Nation-Building and the Commercialization of Agriculture in the Trucial States/UAE: The Case of Digdagga, Ras al-Khaimah

By Matthew MacLean
Submitted to Session P4172 (Economic Development and the Transformation of Gulf Landscapes, 2015 Annual Meeting
Arabian Peninsula; UAE;
19th-21st Centuries; Environment; Gulf Studies; Middle East/Near East Studies; Modernization; Nationalism; State Formation; Technology;
LCD Projector without Audio;
Digdagga is located on a large plain south of Ras al-Khaimah city in the northern UAE, between rolling dunes and the foothills of the Hajjar mountains. Today Digdagga is a decidedly peripheral mix of unassuming homes, farms, and small businesses, perhaps best-known as the location of a camel racetrack and underutilized airport. In the 1950s and 1960s, however, Digdagga was central to British plans to transform the seven Trucial States into a federation that could secure the Gulf against growing Arab nationalist influence. These plans came to fruition with the foundation of the United Arab Emirates in 1971. Literature on state-building in the UAE has mostly emphasized political integration and oil. This presentation describes a British project to build a national market space based on non-oil resources.

As the location of an Agricultural Trials Station which brought mechanical pumps, fertilizers, and Western techniques to local farmers, Digdagga was key to British efforts at modernization. The British military base in Sharjah purchased fruit and vegetables from the Trials Station at inflated prices, resulting in expansion of the land under cultivation in Digdagga. As the British prepared plans for withdrawal from the Gulf in the late 1960s, efforts to mechanize agricultural production and marketing intensified. Experts with backgrounds in colonial agricultural development surveyed the Trucial States. Their extremely detailed reports document great variation in price, transportation, marketing, and sales practices across the Trucial States, which in their view needed to be rationalized and standardized through the establishment of producers’ cooperatives, radio broadcasts of prices, loans to buy water pumps and other equipment, and common weights and measures. The Agricultural Trials Station was the key institutional location for realizing the report’s recommendations, some of which are still a feature of Emirati life today.

However, the British focus on marketing and commercial agricultural development neglected almost the complex social relations, non-market economy, subsistence agriculture, and seasonal migration patterns that characterized life in Digdagga and the surrounding region. Much information on these subjects is available through published oral histories of UAE nationals from Digdagga. By comparing and integrating data and narratives from fieldwork, oral histories, and the British archives, the presentation will shed light on the material and discursive structures that underpinned development plans in a quasi-colonial context, and provide a much richer picture of socioeconomic transformation based on non-oil resources.