalem: “It was at this point that my father said, “Why don’t you go to Abu Dhabi and seek your chances there?” (My father) was a politician, as I said, and he knew Sheikh Zayed, who had assumed power in 1966, in August. Suddenly, Abu Dhabi was the El Dorado of the Arab world. So I followed his advice. That was in 1967.”
Adnan Saffarini, founder of one of the largest engineering and consultancy firms in the country, came to Dubai in the 1960s and designed some of the most known buildings in the UAE including Al Zaher Palace in Ajman that appeared on the old 50 Dirham note for many years and the new campus of Ajman University of Science & Technology in Al Jarf. Palestine born Ibrahim Al Abed graduated from the American University of Beirut in 1965 and came to the UAE in the 1970s to work in the Ministry of Information. In 1977 Al Abed founded the Emirates News Agency, known as “WAM” and went on to become the Director General of the National Media Council. Another prominent journalist is Raed Barqawi who studied journalism at Ştefan Gheorghiu Academy in Bucharest, Romania and served as the Managing Editor of Al Khaleej as well as Riyad Mikdadi, the Executive Editor-in-Chief of Al Bayan newspaper.
Dr Tayseer Shawkat Al Nabulsi was born in Nablus, Palestine in 1934 and obtained a law degree from Cairo University in 1975, his thesis was a Study of the Israeli Occupation Under International Law. Dr Al Nabulsi was expelled from Nablus by the Israeli occupying force in 1969 and took up a post as a judge in Dubai and also served as an assistant to the legal advisor to the ruler of Dubai before working as a lawyer until his passing in 2012. He was the father of former CEO of DIFC Nasser Al Nabusli, also an Emirati. Another was Justice Ghalib Bustami who was appointed as first head of the civil court in Dubai. In fact Dubai Courts benefited from the expertise of judges from across the Arab world including Palestine, Yemen and Sudan.
Doctor Ramadan Saleem Shubair arrived in Dubai in 1963 where he was overseeing the medical center in Ras Al Khaimah established by Kuwait Office in Dubai. Dr. Shubair was the first and only physician in RAK. He was serving in other medical centers in Sharjah, Ajman and Um Al Qaiwain traveling between the three emirates on a daily basis. In 1966 he became in charge of Khorfakkan’s medical center which was considered to be the first on the East Coast. Dr Shubair also conducted frequent visits to Abu Mousa Island and established the first blood bank in the country. Dr Ramadan’s wife Najah Shubair, who like him had studied in Ain Shams University in Cairo, had come to the emirates in 1967 where she worked as an Arabic language teacher in Dubai. She taught in a number of schools including Ayesha Middle School (now Khawla Middle School), Amina Bint Wahab School, Al Etihad High School and Al Zahraa High School.
Jordanian Dr Yousef Al Hassan, who obtained a PhD in Political Science from the University of Cairo in the 1980s was the first editor of the Sharjah based Al Khaleej newspaper which started printing in 1970. Dr Al Hassan has worked in the country’s diplomatic corps since 1972, establishing the Emirates Institute for Diplomacy back in 2000 before becoming Plenipotentiary Minister at the UAE Foreign Ministry. His daughter Ruba AL Hassani, a Harvard University Kennedy School of Government graduate, is a Social Development Expert at the UAE Embassy in Washington, DC. Also from Jordan was journalist Omar Arafat Al-Deesi who arrived in Dubai in 1972 and became media advisor to then Dubai ruler Sheikh Rashid Bin Saeed before co-founding Al Bayan Arabic language newspaper in 1980. I had the pleasure of meeting Mr Al Deesi who shared with me some anecdotes.
When Mr Al Deesi was the editor of the Arabic news magazine Akhbar Dubai he had written a report about how the Kuwaiti Hospital building in Deira had a cockroach problem. The person who then oversaw public health in Dubai complained to Sheikh Rashid about the negative media coverage however Sheikh Rashid replaced him with someone else. The first thing the new head of Dubai public health services did was to visit Mr Al Deesi and tell him “If you come across any similar problem please tell me.” Al Deesi then replied, “My job is not to tell you, my job is to write about it.”
بلاد العرب أوطاني … من الشام لبغداد… ومن نجد إلى يمن إلى مصر فتطوان … فلا حد يباعدنا ولا دين يفرقنا
The land of Arabs is my homeland / From Damascus to Baghdad / And from Najd to Yemen / To Egypt and Tatwan / For no border separates us / And no religion divides us.
Palestine born Riad Al Sadek whose family had to flee following the creation of Israel completed his studies in Civil Engineering at AUB in 1964. He arrived in the emirates in 1967 where he worked on major infrastructure projects such as the Sharjah-Ras Al Khaimah road before co-founding Al Habtoor Engineering Enterprises in 1970 with Khalaf Al Habtoor, a firm that would go on to build Burj Al Arab in 1999 and Dubai International Airport Terminal 3. The year after Al Sadek’s arrival Fathi Mahmood Skaik, a graduate of Cairo University, arrived in Abu Dhabi where he opened the first branch of the 1930 founded Arab Bank in Abu Dhabi emirate and later became an advisor to the UAE Central Bank.
Jerusalem native Hasan Abdallah Yabroudi established Dubai Contracting Company in 1962, one year after he arrived in Dubai. Today the firm, which is behind iconic buildings including Capricorn and Rolex Tower on Sheikh Zayed Road, has over 7,000 employees with offices in Lebanon, Jordan and Chile. Palestinian doctor Dr. Moawiyah Saleh Al Shunnar, who studied at Ain Shams University in Cairo, founded the first private clinic in Dubai in the 1960s as a GP with his much loved native Dubaian wife Dr. Zainab Abdulla Kazim who worked as an obstetrician having successfully delivered over 18,000 babies.
During the mid 1960s, Jordan’s King Hussein sent a number of officers to train the Abu Dhabi military, amongst them was Mohamed Atta Khalil Eraiqat, whose son Ala’a is a prominent banker, Serhan Ahmed Nemer (1928–2007) and Ahmed Saleh Mraish who came in 1966 upon the request of Hamouda bin Ali the then Assistant Chief of Abu Dhabi Police. These recruits were recently honoured as pioneers along with Colonel Ishaq Suleiman who came to Abu Dhabi from Jordan in 1963 and established the first police band in the Emirates. Also in that group of fine young men was Col. Mohammed Shadid (1936–1999) who came to Abu Dhabi from Jordan in 1961 and joined the Abu Dhabi Defence Force in 1965. Col Shadid was a naturalized citizen of the Trucial State of Abu Dhabi in the 1960’s prior to the establishment of the federation, and was a member of the first group of senior military officials that established the precursor to the country’s Armed Forces. Before his retirement in the late 1980’s, he served as General Manager of the Office of the Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces at the Diwan of Sheikh Khalifa Bin Zayed, then Crown Price of Abu Dhabi. His son Abdulla, who studied Electronic and Electrical Engineering from University College London, is head of Aerospace at Mubadala. Also notable are Nasser al Jaabari and Saleh Akasha, respectively Under Secretary and Director of Abu Dhabi Department of Petroleum under Minister Dr. Mana Saeed Al Otaiba.
Businessman Hammad Hassan Al Harazeen was born in Gaza in 1940. After completing his studies in engineering in Cairo he briefly worked in Qatar before moving to Abu Dhabi where he worked in the petrochemical and oil sector. Mr Al Harazeen is renowned for his philanthroic projects in health and education in Gaza and the West Bank. His son Ayad is one of the first Emirati graduates of MIT. In 1969 Jordanian national of Palestinian origin Mohammed Kamel Al Haddad arrived in Dubai from Kuwait and co-founded Bin Dasmal Printing Press in Dubai and Abu Dhabi. He worked in Al Bayan Newspaper in Dubai and Al Khaleej in Sharjah before becoming the CEO of the Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Quran Printing Centre in Dubai. Further north, Majed Awad, a Palestinian who came to Ras Al Khaimah via Egypt in the 1960s, worked as an advisor to the ruler of the emirate Sheikh Saqr Bin Mohammed Al Qassimi before working in the municipality. Emiratis who have Palestinian roots continue to play prominent roles in UAE society including the Cambridge University educated Dr Maha Barakat, the Director General of the Health Authority Abu Dhabi whose father Dr Taysir was amongst the first trained doctors in Abu Dhabi and was director of the UAE Ministry of Health.
Palestine born Elias Khalil AlKhoury came to Dubai in 1962 to work in the Arabian Insurance Company and from 1971 to 2007 worked for Dubai Insurance which was founded by the then ruler of Dubai Sheikh Rashid Bin Saeed. In 1963 Nazih Toufiq Haliq co-founded Dubai Printing Press with Khalifa Juma Al Nabooda, a businessman and former deputy Minister of Defense. Mr Haliq, who was a close associate of Dubai Ruler Sheikh Rashid Bin Saeed having been entrusted to handle family affairs, was given a front row seat during the birth of the nation. In a now iconic photograph he is seen wearing a light blue coloured shirt standing on the left of the founding fathers of the UAE during the raising of the flag on December 2nd 1971 at the Deyafa Palace in Dubai. Although never completing his higher education due to his parents passing on at an early age Mr Haliq’s name is synonymous with education in the emirates. He initially came to Dubai to market scientific encyclopedias and in 1972 Mr Haliq founded Dar Al Hikma, the first bookstore in Dubai, which played a vital role in the promotion of knowledge and reading in the country. He was also an active member of the Arab Foundation for Publishing and Distribution and brother in law of Palestinian-Emirati Ramzi Al Sheikh Hassan who was in charge of media at the UAE Ministry of Defense.
Atef Ahmed Hassan Helweh was born in Safad, Palestine and arrived in Dubai in 1977 to work in Dubai TV where he covered major events as a journalist and interpreter including the Hajj in Saudi Arabia and the 1991 Gulf War in Kuwait. Nazmeih Al Abed came to the UAE from Lebanon in 1975. As a youngster she volunteered at refugee camps in Lebanon, teaching women how to read and write. When the Civil War broke out in 1975, Ms Nazmieh’s family, who are originally Palestinian moved to Abu Dhabi where she took up a post teaching English at a government school until she retired in 2002 after a career that lasted 51 years. Palestine born Dr. Tajeddin Al Qadi arrived in Abu Dhabi in 1965, opening Al Qadi pharmacy (now Al Qadi Medical Centre). He started working in the municipality in 1967 where he remained for close to 39 years and was appointed as Director General before retiring in 2004.
Immigrants from Iraq
As with the Levant, Iraq was a source of prominent individuals who have enriched the UAE at a vital time in its history. Amongst these pioneers is Adnan Pachachi, now 93 years old, who is one of the most experienced Arab statesmen. The Baghdad born Pachachi was Iraq’s ambassador to the UN in the 1960s before settling in Abu Dhabi. Prior to the union Pachachi was tasked by Sheikh Zayed to write a modern basic law for Abu Dhabi government and drew up plans for the UAE’s advisory parliament known as the Federal National Council. On December 10th 1971, a mere eight days after the founding of the UAE Pachachi oversaw the raising of the fledgling federation’s flag at the United Nations in New York.
Abd al Majeed Haseeb al Qaisi (1920–2005), an acclaimed Iraqi born author, translator and historian who arrived in Abu Dhabi in 1968. A lawyer by profession, he became a legal and financial advisor to Sheikh Zayed who tasked him to write a number of laws and administrative procedures for Abu Dhabi emirate before his appointment as Secretary General of the first UAE council of ministers or Cabinet. Abu Waddah, as he was known also initially drafted a constitution for the emirate of Abu Dhabi before being involved in the drafting of the UAE constition. He was nominated to oversee the taking of the oath of office from the first UAE Federal Government ministers. Mr Al Qaisi authored numerous books but perhaps his most famous was History Will Be Written Tomorrow: Notes on the History of Modern Iraq as well as the Arabic translation of Memoirs of an Arabian Princess.
Baghdad born Dr Faleh Handal arrived in Abu Dhabi in 1968 to work in the oil sector where he interacted with many bedouin Emiratis and learned their poetry and dialect. As a result Dr Handal authored the most comprehensive glossary of the UAE dialect first published in 1978 and became a recipient of the Abu Dhabi Award in 2013. Dr Abdallah Ismail Bashi arrived in Abu Dhabi from Iraq in 1968 on a visit to the emirate and was immediately hired by Sheikh Zayed due to his skills in the petroleum industry. Dr Ismail inducted Abu Dhabi in OPEC even before the formation of the UAE and played a role in establishing ADNOC, the Abu Dhabi oil giant.
Career diplomat Najim Al Deen Hammudi was born in Baghdad in 1924. After graduating in Political Science from AUB in 1947 he served in the Iraqi diplimatic corps in numerous countries including Saudi Arabia, Britain and Egypt. Ambassador Hammudi then came to Abu Dhabi in 1968 where he oversaw the Department of the Federation Affairs at the Royal Court and was part of the Abu Dhabi delegation in the prepatory meetings during the discussions to form the union before playing a leading role in the establishment of the Foreign Ministry. In 2003, four years after his passing in Abu Dhabi, a personal record by him titled “Formation of the UAE — Memoirs & Studies” was published.
Businessman and educator, Baghdad born Hamid Jafar came to Sharjah in 1968 after finishing his studies in Cambridge University. He has since then played an instrumental role in the founding of the American University in Sharjah, as well as a number of companies such as Crescent Petroleum and Gulftainer, the only Arab-owned ports operator in the United States. Kuwait born Alia Abou Alwan came to Dubai in 1968 to work at Dubai Petroleum. Her diverse career saw her working at UAE Embassy in London, becoming the first female bank manager of a branch, founding the first ladies club in Dubai and helping organise a Sotheby’s sale at the Dubai World Trade Centre in late 1980s, the first international antiquities auction in the country. Ms Abou Alwan, who hails from an Iraqi family, is married to fellow Emirati, the Egypt born Mohamed Al Geziry, who is one of the most prominent hoteliers in the Gulf. Having overseen the development of Sheraton across the region, Al Geziry, who is also a co-founder of the Dubai Commerce and Tourism Promotion Board was then recruited by Jebel Ali Hotel and Golf Resort before starting his consultancy firm.
Immigrants from Bahrain
Bahrain has also been a spring of Emiratis who have contributed greatly to the emirates pre and post federation. Born in 1931, businessman and diplomat Mahdi Al Tajir became the first head of Dubai customs in the mid 1950s. Al Tajir played a leading role in the deliberations to form the federation and was appointed as the country’s first ambassador to London in 1971, a position he retained until 1987. Other notable Bahraini born Emiratis include Ali Humaidan who served as the UAE’s first ambassador to the United Nations in 1972 as well as Abdul Malik Al Hamar who was appointed as first Governor of the UAE Central Bank in 1980 and Hassan Bu Ali, former Director of Fujairah Educational Zone.
Bahrain born Qudsia Hussain Redha Rafii was a pioneer teacher in the emirates having taught many young women in Abu Dhabi including members of the ruling Al Nahyan family. She married Khalil Ali Al Marzouqi an electrical engineer (who installed the first TV antenna and electricity generator for Sheikh Shakhbut who was then ruler of Abu Dhabi) and moved to Dubai in 1960 before relocating to Abu Dhabi in 1962 and took up a teaching post at the first girls school in the emirate then known as “Abu Dhabi Girls School” which opened in 1964.
In 1967, Hamed Kanoo, a descendant of Haji Yusuf Bin Ahmed Bin Kanoo, who founded the Kanoo Group in 1890, came to the emirates after having successfully established the family business offices in Al Khafji, Saudi Arabia. Hamed Kanoo established offices in Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Sharjah that are today overseen by his son Mishal, the Deputy Chairman of The Kanoo Group, who is a respected writer and lecturer on family business at AUS. Also from Bahrain is Ahmed Mohammed Al Obaidly, who arrived in Abu Dhabi in the early 1960s, and served as Sheikh Zayed’s first private secretary as he spoke impeccable English and therefore was chosen as the lead communicator with the British government in the lead up to their withdrawal from the Trucial Coast. Abdul Rahim Ahmed Al Mahmood, who studied accounting in Britain, arrived in Abu Dhabi the late 1960s and worked with Ahmed Khalifa Al Suwaidi in the Foreign Ministry before becoming acting manager of the Cultural Foundation in the 1980s. In the creative industry the UAE film scene would not be the same had it not been for the sons of Emiratis who immigrated from Bahrain such as Abdul Rahim Al Mahmood’s son Khalid Al Mahmood, who directed a number of short films including Sabeel, Ali Mostafa, director of City of Life and Nawaf Janahi, director of Sea Shadow.
Immigrants from Egypt
Cairo born Dr. Ezzeddin Ibrahim, a much respected cultural advisor to Sheikh Zayed for many years, obtained a PhD in Philosophy from the University of London before moving to Qatar where he met Sheikh Zayed’s close friend Ahmed Khalifa Al Suwaidi who recruited him to Abu Dhabi. Amongst the many accomplishments of Dr Ibrahim was the co-founding of the Abu Dhabi Documentation and Research Center which later became the National Archives of the UAE and the establishment of the Cultural Foundation in Abu Dhabi which was for many decades the beating heart of culture in Abu Dhabi.
In the late 1960s Egyptian born Dr. Abdul Rahman Hassanein Makhlouf moved to Abu Dhabi from Cairo after spending some time in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Dr Makhlouf, an urban planner with a degree from Germany and recipient of the Abu Dhabi Award in 2009, would go on to lay the masterplan of the Abu Dhabi city road network which is similar to the grid system found in Manhattan. While Egypt born hotelier Abdin Nasralla who today heads the Arab Council of Hotels and Resorts worked as manager of the world famous Mena House Hotel in Cairo before moving to Jebel Ali Hotel and Golf Club in Dubai and to Meydan Hotels & Hospitality. Farouk Mohammed was one of the first Egyptians to arrive and work in the UAE’s private sector. He established the regional operations of the consultancy firm Grant Thornton in 1966, now run by his son Hisham, four years after coming to Dubai.
Other notable Emiratis of Egyptian origin include Deira based lawyer Samir Jaafar and businessman Mohamed Yehia Zakaria who came to Dubai when he was 22 years old in in 1962 and was CEO and co-founder of Dubai Refreshments also known as Pepsi DRC, the first publicly held firm in the emirates, for close to 40 years. Mr Zakaria, whom I visited at home, estimated that between 30 and 40 Egyptians were naturalised in the UAE. He shared with me the following story.
In 1973 Dubai Refreshments needed larger plot to expand their factory which was then located on Al Maktoum Road in Deira. Mr Zakaria was told to meet the Ruler of Dubai at his office “after the dawn prayers” the following day so he would join him on his morning drive around Deira and Bur Dubai to identify a plot. “I went to the Ruler’s office on the Creek in Bur Dubai around half an hour after the Fajr prayers and was told ‘The Shyookh (plural of Sheikh) left’. I didn’t know that Sheikh Rashid started his day so early. So the next day I made a point of going before the Fajr prayers had started. When Sheikh Rashid saw me he smiled and said ‘Ah, you were late yesterday’”. Mr Zakaria and Sheikh Rashid then drove to what is now Al Quoz. “We kept driving and driving into what was a desert. Then Sheikh Rashid told his driver to stop the car and said ‘This is the plot I have chosen for you’. I told him ‘Your Highness, this plot is no good. It’s so far into the desert and we are a bottling firm and there’s a cement factory not too far from here.’ Sheikh Rashid replied ‘This area will one day be the heart of Dubai. As for the cement factory don’t worry about it, it is located to your south and the wind blows here from the north’”.
Dubai Refreshments agreed to take that land. That plot today is on Sheikh Zayed Road, less than a five minute drive from Burj Khalifa.
Immigrants from Sudan
Amongst the most notable of the Sudanese who were naturalised were Al Taj Hamad who was a security advisor to Dubai and Kamal Hamza, who was director of Dubai Municipality from 1961 to 1985. In fact it was Mr Hamza who signed the historic order on August 15, 1966 for cars in Dubai to switch from driving on the left to the right side of the road. Others include Hamad Abdullah Hamad, a former advisor to the ruler of Sharjah who arrived in 1970 and helped establish the predecessor to the Sharjah Electricity and Water Authority.
In late 1966, mere months after Sheikh Zayed became ruler of Abu Dhabi a trio of technocrats were seconded from the Sudanese government including Sheikh Zayed’s advisor Saleh Abdul Rahman Farah, Abdul Shakoor Omar Atiya who oversaw roads planning in Abu Dhabi and Al Sunni Banga (latter two did not naturalise) who was the first director of Abu Dhabi Municipality and subsequent director Ahmed Awad Al Kareem. Other notable Sudanese who had a major impact on the UAE were Taj Alsir Hamza who worked as a legal advisor to the UAE’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Albadri Omar Ilyas who was head of town planning in Al Ain in the early 1970s. A number of Sudanese professors were the founding deans of colleges and departments at UAE University in Al Ain when it was established in 1976 including Basheer Ahmed who founded the College of Medicine and Awad Abdul Hakim, founder of the College of Engineering amongst others. Information isn’t readily available on whether the latter four individuals were granted UAE citizenship or not.
In fact, Sheikh Zayed was so keen on relations with Sudan that it was the first country he visited as President of the UAE in February 1972. According to Sudanese writer Shawgi Badri at one point in time the seven directors of the UAE municipalities were all Sudanese including Ahmed Awad Al Kareem in Abu Dhabi, Kamal Hamza Al Hassan in Dubai, Mukhtar Makki in Ajman, (Al Sayed) Al Atbani and Mokhtar Al Toum Al Jarq in Sharjah (it is not clear if the last three naturalised) Abdul Latif Fadl (who did not naturalise).
Immigrants from Libya
Amongst the prominent Emiratis of Libyan descent are maths and IT specialist Jihad AI-Mughairbi and his sister the leading Psychology professor at UAE University Dr Fadwa Al Mughairbi whose father Mohammed-Basheer Al Mughairbi was the first Libyan Ambassador to the UAE before becoming an advisor to Sheikh Zayed. Also notable is author and legal expert Dr Faraj Ahnish who was labeled as “one of the UAE’s sharpest and busiest legal minds.”
Immigrants from Syria
Amongst the prominent Syrians who came to the UAE and settled here is architect Zaki Al-Homsi who designed Dubai’s Clock Tower structure in 1963 which was billed as “Dubai’s first modern landmark”. Mr Al Homsi, who was born in Homs in 1929, studied Architectural Engineering at the University of Leeds prior to arriving in Dubai. Mr Al Homsi was an architecual advisor to Sheikh Rashid Bin Saeed who asked him to oversee a number of housing projects to satisfy the demand for modern accommodation in Dubai; “90 percent of these housing projects no longer exist,” Mr Al Homsi told Emarat Al Youm. Other notable projects by Mr Al Homsi include Zaabeel Palace which was built in two phases, one in the 1960s and another in the 1970s. Also from Syria is Justice Mohammed Saad, the head of Al Ain Court of Appeals, Chief of Dubai Court of Appeal Judge Adnan Al Fara and the founder of Burjeel Hospital orthopedic surgeon Dr. Samih Tarabichi. Others include Mohammed Taher Abdullah, the Syrian son of the founder of Damas Jewellery brand (later sold to a Qatari investor) who moved to Dubai in 1955 where he opened a retail outlet and then started a gold wholesale operation.
Immigrants from Lebanon
Lebanon born Sociologist Dr Rima Al Sabban, who studied in Georgetown University and then specialised in Gender and Family at the American University in Washington, now teaches at Zayed University campus in Dubai. She is married to respected Emirati Political Scientist Dr Abdul Khaleq Abdulla. Also from Lebanon is successful businessman Ghaleb Farha who came to Dubai in 1968 and whose son George Farha co-founded Intercat, now Dubai’s largest catering firm and whose other serial entrepreneur son Dany Farha is one of the leading Emirati venture capitalists who was involved in start ups such as Bayt.com and Careem, the Middle East’s answer to Uber. Bassam Freiha, a journalist born in Beirut in 1939 and whom Lebanese journalist Samir Atallah calls “the master of public relations in the Arab world,” was an advisor to Sheikh Zayed. In fact Bassam Freiha’s father Said who had founded a number of publications in Lebanon was well acquainted with Sheikh Zayed and Sheikh Rashid Bin Saeed. Mr Freiha’s daughter Elissa, is a multilingual entrepreneur and co-founder of a women-only investment platform.
Immigrants from Yemen
Dr Hasan Qayed Al Subaihi arrived from Aden in the mid 1970s to work as a reporter in the Abu Dhabi based al Ittihad newspaper before assuming senior posts. Dr Al Subaihi then went on to pursue his education obtaining a Masters in Mass Communication from San Diego and a PhD in Journalism from Leicester. Following Dr Al Subaihi’s return he worked for Abu Dhabi Municipality before eventually teaching at Sharjah University and then at UAE University where he taught a number of media classes including history of media in the UAE. Dr Al Subaihi has five sons, all of whom are involved in media and communications in one way or another, including the prominent writers Thamer and Taryam Al Subaihi whose regular columns appear in The National. Other Emiratis of Yemeni origin include Ahmed Saeed Binbrek, CEO of CitiBank and then of Majed Al Futtaim Group, Hussain Mahyoob Sultan Al Junaidy who helped found Dubai energy group ENOC and served as its CEO for over 35 years, poet Sultan Mujalli who rose to critical acclaim in the popular show Millionaire’s Poet and Emirati poet and engineer Dr. Shihab M. Ghanem. The short story writer and novelist Ali Ahmed Hussein Al Humairi, was born in Yemen in 1948 has authored numerous publications. Al Humairi, who is a member of the Emirates Writers Union has published books including Poinciana Crowns which includes 21 stories written between 1988 and 2008 as well as Mountain Neighbourhood Princess, a 383 page novel he wrote over 40 years. Others include the young Yemeni singer Balqees Ahmed Fathi and football star Omar Abdul Rahman.
Amongst the entertainers who received UAE nationality was the late Moroccan born singer Raja’ Bel Maleeh who died in 2007 at the young age of 45. Ms Bel Maleeh was known for her tender and operatic voice and hit Sabri Aleek Tal (My Patience is Running Thin). Other media personalities who have received UAE citizenship are Lebanese singer Diana Haddad, Egyptian-born TV presenter Nashwa Al Ruwaini and singer Aryaam whose family came from Egypt. Recently 17 year old Egyptian Mostafa Magdi Al Sawi was awarded Emirati citizenship for having excelled in the International Exhibition of Inventions. The sporting world is perhaps amongst the most accommodating today with regards to naturalization. Amongst the naturalised Emirati football players is Moroccan born Ismail Ahmed. Also from Morocco is Dr. Farouk Hamada who obtained a Ph.D. in Islamic Studies from Dar El Hadith El Hassania in Rabat. He authored over 35 books and taught in various universities from 1976 to 2009 when he was appointed as Religious Advisor at the Abu Dhabi Crown Prince’s Court.
In 2014 Dubai’s Ruler Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid published an article on LinkedIn titled The Brain Regain. Sheikh Mohammed narrates a story of when he was military cadet in England in 1968. He encountered an Arab doctor, then new to the UK and asked him if he intended to return home. The doctor replied “My home is where I can eat.” An answer that surprised the young sheikh. Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid is amongst the most successful contemporary world leaders, having accelerated the modernisation of Dubai initiated by his father in the 1960s with the help of many of the immigrant Arabs mentioned in this essay. Much like the Arab doctor that Sheikh Mohammed encountered in the UK, along with countries like the US, Canada and parts of Europe the UAE has in the 1960s and 1970s attracted some of the brightest minds and offered them the real possibility of citizenship. The UAE is a successful country today partly because its leaders in the 1960s and 1970s had the vision to embrace these pioneers.
Certainly the UAE cannot and should not implement an exercise of mass naturalisation. However, today the resistance to extending citizenship rights to individuals, even in a controlled and limited manner puts the UAE at a disadvantage. The great fear of naturalisation is that country will lose its “national identity”. What proponents of this theory fail to recognise is that national identity and culture are dynamic and not static constructs. (See How Urbanisation Is Changing Emirati Identity) Nations that strive to maintain a balance between honouring the past and embracing the future are the ones that will best be prepared to face the challenges of the 21st century. Part of embracing this future is accepting some new immigrants as citizens and giving them a stake in the country. Some have suggested a Permanent Residency system that does not entail citizenship rights. Such an arrangement although suitable for some Western passport holders is not ideal for those who come from Arab states where freedom of international movement and opportunities are largely constrained. This coincides with the UAE passport being ranked as one of the most favourable in the world in gaining entry to other countries. It therefore is unlikely that such a system will allow the UAE to attract the very best minds. Today Arabs and other citizens of the world have the possibility of emigrating to Europe, the US and Canada (See Globe and Mail: A Canadian model for the Gulf). Other dynamic countries such as Singapore, Brazil, Australia and New Zealand are also attracting skilled workers whereas countries that insist on having a homogenised populace are overlooked.
A successful Arab expatriate resident of Dubai I spoke to summed it up this way. “There is a misplaced underlying assumption that we are here for the money and then we want to leave. Many of us want to make long term plans for decades ahead but without the possibility of becoming actual stakeholders many would hesitate to do so.” The UAE still lacks a systematic and institutional path to citizenship. Introducing one, however controlled and even limited to skilled Arabic speakers, will allow us to attract the best minds from the Arab world, as well as non-Arabs who opt to learn the language. Within a generation the offspring of the immigrants will have adopted many of our customs and traditions just like the ones whose parents came here in the 1960s and ‘70s.
The pioneer Arab migrants I have spoken to as well as their sons and daughters are respectful of their background and staunchly proud Emiratis. The UAE is what it is today to a great degree as a result of their contributions along with the natives and other members of society including the Ajam, the Baluch, South Asians and Africans who have moved to the UAE many decades ago. The UAE was at least in one aspect in the late 1960s, the peak of its talent attraction and naturalisation era, a more progressive and forward looking country. As we enter the 21st century we are in need of a revival of this unhindered spirit that has propelled us for the past fifty years so that we may continue to flourish in the next fifty.