The Bureimi Fort, and the slave trade

by Garry Craig Powell

This is the pristine fort in Bureimi, which is right across the border from Al Ain in Oman. When Wilfred Thesiger visited this area in 1950, slave-trading was still common, as this extract from Arabian Sands shows:

“I knew that many of the slaves sold in Hamasa [one of the two villages that made up the Bureimi oasis] were in fact Baluchis, Persians, or Arabs who had been kidnapped, but I also knew that the usual price slave-traders paid for one of them was 1,000 – 1,500 rupees, and for a young Negro even more. An Arab or Persian girl was however, more valuable than a Negress and would fetch as much as 3,000 rupees.”

In fact Thesiger, who was visiting Zayed in Al Ain at the time, managed to persuade the sheikh of Bureimi to release two young men from the Hadhramaut (in Yemen), whom he had bought for the absurdly low price of 230 rupees.

As far as I could find out, the slave market in Al Ain closed in the mid-fifties, but there are still black familes in the UAE (and a lot more in Oman), who are generally the descendants of slaves, and the indigenous Emiratis would refer to black students, to their faces, as “slaves”, teasingly. This was always taken good-humouredly, again, as far as I could tell. It’s something of a shock to realize how recent the slave trade was. Hassan, a young Moroccan I knew, told me that his grandfather was a slave-trader, and Ahmed, a young Mauretanian of the upper class who had been educated in Paris, told me that his parents still kept slaves in their household.

Here is another picture of the Bureimi fort, with my younger son, William, and ex-wife, Paula, about to climb the ramparts. I heard from students this week that it is rumored that I have four ex-wives, including a mail-order bride from the Middle East (as if there were such a thing!) For the record, I’ve been married twice, and neither wife was bought from a slave market, or came from the Middle East.

I would have liked to have ridden into Bureimi on a camel with Thesiger just a few years before I was born, though, I have to admit.