Trials Station, RAK

Irrigation system installed in the Trucial States, possibly Al Ain. From "These are the Trucial States." Courtesy of Imperial War Museum, UK.

A Seed Sown in Digdaga for a Stomach in Dubai

[You can download article here or here. For more about the film discussed, read this.]

Today, the term ‘Dubai model’ gets tossed around by the business-management types; they top it off with a swirl of vagueness and self-certainty. For them, it evinces Dubai’s existence as an administrative and premeditated template for profit to which other places in the world can aspire. In the 1950s, when the term was probably first used, it had a different meaning, one that conjured a spatial and economic strategy for a region devoid of even a town plan.[1] The strategy conceptualized how the British government could render a narrative ordering of more than 80,000 square kilometers of territory known then as the Trucial States. The hemmed-in land manifested as rocky mountains, soggy estuaries, desert plains, salt flats, and hidden aquifers. Dubai, as the name suggested, was the designated center of this dominion, around which the rest of the vast terrain was to be arranged into an operational periphery, a defined edge that kept the center fed and hydrated.

The term was likely coined by Peter Tripp, a British official assigned to Dubai and the rest of the Trucial States. For him, the Dubai model indicated how the British government could efficiently maintain control of a delineated landscape through a tempered menu of development projects. By locating the center in Dubai, technological improvements were concentrated at the core. The satellites to Dubai’s hub were scheduled to rely on Dubai for their global supply of products and communication. Only the most essential freight, bureaucracy, and technologies would trickle outward toward them. Tripp was neither town planner nor economist nor agriculturalist; he was a British Foreign Office official, a diplomat. He was mandated to present British claims to this region as beneficial and tidy and also to prevent less money being devoted to maintaining British control of its foreign domains. His conceptualization included no diagrams, no maps, and no specific timetable. It took shape, rather, over proposed typed-up budget tabulations—adjusted, readjusted, and most often scrapped.

This Dubai model was not presented as a refinement or editing of current and historical relationships that played out across the bounded territory. Already, of course, people occupied and lived off of the geographical happenstances that characterized the territory. Before and after British intervention, people moved across the land, visiting people living at other parts and traveling beyond the arbitrary boundaries. They bartered, exchanged poems and music, channeled water from one location to the other, and preserved sustenance gathered at one place and transported it to another. Their lives also harbored the capacity to endure a hot season or a ruinous drought. Any pursuit of the Dubai model did not entirely ignore this history of patterns and relationships: it did seek out existing deficiencies.

In the mid-1950s, British officials stationed in London and Bahrain pinpointed two deficiencies in the Trucial States. There, it was decided, an exhibition would be made of British expertise, at once to display the benefits of British jurisdiction and to regulate just how much investment was required to maintain that jurisdiction. The efforts focused on industrial and engineering techniques that could transform land for the sake of profit. The first location was designated in 1954, when officials invited British consultants to prescribe engineered enhancement for Dubai’s harbor. The second, on which this account focuses, was designated a year later, after soil samples of the region were analyzed in Britain: from the northernmost reach of the Trucial States, in Ras Al Khaimah, where the topography flattened out into a fertile plain just before it jolted upward into jagged mountains. There, in Digdaga, the Agricultural Trials Station was officially established in 1955, ‘a large scheme for growing fruit and vegetables.’[2]

Before the station, those living around Digdaga knew well enough that the plain could be overtaken by a flash flood, a result of mountain runoff, with much of the rainfall eventually restoring an underground aquifer. There were already ways to channel this water to agricultural plots in the area, but with the official, capitalized designation of the Agricultural Trials Station, sustenance was converted into an industrial experiment, ostensibly with strict protocols and observational accuracy.[3] Technology was no longer an exchange over land and time but a serviced import—broken down into quantifiable products, like cultivated seeds, mechanized pumps, and manufactured fertilizers. As a result, the lands of Ras Al Khaimah were characterized as deficient and underperforming. Technology could galvanize them into producing commodity-grade foods, many of which had no known history of ever having grown there. According to the New York Times at least, local residents had to learn new words like malfouf, cabbage.[4] Technology was to be instilled in vegetables, the vessels of nutrition, for the sake of public health. Through technology and technique, Ras Al Khaimah could be reimagined as a site of an industrial agricultural economy, its products qualified for export, first to feed Dubai, then oil exploration teams, and afterwards the rest of the world.[5]

Seemingly of two different worlds, the two projects—a concrete harbor in Dubai and an industrial farm in Ras Al Khaimah—occurred with about 80 kilometers between them, as a bird might fly. They were not conceptualized as two components of a larger plan. It was Tripp who stitched them together into a comprehensible narrative—quite literally, a story—when tabulations proved too easily erased by London civil servants. He sought a narrative sense and purpose that could be visualized and memorized. Tripp restyled long, complex history into a facile concept of center-periphery organization. A clear ordering and definition of production in each area of the Trucial States could contribute to and build a legible, and therefore manageable, economy. Specifically, he imagined that the growth of a tomato in Ras Al Khaimah could play a role in a larger and quickly legible ecosystem whose center was Dubai. Modernization in this way is authoritative, here with the emphasis on author.

In a recent book titled Showpiece City, I discuss Peter Tripp and his Dubai model. While he was not the first to designate Dubai as the nucleus of British interests in the Trucial States, he validated that decision and worked to configure the rest of the territory in relation to it. And he beseeched his government to fund programs that would realize this configuration. During his time as the local political agent, Tripp was not able to secure the desired funding from the British government; the Trucial States Development Fund’s budget lines were repeatedly slashed. The necessary capital for Dubai’s improvements, which far exceeded the British government’s willing capacity, was scheduled to rely on outside sources, including from regional autocrats already made wealthy by petroleum profits. What funding remained would largely be focused on the ‘the fruits and vegetable’ scheme in Ras Al Khaimah.

In May 1955, Tripp arrived in Dubai to start his posting as Political Agent Trucial States. In September, Robin Huntington, a former military officer familiar with the region, returned to the area to set up shop in Ras Al Khaimah as supervisor of the agricultural station. Tripp and his family moved into a recently completed compound on Dubai Creek, just upstream from where the harbor project was to begin. The premises were dramatically reduced in scale during the development phase but were nonetheless air conditioned and serviced by a sizeable staff. Huntington, arriving alone, moved into a palm-frond ‘hovel,’ provided for by Ras Al Khaimah’s ruler and delivered unfurnished.[6] When Huntington was already supposed to be initiating his ‘crop trials,’ Tripp was still arranging for him a used truck (with funds originally earmarked for an irrigation scheme) and a kerosene-fueled refrigerator. Meager accommodations, basic furnishings, and a means of transportation: these were the most straightforward and solvable problems Tripp faced in supporting fellow British experts arriving to populate the nascent Trucial States Development Programme.

Peter Tripp, as an early-career diplomat with a sparse team, did his best to argue that the agricultural station, the harbor improvements, and other tabulated schemes (including in education and health care) could benefit the British government and economy. With what came to be known as a five-year plan, Tripp identified how modest approaches to urban and economic development could prove an inexpensive means to express British concern for the territory, a benevolence that could be cashed in when nearby oil reserves were eventually tapped. His efforts took the form of letter writing to superiors in London and Bahrain, but he did not get far. Tripp expressed his disappointments, often bitterly, including what he claimed was disinterest from regional leaders. More frustratingly, he confronted hesitancy and mismanagement from his superiors in the British Foreign Office.

When letter-writing proved ineffective, Tripp resorted to fiction. Rather than explaining what should be done, Tripp wrote as if it were already happening. He composed a treatment for a propaganda film, the narrative structure of which was based on his Dubai model.[7] The resulting film, especially its production notes, can be read as Tripp’s idealized vision for how late British colonialism would transpire across the Trucial States. If he could not convince his superiors to fund a regional development program, then he could at least offer a filmic visualization, replete with a functional road network, irrigation networks, agricultural and vocational schools, fishing industries, and a dispersed modicum of medical care. There was in Tripp’s scripted vision the start of a regional plan, to be executed by an economical regime of British experts and received by an undemanding populace.

With film, Tripp could present more than a regional strategy; he could invent a new geography. The montaged geography enables Tripp’s imagined ordering to be manifested as a single, comprehensible society. Across this crafted landscape, the ‘Dubai model’ is not mentioned explicitly in the film; it is instead acted out by residents who appear to have stiffly agreed to be filmed. Set to its own upbeat soundtrack, Dubai and its laboring residents compose the climax of the film. Other settlements are dutifully presented in the piece; they were to be the recipients of small medical clinics (as opposed to Dubai’s hospital), vocational education, irrigation projects, and agricultural programs. In the film, the Dubai model performs as Tripp envisioned it should: an urban node around which the other regional sheikhdoms exist. Outside Dubai, idyllic shots characterize the other Trucial States in a supporting role. A young shepherd steers goats from Sharjah to Dubai’s markets. Water irrigation efforts in Buraimi nourish cattle fields, which in turn feed Dubai. Seeds are sown in Ras Al Khaimah for produce that eventually ends up in Dubai’s souks.

One of the few British officials appearing in the film, though unnamed, is Robin Huntington, who, wearing a pressed shirt and tie, demonstrates for his local students how to wield a mechanical rotary tiller. Ras Al Khaimah’s ruler, Saqr bin Mohammed Al Qasimi, visits Huntington’s fields, where he ‘shows interest in such projects’ and ‘encourages his subjects to accept the projects.’[8] Tripp and others portrayed Huntington as a sylvan prince, living off scant resources in a palm-frond hut on the land he was hired to till. At least at first, Huntington’s efforts in Ras Al Khaimah allegedly ‘gripped’ the attention of leaders outside Dubai’s urban center.[9] Together with his unnamed ‘Arab assistant,’ Huntington operated largely beyond the view of outside commentators, which might have been an advantageous situation since his actual expertise in agriculture was wanting. As historian Matthew Maclean observes in his study of the program, Huntington was not immune to criticism, having once been referred to as the ‘General’ of an imperialist effort by Pan-Arab radio station Sawt al-Arab. His inexperience, for this reason, could have also been part of his appeal, a sign that the British government was interested in little more than the exhibition of industrialized agriculture, and a reason that any accusations of colonial overreach were not so convincing.

International development aid, as it is known today, was not yet a completely clear-cut pursuit in 1955; it largely came out of a decolonizing world. Tragically, and maybe logically then, it bears a lot of the trappings of colonial development. Tripp was managing a swath of land in the Arabian Peninsula that included a plurality of settlements and governing systems. It was grouped and defined by the British government but never called a colony. The 1954 arrival of Tripp’s predecessor in Dubai signaled at once a departure and an arrival: a formulation of late colonial techniques aimed at creating the space for private British consultants to take over tasks once assumed by the British government. And while Huntington might have been a government-paid official, privately-led campaigns began to happen all around him to identify water sources that would allow his efforts to expand.

The Dubai branch of Jashanmal, a general store that boosted the city’s shopping scene, reportedly sold the first harvest from the Digdaga trials station in late 1957, but alongside imports that the regional chain brought in from the rest of the world. More than any local agricultural experiment, trade was shaping Dubai’s dietary habits. Already, traders found it easier, more reliable, and more profitable to bring produce and meats from elsewhere, especially South Asia. In the 1950s, exploration for water sources in Ras Al Khaimah and nearby were linked to agricultural production, but by the 1970s it was clearly focused on addressing a more urgent need: providing drinking water for the booming population the port attracted.[10] It’s not clear when the trials station was closed, but it might have been doomed before it had started.

In Peter Tripp’s possession was a photograph of a sailor. The sailor’s dress, including a windblown lungi and an intricately twisted keffiyeh, can be read as pastoral and provincial, but the photographer has captured him engaged in global trade. The arriving cargo at Dubai’s harbor, stacked at the sailor’s feet, includes small crates stamped ‘tomato paste,’ with the destination marked as Dubai and Sharjah. The sender is a company called Renata; I have found packaged food companies with that name in current-day Bangladesh (then East Pakistan), the United Kingdom, and Brazil. All three were places linked to Dubai through food trade by then. These links fueled the city’s waterways and sustained the urban landscape. Further advancements in food delivery—fresh, canned, and frozen—hitched onto Dubai’s ongoing advancements in transportation infrastructure.

The photograph of the tomato paste shipment was taken around the same time the first tomatoes from Digdaga were being brought to Dubai’s markets. Tripp’s Dubai model—the idea a tightly knit ecosystem of sustenance and exchange—would have never held. At a greater scale, the closed loop of political and commercial control the British briefly imagined over the Trucial States was also not going to hold.

Today, on the same flat plain where the Digdaga Agricultural Trials Station opened, is an airport. There is also a zoo and, further out, a resort. On land where Robin Huntington’s palm-frond hut might have stood are offices of the UAE Ministry of Climate Change & Environment.[11] All of these are later models, stations, for how Ras Al Khaimah’s terrain is imagined by its keepers. The Dubai model had once relegated the emirate to performing as little more than a bread basket for Dubai. At the northernmost tip of today’s United Arab Emirates, Ras Al Khaimah no longer performs as part of a periphery; it is presented instead as its own center. Perhaps, now, it is a place beholden to the current, more familiar version of the Dubai model, the one pitched by the business-management types, wherein success is presented as a template.

 [1] The Trucial States was the collective name British-authored documents gave to the sheikhdoms of Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Sharjah, Ajman, Umm Al Quwain, Ras Al Khaimah, and Fujairah. They eventually became the United Arab Emirates.

[2] John B. Denson, ‘Trucial States Development,’ December 20, 1955, National Archives United Kingdom (NA), FO 371 / 114656.

[3] Historian Matthew Maclean’s 2017 dissertation, “Spatial Transformations and the Emergence of ‘the National’: Infrastructures and the Formation of the United Arab Emirates, 1950–1980,” provides the most thorough English-language review of the Agricultural Trials Station.

[4] Richard P. Hunt, ‘Oman Arabs Learn of Cabbages and Politics,’ New York Times, February 23, 1961.

[5] Minutes, ‘Discusses the agricultural project,’ October 12, 1956, NA, FO 371 / 120611.

[6] Hawley, From Dubai to Foreign Office, January 9, 1959, 371/140142. Note from Jones, November 15, 1955, NA, FO 371/114656.

[7] I discuss the film, ‘These are the Trucial States’ in English, in Showpiece City: How Architecture Made Dubai (Stanford, 2020) and ‘Landscapes of Production: Filming Dubai and the Trucial States.’ Journal of Urban History 44, no. 2 (March 2018): 298–317.

[8] These Are the Trucial States, Imperial War Museum (IWM), COI 764. Translations provided by Mahdi Sabbagh.

[9] Tripp to Gault, June 28, 1956, NA, FO 371/120553.

[10] Local water sources were already being identified to feed a Pepsi-Cola plant on Dubai Creek in 1960.

[11] Anna Zacharias, ‘How the Digdagga Experimental Farm in RAK revolutionised regional agriculture in the 1960s,’ The National (Abu Dhabi, UAE), August 18, 2017.

Published in On Foraging: Food Knowledge and Environmental Imaginaries in the UAE’s Landscape (Warehouse421, eds. Dima Srouji, Faysal Tabbarah, Meitha Almazrooei, 2021).