In The News

News | events | Al Qasimi Foundation | Ras Al Khaimah skyline | media

News Search

Ras Al Khaimah | United Arab Emirates | History | National Identity | Urban planning | Al Qasimi Foundation | Matt MacLean | Burj

UAE’s Urban Landscape Reflects National Identity

Al Qasimi Foundation
March 29, 2016

Mr. Matthew MacLean is a doctoral candidate at New York University and the Foundation’s latest visiting scholar. He has spent almost two years in the United Arab Emirates documenting how physical spaces reflect its evolution from the Trucial States in the 1950s into the country it is today.

“Urban development is one of the Foundation’s priorities, and Matthew’s research is helping to record the people and sites that make Ras Al Khaimah an exceptional place,” explains Ms. Caitrin Mullan, who is in charge of doctoral research grants at the Foundation.

“We often think of history as happening hundreds or thousands of years ago, but this research highlights the needs to also protect the UAE’s modern history – which is often embodied in the built environment.”

According to Mr. MacLean, community identity is formed not only through cultural education and formal celebrations such as National Day events, but also in more concrete ways, such as the experience of urban space and daily life.  

“Emirati national identity emerged, in part, from the collective experience of rapid modernization and development,” says Mr. MacLean, “and this transition embodies two facets of Emirati identity—continual progress and the embrace of modernization—while keeping in mind the memories and values they have inherited from previous generations.”

“For example, families from the neighborhoods in Old Ras Al Khaimah moved out to larger modern homes in Dahan and Al Dhait. At the same time, they also take pride in maintaining values and traditions from earlier times.” 

Ras Al Khaimah is dotted with pre-federation homes, mosques, watchtowers, and some of the UAE’s best-preserved forts. In addition, surviving infrastructure from the early modern period includes Shaabiya homes and the Kuwaiti Street and Maaridh Souqs. These sites are woven into the emirate’s urban and rural fabric, resulting in a landscape that has modernized while maintaining its historic identity, explains Mr. MacLean.

Filmmakers have come to Ras Al Khaimah, recognizing the uniqueness of the semi-abandoned town of Al Jazira Al Hamra, which contains more than 100 homes built in the pre-federation era. The village has the best examples of pre-oil architecture in the Gulf, and the local government has designated this area for preservation.

In Ma’aridh, Beit Al Serkal is a local landmark and a nearby structure displays one of the UAE’s few remaining original barjeel (wind towers). These and similar homes in Al Rams, Uraibi, and elsewhere offer an unparalleled window into Emirati life before oil and provide insight into environmentally sustainable living patterns.

Mr. Stephan Hobe, who is a Project Manager at the Department of Antiquities & Museums, has worked in the emirate for several years. He agrees that the UAE is a significant place for studying the effects of rapid development on lifestyle, culture, and identity.

“By spending time with Emiratis, I experienced how strong their identification with various locations is, especially among the older generations,” says Mr. Hobe.

“In the past, locals were always compelled to be flexible and adaptive in a comparatively harsh environment. Now it is interesting to see the ways in which the identity of the older generations lives on in the younger generation as they adapt to modern developments.”

The relevance of Ras Al Khaimah’s historical identity to daily life may be most obvious in the Old Town’s souq area, where Emiratis and local residents conduct business as usual every day in buildings that date from the days when this area was part of the Trucial States.

“I’m amazed as I learn more about how people thrived here before modern conveniences like cars and air conditioning,” says Ms. Corinne Chichester, a resident of Ras Al Khaimah’s Al Dhait area.

“When I drive through the old souq and see a fort that was built in the 1700s sitting down the street from Julphar Towers, I realize that I live in a place that captures the UAE’s history in a really unusual way.”

“The point that this research illustrates, I think, is that heritage preservation does not imply a blanket opposition to change. Heritage must be incorporated—in practical ways—into a society if it is to evolve successfully, and UAE leaders seem to understand this keenly,” says Mr. MacLean.

Dr. Natasha Ridge, Executive Director of the Al Qasimi Foundation and an education expert, is excited that the Foundation has been able to widen its research to include more focus on urban development.

“At an intuitive level, we know that thoughtfully integrating heritage sites into the daily patterns of Ras Al Khaimah residents is important,” she says, “but it’s crucial to support academic perspectives on how the urban environment reflects the preservation of UAE identity in the twenty-first century.”