Islam to the Pre-Oil Era

Although it is convenient to divide history and cultural development into distinct and named eras, they all exist along a continuum of progress and transitions marked by significant milestones that may have lasting impacts on the cultural landscape. The arrival of Islam in the seventh century AD marked a historic, monumental milestone for the area since, within a few years, the faith had unified the Arabian Peninsula and rapidly moved beyond to embrace nations and regions from Western Europe to South-East Asia.

The peoples inhabiting Abu Dhabi during this period included both nomads and settled communities. As it had for thousands of years, the Arabian Gulf coast attracted settlements, stimulated cultural development and economic activities. The natural bounty of the sea not only provided sustenance but also wealth derived from a unique and most valuable treasure – pearls.


Sulphur Mines

The economy of Abu Dhabi today and for almost the last half-century has been largely dominated by oil and gas although there is evidence of a much older extractive industry, sulphur mining.

At Jebel Dhanna, a low coastal mountain in the west of the Emirate, large seams of pure sulphur were mined as a vital ingredient of gunpowder and medicines. 

Archaeologists have recorded around 50 individual mines at Jebel Dhanna, some connected to galleries and man-made caves deep underground from which sulphur was extracted, mainly in the 17th and 18th centuries. The Jebel Dhanna mines are the only ones known to exist on the Arabian Peninsula and represent an important part of Abu Dhabi's industrial heritage.


Tribal Heritage

The indigenous population of Abu Dhabi is made up primarily of 4 large tribal groupings. The Dhawahir tribe, a settled group based in the inland oasis city of Al Ain, is believed to have arrived there before the coming of Islam, nearly 1,400 years ago.

The Manasir, traditionally found in Liwa and in smaller oases in the Al Gharbia (Western) Region, may have arrived around the same time, although there is a tradition that one of their sections was once Christian. Unlike the Dhawahir, the Manasir included both settled and nomadic groups. In contrast, the Awamir were wholly nomadic, roaming the deserts of the Rub' al-Khali, south and west of the Liwa crescent.

The 4th group, the Bani Yas, is a confederation of tribes including settled and nomadic groups as well as groups who traditionally lived on the coast and islands, whose livelihood included pearling and fishing.

Although first recorded in Abu Dhabi around 1580, they may have been here much longer. The chief of the Bani Yas comes from the Al Nahyan family, part of the Al Bu Falah sub-tribe, and is headed today by H.H. Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Ruler of Abu Dhabi and President of the United Arab Emirates.

In more recent history, other tribal groups arrived from Oman and the Yemen, along with merchant families from the Arab populations of southern Iran. The basic tribal structure remains of fundamental importance to Abu Dhabi society and its cultural heritage.

Origins of Abu Dhabi

With its shallow waters, sheltered inlets and supplies of fresh water (although these have now disappeared), Abu Dhabi Island has probably been occupied more or less continuously for at least 2,000 years.

According to legend, the City of Abu Dhabi was founded around 1760, following the discovery of a freshwater spring on the island by a Bani Yas hunting party who were following the tracks of a gazelle. Their chief, Sheikh Dhiyab bin Isa, who lived in the Liwa crescent, ordered a settlement to be established. His son and successor, Sheikh Shakhbut bin Dhiyab, moved his headquarters to Abu Dhabi around 1795, building a fort on the island that today, much enlarged, survives as the Qasr al-Hosn. The settlement became the Emirate's capital as it emerged in the 19th century, deriving its economic importance from the pearling banks offshore.

This was not, however, the first settlement on the island. Pottery from the early centuries of the Christian era has been found near today's Central Bank in the Bateen area on the west of the island, while pottery from the 16th or 17th centuries has been collected on the site of today's Golf and Equestrian Club.

Abu Dhabi's contemporary skyline reflects rapid modernisation but also the pride Emiratis take in their religious heritage. The Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque is a stunning example of Islamic architecture and is named after the founder and first President of the United Arab Emirates, who is buried there. Whether by day, and especially when illuminated at night, the Grand Mosque dominates the surrounding vista and encapsulates the Emirate's history, culture and faith.


Al Ain

The city of Al Ain encompasses what were once 5 distinct villages, with 3 others nearby, including Buraimi, which are part of Oman. The area has been occupied continuously for at least 5,000 years and perhaps a couple of thousand years longer. Its longevity and importance is derived from two geographical factors.

Firstly, it lies close to the Hajar Mountains at a crossroads of two historically important trading routes. One led from Abu Dhabi to Al Ain and then through the mountains to the Indian Ocean. The other ran along the edge of the

mountains, from Ra's al-Khaimah in the northern UAE deep into Oman. Secondly, the area until very recently had ample supplies of fresh water. There is more rainfall close to the mountains and deep aquifers channel the groundwater, which can be tapped by wells or aflaj.

The old name of Al Ain, Tuwwam, is mentioned in Arabic manuscripts from over 1,500 years ago. This is the first mention of any part of the Emirate of Abu Dhabi in recorded history and testifies to Al Ain's historic significance and remarkable permanence over time.


Pearl Diving

A pearl diver's work was physically demanding and dangerous. During the pearl harvesting season, a diver would make as many as 30 dives per day, some more than 35 metres deep and lasting up to 2 minutes. The diver was equipped with only a nose clip, leather finger protectors, a basket and a stone to help him descend to the seabed. He was attached to a rope that he tugged as soon as he was ready to return to the boat. Traditionally, all the oyster shells collected were opened in the evening, under the watchful eyes of the captain, but only 5% or less contained the much-treasured pearl. In its heyday, before the development of cultured pearls from Japan in the 1920s, the Arabian Gulf's pearl industry was very lucrative. Exports were valued at £1.5 million sterling per year, equivalent to approximately US0 million in today's money.

The demise of the pearl industry brought poverty and hardship to the citizens of the Trucial States until the discovery of oil and gas ushered in an era of great prosperity and growth.

Pearls-Treasures of the Gulf

The pearling industry in the UAE has a recorded history that dates back 7,000 years. By the beginning of the 20th century, there were over 1,200 pearling boats opera-ting in the region, of which 400 were under the protection of the Ruler of Abu Dhabi. Indeed, the name ‘Trucial States', as the UAE was formerly known prior to the establishment of the federation, originated from a series of 19th century maritime truces with the goal of maintaining peace at sea during the pearling season from June to September.