Friday, October 29, 2010

Sheikh Saqr: Tiny primer

So if you have ever wondered whether press in the west goes overboard on coverage when a public figure dies, a glance around the UAE this week would put such coverage in perspective. Radio and television stations playing recordings of the Quran, pages and pages of analysis and tributes, full-page ad after full-page ad, people wondering if the hotels would be open as usual, if you know what I mean (psst, they are): all for the passing of Sheikh Saqr bin Mohammed al Qasimi, who ruled the northern emirate of Ras al Khaimah for 62 years. He was the world's second-longest serving head of state, since 1948 (second only to the King of Thailand) and also the oldest, born in 1920. We can't say exactly when, as no one kept any proper records back then.

Sheikh Saqr is also the last survivor of the seven rulers who founded the UAE in 1971, overseeing RAK's joining of the federation the following year. He had been ill for some time, not seen in public since he took a ride in a chauffered white Rolls Royce Phantom in February, celebrating 61 years of rule. As is typical in the Muslim world, his death was announced in the morning and he was buried by the afternoon, his body cloaked in a UAE flag and set in a simple wooden cradle for his funeral attended, also customarily, only by men. 
"What we learned from Sheikh Saqr and his sons is how to bring everyone together," said Sheikh Sultan bin Mohammed Al Qasimi, his 25-year-old grandson. "Sixty years ago, Ras al Khaimah was six parts, every tribe had their own power and their own land. It was a difficult time for RAK when Sheikh Saqr came to power, but he succeeded and he united us all."

Sheikh Saqr had reportedly been ill for awhile, and had not been seen in public since February, when he marked 61 years of rule by a chauffer-driven ride about town in a Rolls Royce Phantom. After some succession issues, the Supreme Council quickly endorsed his son, Sheikh Saud bin Saqr, as the new ruler.

It has been quite a week, even as a foreigner, witnessing the emotion involved in the loss of the nation's last surviving founding father. Many events were cancelled or postponed, including Wednesday's much hyped opening of the largest theme park in the world, Ferrari World to this upcoming Thursday. Most everyone was also remembering their reaction to the death of Sheikh Zayed, the founder of the nation, in 2004. A colleague forwarded this clip of a newscaster breaking down when delivering the news. It gave me little shivers, as such things do. I also like the music playing in the background.

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