The Emirate of Abu Dhabi by far outweighs the other emirates in terms of land area. It also contains part of the Rub’ al Khali or Empty Quarter, one of the world’s largest sand deserts (650, 000 square kilometres) that stretches into Saudi Arabia, Oman, and Yemen.
Beautiful red dunes form a stark contrast with the Hajar Mountains in the background:
Folklore is imbued with various elements of fantasy and imagination. This is also true in the case of how fresh water on Abu Dhabi island was discovered, which paved the way to the establishment of a permanent settlement.
One version tells a story of how one of the Bani Yas fishermen dug into the ground, and found a pit filled with useable water, while another claims that it was a hunting party of the Bani Yas tribe, who discovered the fresh water in 1761. While trailing an elusive gazelle, the story goes, they crossed from the mainland to the island over a narrow, exposed sand bar to where the gazelle was drinking from a fresh water spring. It is this last story that gives credence to its name, as Abu Dhabi means “father of the gazelle”.
No matter how wrapped up the beginning of the city of Abu Dhabi is in myth or fantasy, the reality was a harsh one. The soil of the island was arid and unproductive and the water brackish, but its strategic location made it secure from outside attack. Formed by two creeks and connected at the back by a lagoon, Abu Dhabi had a built-in defence system with coral reefs in the front, and vast stretches of desert behind it. The fact that it was only accessible from the mainland during low tide at the southern tip of the island was most likely one of the contributory factors for the Bani Yas tribe to choose it as an alternative headquarters from their traditional home base in Liwa during the end of the 18th century, when their inland oasis became vulnerable to the Wahhabi forces of Al Saud.
This location also offered them great access to the sea and its riches.
By the 1880s, Abu Dhabi was the strongest and most influential military and political power of the Trucial Sheikhdoms, while Dubai became the principal commercial port on the Gulf Coast. The ruling family, at the top of the social ladder, derived their income from a variety of taxes, which included pearling taxes, custom duties and other taxes that were collected in Abu Dhabi and Dalma Island, water taxes in Buraimi, and zakat on dates in Buraimi and Liwa that was collected in kind and according to traditional rules. The ruler of Abu Dhabi also owned the fishing rights along the coast from Abu Dhabi to Khor al-Odeid, which provided an additional source of revenue. The Al Bu Falah, unlike the other rulers along the coast, did not collect taxes on camels or other livestock.
The Sheikh conducted all the affairs of state, and within the patriarchal form of government that was practised, he not only dispensed justice, but also dealt with tribal matters in his majlis, which was accessible to all his subjects equally. As the ruler, he commanded the complete obedience and allegiance of all the members of the tribe.
The Sheikhs, despite the various taxes levied and status within the community, maintained the same simplicity as the Bedouin, not only in their diet, but also way of life. That is, until the discovery of oil, which not only changed the landscape and finances of the country, but also the way of life.