A Stage for Palestine

Dubai-Sharjah Road 1968

July 2, 2021

By 1969, ribbon cuttings were all too common in Dubai. The most well-heeled residents, of every provenance, both expected and dreaded to be invited to them. Most often held for new bank branches, the routine included a regional manager’s formulaic greetings, then a swift slice of ribbon, which was followed by a crowd’s consumption of canned-fruit cocktail, Arabic coffee, and dates. On July 2, a peculiar ribbon cutting took place—to celebrate the opening of “a permanent Palestine exhibition.”

There are certainly some curiosities about this opening, not the least of which was that it celebrated permanence in Dubai. At the time, discussions of permanence pervaded the city. Nearly everybody who attended ribbon cuttings was employed to construct permanence. Many oversaw infrastructure and development projects, with embedded concrete foundations and guarantees to weather the physical and social climate.

Despite such professional exertion, the year 1969 unfolded in Dubai “against a background of change and uncertainty.”1 A year earlier, the British government had revealed plans to vacate its political and military positions throughout the Gulf region. There were those who cheered the imminent departure, but a powerful faction dreaded loss of the status quo. Previous British departures—from Palestine and Aden, to name two—often brought undesired consequences for multiple parties. For that reason, Dubai’s leadership knew it faced a reckoning. The emirate’s oil fields that year barely eked out 2% of Abu Dhabi’s output. If a new state was formed, wealthy Abu Dhabi was destined to dominate it.2 Beyond just Dubai’s fate, many hazarded that the new “Union of Arab Emirates” would not last. In response, Dubai’s leadership doubled down to maintain a steady flow of concrete and asphalt, as if physical mass could ensure political stability.

Photo at the top is from 1968; above is from the mid-1970s. Both images capture the Dubai–Sharjah road (left to right), a vital commercial artery and one of the first hardened roads in the region. Somewhere along its stretches was a "permanent Palestine exhibition." Courtesy of John R. Harris Library.
Photo at the top is from 1968; above is from the mid-1970s. Both images capture the Dubai–Sharjah road (left to right), a vital commercial artery and one of the first hardened roads in the region. Somewhere along its stretches was a "permanent Palestine exhibition." Courtesy of John R. Harris Library.
In the face of this uncertainty, it is fascinating to imagine another Arab nation on display in Dubai, permanently. Palestine, of course, suffered from its own instability. As a consequence of not only the Nakba (1948) but also the Six Days War (1967), “the existence of the Palestinian people as a coherent entity, indeed the very idea of ‘Palestine,’ appeared to be in a grave, and perhaps in a terminal, state,” according to historian Rashid Khalidi. In 1969, the pursuit of Palestinian sovereignty and the return of stolen land started to undergo a shift in ideology, and imagery. In February, Yasser Arafat ascended as the leader of the Palestine Liberation Organization, bringing with him a renewed constellation of imagery for how resistance looked and sounded; especially noticeable was “Arafat’s trademark checked kaffiyeh headdress [that] harked back to … rural Palestinian rebels of the late 1930s.” It might be that an assertion of a permanent place for Palestine in Dubai was riding an optimistic tide: the PLO, as Khalidi writes, was gaining “international recognition … as representative of the Palestinian people.”3

British records register the official opening of the exhibition, the ribbon allegedly being cut by the future ruler of Dubai. Beyond that, however, there is little evidence of the exhibition. Several people who lived and worked in Dubai in the late 1960s have no recollection of it. Its exact location is not recorded, but it lay somewhere on the Dubai–Sharjah road.

My questions remain: Was it installed in purpose-built premises? How long did it last? Who funded and advocated for it? What was on display?

There is evidence that the exhibition did open. The mentioned "full report" could not be located in other documents prior to posting this dispatch. FCO 8/1255, British National Archives.
There is evidence that the exhibition did open. The mentioned "full report" could not be located in other documents prior to posting this dispatch. FCO 8/1255, British National Archives.

Most of the references to the exhibition occur in contemporaneous weekly reports of “subversive activity” in the region. British officials were clearly nervous about arriving “illegal immigrants.” The great majority of these people were from Pakistan and India, but the reports focus more on those from Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, and Palestine. In the 1950s, British officials fretted over Egyptian and Palestinian schoolteachers who discussed Palestine and Pan-Arabism with students. In 1969, the specter of Nasser had become more diffuse, in the reporting of the “boatloads of Northern Arabs” who were arriving as managers and business leaders. Their earnings off Dubai bonanzas were deemed unseemly by local British officials who were mandated to promote British business interests.

A 1965 survey placed the Palestinian and Lebanese population of Dubai at around 500, in a city of about 60,000 people. The Palestinian population was small, but it was large enough to agitate British officials and spark financial support for the Palestinian cause. In the same year as the exhibition opening, events at the Dubai-based Jordanian Association and the home of a Syrian employee of a Dubai travel agency raised money for the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. Also, the Omani Women’s Society raised funds through an auction, with PFLP members, including Leila Khaled, attending.

In April 1969, “the Al Fateh dramatic group,” seemingly affiliated with Fatah, arrived in Dubai. Housing more than half of the Trucial States’ population, Dubai would have been the logical venue for the troupe’s three days of performances. Ticket sales were handled by some of Dubai’s oldest merchant families, but the performances were scheduled at Sharjah, possibly Haroun, Cinema. The venue was eventually moved further out to Ras Al Khaimah.4 The actors, lodged in a nearby boys’ school, raised nearly $75,000. In December, another troupe arrived in Ras Al Khaimah to perform “the history of Palestine since the 1930s, the formation of the Commandos and some particularly harrowing ‘Zionist’ murders which drew a strong emotional reaction from the audience.” Those actors also raised a significant sum.

In her book about national commemorations by Palestinians, scholar Laleh Khalili inspects the “performative aspect of commemoration.” When trying to imagine what the exhibition and the staged performances must have been like, I’m reminded of the literal performances covered in her book, specifically those that have taken place in schools and refugee camps, where history was recorded and shared through dramatic reenactment. Khalili conducts a close study of a 2002 exhibition in Beirut, which focused on photographs and belongings of Palestinians killed during the second Intifada. Further, she contemplates the use of photography and murals, which bear witness to calamities and to the people who suffered them. What media, signals, and symbols of the Palestinian cause were already being employed in the Dubai exhibition in 1969?

One might wonder about how the PLO was finding a visual vocabulary at the moment one went on display in Dubai. How were display, curation, and art being marshalled to communicate experience and loss?5 It’s striking to think that the Palestinian exhibition opened when residents in Dubai regularly commemorated the completion, and commencement, of building projects. These works were also an exhibition, one that was meant to coalesce into a global, though ostensibly apolitical, identity for the city.

The Palestine exhibition did not likely last long in Dubai. Permanence is no more than a promise. While it did not last, and while theater troupes could not perform in Dubai, it is difficult to disassociate the money raised around these efforts from the wealth earned by people building Dubai. Rulers of Abu Dhabi and Sharjah became better known for their support of Palestine. Still, for a brief moment, two Arab identities, often perceived as detached, co-existed on the dusty road toward Sharjah.



1. Words were written by the political agent in Abu Dhabi but were also meant to describe the rest of the Trucial States. The National Archives (NA): FCO 8/1509.

2. NA, FCO 8 / 1509.

3. Khalidi, The Iron Cage: The Story of the Palestinian Struggle for Statehood, 164, 141, 168.

4. When the Sharjah venue was cancelled, the emirate’s ruler offered to donate twice the amount as they would have raised. Still, British reports claim, group members managed to fundraise throughout Sharjah. According to the same British records, local municipal workers in Ras Al Khaimah paid one percent of their salary to an “Al Fateh fund,” which was also supplemented by a land sales tax. TNA: FCO 8/1255.

5. Farah Fayyad reminded me of the documentary project by Kristine Khouri and Rasha Salti about the “International Art Exhibition for Palestine,” which took place in Beirut in 1978 among a constellation of other “museums in exile.”

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This is the eleventh dispatch around the publication of Showpiece City. You can read the first ten: Telephones & Dynamite; A Season of Migrations, West; A Circumscribed World; Gathering at a Roundabout; John Harris Comes to Dubai; and Wild Machines over Dubai; Have Some Fun; Thrown to Stand; A Shipwreck Seen; and Crossing as Destination.