National Geographic : 1956 Jul
Desert Sheikdoms of Arabia's Pirate Coast In Trucial Oman's Principalities, Cradled by Seas of Sand and Salt, Camels, Dates, and Pearls Support a Fiercely Independent People BY RONALD CODRAI With Illustrations from Photographs by the Author OF all the troubled lands east of Suez, few spots are so little known to West erners as Trucial Oman, which swelters between Saudi Arabia's "Empty Quarter" and the Persian Gulf, in an area where even Na tional Geographic Society maps read "Coastal sovereignty undefined." Yet the proximity of the Trucial Coast to Bahrain and other great oil centers of the Near East makes it a prized pawn in today's struggle between East and West. Every scrap of information about its proud little principal ities is eagerly sought. And the six years I have spent there on business since 1948 have given me a chance to study its geography and know its people as few Westerners have been privileged to do. From my house in Dibai I could watch the graceful lateen-sailed booms as they drew away from the shallow lagoon for ports as distant as Zanzibar. Beneath my veranda lay grunting camels, left hobbled while their own ers-tribesmen from the great sand seas of Arabia-shopped in the crowded bazaar. At the beginning of summer I would listen to the chanting of boat crews as they rowed out of the lagoon for the start of another pearl-fishing season. And each fall, when flights of turkey-sized bustards came to the desert, the sheik's falconers would appear again, swaggering about the town with hawks perched on heavy canvas cuffs. It was a strange world, and yet I came to feel as much fondness for the people of this sere and bitter corner of Arabia as I do for any I know. Seagoing Brigands Preyed on Ships Trucial Oman's seven sheikdoms count only about 80,000 people. Five of these "king doms" face north across the Persian Gulf toward Iran: Abu Dhabi, Dibai, Ajman, Umm al Qaiwain, and Ras al Khaima. The com bined state of Sharja-Kalba lies also along this coast, although a part of Kalba adjoins the seventh, Fujaira, on the Gulf of Oman (map, page 71). A century ago this "Pirate Coast" was shunned by mariners of Europe and Asia alike. Omani seamen, fearlessly putting to sea in shallow-draft Arab dhows, preyed on any ship that ventured into the gulf. They even plied their bloody trade as far afield as the Arabian and Red Seas. Mercilessly the seagoing brigands put cap tured crews to death before plundering their ships. Taken captive themselves, some ar rogantly demanded "the same immediate death we would have inflicted upon you." To protect the interests of the Honourable East India Company, which had suffered nearly half a century of losses, the Bombay government attacked the freebooters' strong holds and forced the principal sheiks of the Pirate Coast to sign a treaty of peace. Finally, in 1853, came the Treaty of Per petual Peace with Great Britain, which is in force today. Thus the Persian Gulf was made safe for shipping, and from this truce the sheikdoms became known as Trucial Oman. Exotic Bazaars Unchanged by Time The town of Dibai, with a population of some 15,000, is Trucial Oman's chief com mercial port. Its colorful, crowded bazaar, largest on the coast, is a lodestone that draws every Bedouin whose camel can get him there. The walks I enjoyed most through Dibai's bazaar were in the company of Bedouin on their rare trips to town. One such was Mu barak, the Blessed One, who arrived after a 200-mile camel trek from his barren, sandy tribal ground. After hobbling his camels the cord worn around an Arab's headcloth can be used for this purpose-he stopped to drink coffee with me. But Mubarak was im patient. The shops would close after evening prayers, and there was no time to lose. Leaving his rifle but still wearing a bando leer of ammunition and his khanjar, the wicked-looking curved dagger that is Trucial Oman's national weapon, he strode beside me under the palm fronds that shade the bazaar's narrow streets.