Mohammed Al-Fahim's book, From Rags to Riches: A Story of Abu Dhabi, is a deeply moving, well-written account of the remarkable transformation of an impoverished, desert tribal people into a modern, prosperous state. Oil-the "black gold" of the Gulf-made this miracle possible in the space of a few decades. But it was also made possible by the courage and vision of strong Abu Dhabi political, business and educational leaders, most notably Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al-Nahyan, the longtime ruler of Abu Dhabi and president of the United Arab Emirates.
Al-Fahim's detailed personal account was a revelation to me of a world barely known in the West and gladly left behind by those who had to live in it. Demographic statistics cannot begin to do justice to the reality. Today's visitors to Abu Dhabi with its skyscrapers, beautiful seaside, broad avenues, modem international airport and beautifully landscaped airport highway, will be amazed to read of the conditions of poverty and misery that marked the emirate as recently as 1960. The title, From Rags to Riches, is an accurate description not only of the author's family but of the people and society of Abu Dhabi.
The fascinating story of this swift yet hazardous transformation is told through the eyes of the imaginative little boy and ambitious, talented young man who has become one of Abu Dhabi's most admired business and civic leaders. Al-Fahim did not receive a formal education, nor is he a trained historian or professional writer. But he has wisely engaged the services of an excellent writer and professional researchers to help him present the parallel histories of his family and modern Abu Dhabi.
Al-Fahim's life and that of his family have always been closely intertwined with Sheikh Zayed. As a small boy he lived during the summers at the palace with Sheikh Zayed, his wife and their son Khalifa. His father, Abduljailil Al-Fahim, from that day to this, has been one of Sheikh Zayed's closest personal friends and advisers. He was constantly conferring and traveling with the ruler.
The author recalls that as a child in the 1940s and 1950s, the mud or clay houses of his family and neighbors were excruciatingly hot most of the year. "Some nights the humidity was so high I felt as if I was sleeping rolled up in a wet blanket, sure that I could hear the lapping sound of water every time I turned over on my mat" (p. 55). There were, of course, no indoor toilets or running water. The people were literally clothed in rags, barefoot. There were no cars, trucks, busses or vehicles of any kind-indeed no roads. Camels provided the only means of transport. The people were undernourished, seldom seeing fruit, vegetables or milk. There were no doctors or dentists. Illiteracy prior to 1960 was estimated at 98 percent. There was no schooling other than instruction in reading the Quran-the only book available for students or even for those few adults who could read. Virtually no one could write.
Diving for pearls consumed the youth of the men in excruciating physical labor. Conditions were equally miserable for the women-rearing their children, preparing the food, tending the animals, making the clothes, and trying to sustain their families. Many of them died along with their infants during or following childbirth. The mortality rate among women was estimated at 30 percent. Any illness among the children that produced a fever usually produced death.
As a child, Al-Fahim saw his little three-year-old sister suffer and die of bums resulting from playing with matches. The family undertook an incredible two-day journey across the desert with the suffering child in an effort to reach a doctor, but she died before the mission could be completed. The author's mother died at the age of 30 during complications of pregnancy. The absence of a doctor was clearly the cause of this tragedy for the young family.
Al-Fahim maintains a balanced view toward the long British rule of Abu Dhabi and the neighboring emirates, but at times his understandable indignation over the British record is manifested. "It is disappointing that the British, despite their presence in the Trucial States for almost two centuries, never lifted a finger to help us in the areas of education and health care. Not a single brick was laid by the British before 1959 to help the people of Abu Dhabi better their lives; they never built a school, a medical clinic or a mosque," the author writes. So much for "the white man's burden."
Summing up Abu Dhabi's situation in 1961, Al-Fahim writes: "We lived in the eighteenth century while the rest of the world, even the rest of our neighbors, had advanced into the twentieth" (p.88). A childhood visit as a guest of the Kanoo family in Bahrain overwhelmed the young Al-Fahim as he witnessed the dazzling difference between the development of Bahrain and the still primitive conditions in Abu Dhabi. "Visiting Bahrain was like taking a trip to another planet" (p.89).
The author's father was one of the few Abu Dhabians who was willing to launch a business enterprise despite the lack of even a minimal infrastructure-adequate roads, water or power-to say nothing of the weak consumer base. Beginning with a small automotive-parts shop, Abduljalil Al-Fahim and his sons gradually expanded their business ventures until today they own three car-importing firms, a trading company representing Bosch and Michelin tires, four hotels including the impressive Holiday Center at Dubai, several apartment buildings, rental villas, an oil-field services company and a travel agency. All of this took place in step with the emergence of Abu Dhabi as a modem oil-producing state after 1960.
The first oil shipments from the sheikhdom came in 1962. Recognizing that the development and shipment of oil required a modem infrastructure and an educated citizenry, the British began belatedly to press the ruling sheikh for public investment to achieve these structural and societal goals. They were resisted by Sheikh Shakhbut, much to the consternation of Sheikh Zayed and the senior Al-Fahim. Not until Sheikh Zayed assumed power over Abu Dhabi in 1966 did a significant development effort get underway. The new ruler had never attended school and could neither read nor write. But he was a man of unusual personal magnetism and physical strength, and he had a vision of his country becoming a modem, progressive state. He also possessed compassion for his people and a determination to improve their lives by investing the oil revenue in economic, educational, medical and other social purposes.
The British had announced in 1958, after having been the controlling force in the area for more than 170 years, their intentions to withdraw from all the territories east of Suez including Abu Dhabi. This set off a scramble on the part of Japan, Germany, France, Italy and the United States to take over the British monopoly of the oil market. But more significantly for Abu Dhabi, the British announcement opened the way for Sheikh Zayed to convince the rulers of the other emirates the they should unite in a federation, the United Arab Emirates, with Sheikh Zayed as president.
Mohammed Al-Fahim tells all of this with passion, but also with an impressive objectivity. There are only a couple of items that are historically questionable. For example, the author writes that as a consequence of the 1973 war, Egypt and Syria "regained some of their lost territories from Israel" (p. 158). It is true that the Egyptian, Syrian and other Arab forces came close to victory in this three-month war, but in the end they achieved no territorial gains. Referring to the recent Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, the author notes that the Iraqis were turned back "with the help of the West, the Americans and British in particular..." (p. 182). My American bias, but also my sense of history, would have called for a greater recognition of the dominant role played by American military forces in that conflict.
Overall, this is a superb and truthful work that engagingly combines autobiography with history. It would be of particular interest to business and professional people looking for a window into the culture of the region. I heartily recommend it to all those who would understand the struggles and triumphs of the people of the Gulf.