UAE National Day: Memories of building the Emirates

In honour of UAE National Day 2016, Iain Akerman shares the poignant story of his uncle, Robert ‘Robin’ Webb, who helped build the infrastructure of the UAE and make it what it is today. A keen amateur photographer, he has also captured a beautiful set of images that conveys how Dubai has steadily evolved

It was my mother who first told me of my uncle’s years in the Trucial States, the group of sheikhdoms in the south-eastern Arabian Gulf that later became the United Arab Emirates. She had kept all the photographs he had ever sent her in an old album with corner stickers. I specifically remember a set of four black-and-white photographs that occupied an entire page. Unevenly trimmed, and dated 24 January 1966, they portrayed groups of men dancing in ragged lines or semi-circles. It would take me 40 years to ask my uncle about those photos.

A few years ago he contacted me, knowing I then lived in Dubai, and invited me to his home in Colchester, England.

Laid out immaculately across his living room was the memorabilia of a civil engineer. A map of Dubai from the early 1960s dominated the living room. A detailed plan of Ras Al Khaimah lay nearby.

But my attention was drawn towards a vintage Kodak Kodaslide home projector – so old that a slide carousel and remote control were absent, with only a single slot present for every slide to be painstakingly inserted, viewed and removed.

The images it projected onto the wall were striking in their simplicity: the Ruler of Ajman, kneeling in the sand on the first day of Ramadan, December 1965; a state visit by the Amir of Kuwait, May 1966; and a group of Baluchi children, backs straight, posing for the camera, Deira, September 1967.  

There were hundreds of photographs. The majority had been taken between September 1964 and May 1968, when my uncle, Robert ‘Robin’ Webb, had lived and worked in the Trucial States as a civil engineer for Sir William Halcrow & Partners. Fresh out of England, he was just 24.

He set up home in a flat in Dubai’s Deira district overlooking what was then called Taxi Square (now Baniyas Square) and began work immediately – constructing the souq wharf in Deira, extending the customs wharf in Dubai, deepening and dredging Dubai Creek, and eventually carrying out initial site investigations for Port Rashid.

“For the deepening of the creek we had to blast through layers of hard rock and then dredge it all out,” he told me. “I also worked on several extensions to the customs wharf and they went further and further up the creek as the quantity of cargo increased until they eventually decided to build Port Rashid. I did the site investigation and designed the sections of the main quay.”

I have so many memories of my time there. The fun of exploring the desert and mountains. The endless sunshine. The sunsets

Many of my uncle’s photographs captured people and places that today have changed beyond all recognition: dhows loading at the souq wharf before construction of the souq road; proud Bedu guards in front of Dubai Fort.

“I had an old Kodak pullout camera – one of those with the bellows – and my first photographs in Dubai were taken with that. I’ve still got it somewhere,” he recalled of his beloved equipment.

Now well into his 70s and still running his own company, he reminisced about his flat in Taxi Square, recalling a handy Jashanmal general store, and an open-air cinema situated just across the road. One particular photograph, taken in October 1965, depicts a view of traditional barasti houses as seen from his bedroom balcony.

One of my uncle’s final jobs was designing and supervising construction of the first town roads in Ras Al Khaimah. “There wasn’t a single road outside of Dubai,” he recalled. “There were just tracks. You had to be good at navigating, but once you got to learn the tracks and you could tell where you were – north or south or near the mountains or by the sand dunes – it became relatively easy. 

“Outside of Dubai you drove on tracks, over the vast sabkha flats at low tide, over the sand dunes, across gravel plains, or along the beach (again at low tide). Night driving required an accurate knowledge of the tides and great vigilance.”

He eventually left the Trucial States by dhow for Bander Abbas in Iran on May 13, 1968, although he would return for short visits in the early 1970s, when the Trucial States became the United Arab Emirates.

“I have so many memories of my time there. The fun of exploring the desert and mountains. The endless sunshine. The sunsets. And the times spent on the beach were unbelievable. You could go anywhere and you’d be on your own – no one for miles and miles. Crazy when you think about it.”