THE WEAVERS’ EXPLORATION IN ABU-DHABI’S WESTERN REGION -UNESCO OBSERVATORY E-JOURNAL OF MULTIDISCIPL

03 January 2016 THE WEAVERS’ EXPLORATION IN ABU-DHABI’S WESTERN REGION -UNESCO OBSERVATORY E-JOURNAL OF MULTIDISCIPL

Abstract

This document outlines the initial findings and achievements of a pilot project aimed at Emirati heritage revival via micro-entrepreneur development of women home based weavers in the western region of Abu-Dhabi. The project was initiated by Khalifa fund for Enterprise Development in partnership with Abu-Dhabi Culture and Heritage Authority.

 

The document starts by explaining the impact of the fast prosperity of the UAE onto the local community's way of life, and new competitive market challenges that forced the traditional crafts to become extinct in a very short period of time. Today the hardship of the local community to keep pace with the big socio-economic jump that the country has witnessed in only 4 decades, has made identity preservation a national urgency.

 

The findings of an intensive field assessment of Bedouin women, and the field pilot project that helped them find the bridge to their new reality, brings more than social inclusion and business opportunities. 

 

 

Background

 

The socio-economic development in the United Arab Emirate and the country's progress that took place in less than 40 years, is equivalent to 400 years of transformation in other nations. As a result, no other country has a wider generational gap especially in the way of life between grand-mother, mother and daughter here in the UAE.

 

As one grand-mother summarizes it: 'I used to live in a tent made by my own hands, and we had only one plate for the whole family to eat out of, now we do not know what to do with all this space at home and we have a kitchen with over 100 plates and 2 servants and a cook. We were struggling to live in the past, now it is a different kind of struggle.'

 

History in the UAE could be traced back to 800BC. Life in the Arabian peninsula changes as the eco-system changes the character of the land. The inhabitants went from farmers and hunters in pre-history, to farmers in early centuries, where rivers were flowing, to Bedouins and fisherman and small traders in the 20th century. Today Abu-Dhabi, the capital, is in the list of top 20 most expensive cities to live in worldwide, and Dubai the trading capital, is in the list of top 50 tourist destinations worldwide; the airports of both towns are some of the busiest worldwide.

 

The discovery of petrol in the second half of the 20th century, and thanks to the leadership of Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan, has completely transformed the way of life in the UAE in a miraculous short time. The country went from desert and palm tree leaves weaved huts to highways, buildings, hotels, airports and impressive malls filled with stores of every international high street and fashion brand. Not only did the country prosper infrastructure-wise, but Sheikh Zayed also treated country's citizens as his own children, and ensured everyone gets a house, education aboard if they wished, top healthcare services and government jobs were granted. The distribution of wealth has been managed efficiently and fairly, which is the reason for today's citizens loyalty and pride of their founding father. This loyalty, creates the needed socio-political stability which is key for further development and prosperity.

 

This rapid socio-economic change made keeping pace with change a challenge to the local community. Bedouin women which used to make everything they use in their daily life with their own hands, suddenly did not have to spin wool nor weave their home necessities and family clothing. Instead of the Bedouin tribes having to travel for search of water with their animals; now they are housed and water was found by turning the tap of water. Now only petroleum companies  wander around the desert in search of petrol; petrol that made crafts, heritage and traditions as hard to find as water before the discovery of petrol in only 3 decades.  

 

Heritage Preservation & the social challenge

 

Not only the big jump in standard of living threatened the livelihood of Emirati heritage, the influx of workers that were suddenly needed to build buildings, clean streets, teach in schools, doctors for the hospitals, experts for government ministries… came from almost every country in the world, and created business for their fellow expatriate nationals that started restaurants, and imported the cultural objects of their own culture, (such as craft objects, textiles, performance...) which came from countries that had much slower transformation rates, and hence their own culture adapted as the people of that culture changed.

 

This made the cultural objects of the expatriate community much more ready for the local consumer, as it had already been adapted to enter the targeted life of today's open and selective consumer. For a cultural object to be marketable it goes through a transformation through time, as the tastes and colors and designs transform to keep  its place in the evolving markets of today. Unfortunately for the Emirati craft object, it did not have this privilege, and hence became threatened and even extinct in a very short period of time.

 

Heritage preservation became a concern, and the first attempts to encourage Emirati craft women in the western region of Abu-Dhabi, (where there is the highest concentration of women weavers and palm tree basket makers) continue practicing their skill, was a program through the Emirati women's union about 40years ago. They provided monthly salaries to the women who weaved in their homes, and took whatever product was produced that month. The salary was fixed, and was independent of the quality, quality nor market acceptance of the product, and once the product was taken, it was stored in the women's union storage and showroom, or presented at local shows.

 

As there was no incentive for product innovation nor any quality surveillance, the program did keep the women practicing a skill that they have learnt down from generations, but its sole goal was to preserve heritage through giving artisans a reason to keep practicing the skill and it also a sort of wealth distribution.  Market access, marketing, product development and trading was not part of the initiative, and this is probably why it was not sustainable, and the project was stopped about 20 years ago.

 

About 2 years ago, and out of increasing concern for the livelihood of the Emirati heritage, the Abu-Dhabi Culture and Heritage Authority was initiated.

They took the cultural foundation as their offices and displayed an excellent collection of elements from the old way of life and kept a small store for visitors. Visitors are mainly expatriates and tourists. The Emirati craft items that they sold, were collected from artisans from the western region, and the artisan was given the price she asked for. Sales were modest, but also the product supply was modest and the quality of the craft product degraded as the artisans' life continued adapting to country's prosperity and the gap between the imported crafts for sale in shops and malls and their own product seems to be too wide to bridge.

 

Cultural vitality and heritage sustainability should be considered as part of socio-economic sustainability programs, as this would mean taking into consideration the local community's social and environmental concerns, and hence ensures a long lasting impact and solid basis for country's continuous economic growth. It might sound beneficial to adapt other countries successful experiences in heritage revival to the UAE, but adapting would  mean taking into account the uniqueness of UAE socio-economic evolution, which would probably result in developing unique programs.

 

Despite the fact that the Bedouin way of life is becoming near to extinct in the vast western desert of Abu-Dhabi, the Bedouin values of right and wrong and their human warmness is still an integral part of their identity and so are the teachings they pass on to younger generations. This made field work easy and tough at the same time.

 

Easy, because knocking on their door brings with it new friends and opens not only one door, but every house in the little town would welcome you as a visiting distant relative once the first house accepted you in. And then there are no more barriers, they share their concerns, issues and express gratitude to their Sheikhs and show a lot of commitment to be  as part of the initiatives to preserve their identity as they long for it. At the same time, field investigation is hard because, their sense of hospitality and openness forces all sorts of human to human barriers to vanish so fast as if it never exited, and the personal gets in the way of the professional, and a new friendship makes people development and artisan coaching take the form of a friend to friend chat rather than formal structured trainings or workshops.

 

The careful assessment of Bedouin women weaver's life status in the western region, has showed that even though there is no financial urgency to produce or to get involved into trade, since thanks to government generosity they all have a very comfortable home, the husband has a government job (mostly basic jobs such as border police or army officers) and school is free for the children. Most seem comfortable with the minimum, but in today's competitive work place and especially the quality of expatriates that have been attracted to hold positions in both private and public sector all over the UAE, giving your child just a public school education, leaves him or her with just the basic knowledge of foreign languages and not enough skills to get into universities, and this does not build a solid basis for a strong national economy. Today, unemployment is high in the western region of Abu-Dhabi and holding a university degree is not very common.

 

As the standard of living in Abu-Dhabi continues to rise, and the job market becomes more and more competitive and open to both highly skilled expatriates as well as the local community; and as the gap between the job openings and business opportunities available and the decreased possibility for the local community to cease them; the local community becomes more and more fragile within their own nation, and the need for the local community to become part of a strong private sector, and hence the decision making process, has never been more urgent.

 

Heritage revival through micro-entrepreneur development of women weavers is only a small element of a whole infrastructure of heritage object traders, suppliers of raw material, and, most important of all,  a new way of thinking. The local community today, only sees itself as a consumer or a trader of foreign goods, and not a producer or market supplier.

 

The weaver's exploration

 

Khalifa Fund for Enterprise Development, is one government institution, that made developing initiatives to  improve the social inclusion and economic participation of the local community a priority and an integral part of all its objectives. Heritage revival through micro-entrepreneur skills development and market access opportunity creation, is one of Khalifa Fund's objectives. To reach this objective, an intensive field research to analyze the situation of Bedouin women weavers, in the western region of Abu-Dhabi, was the first step. The results led to the development of a methodology for a national pilot field project aimed at creating business opportunities for the women weavers, which could be seen by some of them as a good enough incentive to become self-employed through her weaving. As one of the women puts it: 'people only come to the western region to search for petrol, and you came to search for weavers and looms!'

 

Through interviewing hundreds of women in isolated small towns in the western region, it was clear that the perception of a government project, always implies some sort of distribution of wealth. Some even expected to get paid for attending an informative workshop about the project idea. It was challenging to make the women artisans understand that importance of self-development to become self-employed. It was obvious that, every women we interviewed, was anxious to be part of the Khalifa Fund project, but at the same time there was some sort of confusion, because we explained that our role was to show them how to use their skills to produce marketable products, with certain design and quality specifications. In previous government programs, they have been rewarded simply for being artisans, and have never experienced producing for the market nor has anyone ever evaluated the quality of their products.

 

Selecting the right pilot team for this pilot project was a crucial success factor, and more challenging that was expected. Even when finally 20 women artisans were selected from 4 towns in the western region, no one could have predicted whether the weavers would go along with the project till the end or not. The program included awareness workshops and training sessions, had no financial reward, required specific production delivery deadlines, specific quality standards and specific designs were asked of each artisan. An experience that none of our women have ever lived through.

 

In today's way of life, it is hard to imagine the hardship of Bedouin women; only a few decades ago, where she had to spin her wool, which she then used to weave the hut, the clothing and the furniture; and she had to take care of the children, husband and animals, as well as the cooking, milking and planning to keep everyone from hunger, and the continuous journey planning from one place to the other.

 

Our pilot project, brought nostalgia of the old laborious life for the artisans. Somehow they started working with us with a lot of uncertainty about project goals, but once they started they felt some sort of dignity and pride. This comes from feeling that they have found a way to contribute to their country; a country that flew too far away from them, in all senses of the word and in many directions. Through the challenge of producing the products they weaved for the pilot project, they saw a way of paying back their generous country. Through preserving heritage and the livelihood of its culture they found a way to be part of the speedy developments around them. As they attended the workshops and attentively absorbed all the color coordination instructions, product measurements and proportions, finishing and lining of bags, table runners and all sorts of products demanded in today's market but not part of their lives; and as they interacted with the product design consultant, they found a way to be finally part of the economic wheel, and not just standing outside and watching it move.

 

A lady in the border town of Sila, took her wool to the sea to clean it before spinning it, to be used for the weaving that was asked of her. She went to the sea with 3 other women relatives, and they spent the whole morning cleaning and drying the wool in the sand. The little incident was the talk of the town, as the last time women were seen cleaning wool at the sea in Sila was in the 60's. A lady in Ghayathi who is known all over town to be the best 'zarabil' maker (thick rough wool socks worn by Bedouins to protect the feet from the heat of the sand, made by one needle crochet type of work) was asked to make a small hand bag using the same technique. She explained that it was impossible for her to make such a shape, and it would take her about 2 weeks to finish the bag. Two days later, the bag was done and she was the proudest bag maker. Despite the fact that women in the western region do not like to be photographed, due to the conservative culture, our bag lady asked us to take photos of her with her first crochet bag. 'Khannaga' is a strip of colorful braded threads, used to decorate camels and sheep, which also helps identify who they belong to. A group of women were asked to make the 'Khannaga' type of work to make smaller shapes to be used as bracelets; the new use of 'Khannaga' and the colorful designs, made teenage girls in Ghayathi into making them during their summer school break, and they were creative enough to produce their own color coordination's and shapes.

 

Of course not all 20 artisans selected in the pilot project were motivated all along the project. Some were less willing to challenge themselves into making shapes and designs that were not traditional. Those were mainly women above 60 years old. But about 14 women out of the 20, saw the importance of self development and will now be trained to become master producers and production supervisors to other women weavers from their home, in their community. This will help create jobs for more women in the western region, and will increase production capacity which are essential for the market penetration of Emirati handicrafts.

 

The project does not only intend to create self employment opportunities for women artisans, but supporting micro-entrepreneurs will also be essential for the sustainability of the program; the daughter that calculates prices, the niece that designs the web site, and the son that delivers the products to the capital, are all essential for continuous business growth and heritage integration into country's commerce. At the same time, and even with an increased number of weavers, the Emirati handicrafts, will remain rare treasures, unique pieces for those in search of the not so distant local Bedouin way of life that is nearing extinction.

 

Involving the youth

 

The younger generation's involvement in the national heritage revival initiative, is key to ensuring a long lasting presence of the Emirati cultural vitality. To achieve this the Khalifa Fund for Enterprise Development, organized an annual contest, called ' bring the past to the future'. The contest was organized with the regional Vocational Training institutes and Abu-Dhabi Heritage and Culture Authority. The contest was the first of its kind, and it rewarded the young Emiratis who could find the mysterious balance between the old the new and attracts the consumer of today. The winner had to present a commercial product, inspired from the local heritage. The product had to be of an Emirati in production and of natural raw materials. The contest, also meant to demonstrate that the cultural product could well be a source of self-employment, and it was a practical experience to demonstrate the importance of design and creativity to keep the inheritance alive.

 

Before launching the contest, several awareness workshops were planned with the students, to show examples from other cultures where handicrafts is a respectable business sector, and that there is a market for it both locally and internationally, which is worth investing in. They became aware that even, they themselves, could contribute actively in keeping the Emirati culture alive. 

 

The youth is the link that communicates, consumes and understands the markets of today, and understands the limitations of their mothers and grand-mothers.  For this reason reviving the old and forgotten, could only be possible by getting the young generation interested in innovating, creating, designing using elements from their own identity and helping local crafts migrate from the past to the world of consumer meaning of today.

 

The contest was a practical experience, that got students into researching, analyze what is Emirati and what is not, research raw material sources, networking with producers, analyzing market gaps, and at the same time developing their entrepreneurial spirit. they were full of Emirati pride, they worked with producers and consulted designers, they prepared presentations, catalogues, prototypes and pricelists then stood comfortably in front of a selection committee to defend their ideas, and started dreaming of the future that the experience brought with it.

 

Before this contest took place, students did not want to get a degree in Design because it does not help get a government job. This contest proved to them that entrepreneur development and funding institutions are head-hunting young designers like themselves, to bridge the gap of market potentials and are ready to provide the necessary support for it. The challenge to create the link between the past and the present, appealed to many and meant a lot to those students that feel the gap between the country they belong to and know today, and the country they belong to but only know through the stories of their parents and grand-parents. Creating the bridge between the two worlds seemed, not only a good cause, but also a market opportunity to be seized, and an opportunity to prove oneself in self-employment rather than struggling in the very competitive government sector.

 

To everyone's surprise, after the contest, the students have requested that the institute looks into teaching the old production techniques, such as weaving, palm leave basketry and pottery. And the institute is now looking into including the national identity graphics and colors into the design curriculum.

 

Developing partnerships for sustainability

 

The Khalifa Fund for Enterprise Development, is the first government institution in the UAE that has taken a self-employment creation strategy to revive heritage. All the previous attempts to keep crafts men and women producing, were via salaries and or donations or wealth distribution techniques. Khalifa Fund for Enterprise Development did not just perceive producers as workers, but as potential entrepreneurs who could be equipped to help themselves by ceasing the opportunities once available. The business growth opportunities, are best seized if all concerned government institutions are aware of the socio-economic issues that hinder growth and work together and openly discuss and implement the necessary legislative reforms.

 

Initiating a business sector, cannot be achieved by only one government intuition through a field project. For this reason, Khalifa Fund has launched the necessary advocacy work to ensure sector sustainability. Of those involved, the national archive, are an important partner, in documenting the undocumented national heritage. The universities should include the documented heritage in an academic manner into their teachings to ensure that students could identify an Emirati cultural object from all the foreign cultures that have invaded the countries shopping outlets. The chamber of commerce should become concerned with creating the business opportunities for local micro-entrepreneurs, as they do for other sectors. The women's union and family development association should initiate advocacy work on women home based business issues and provide regional business centers or workshops to help women artisans excel in their fields. The Abu-Dhabi Heritage and Culture Authority, and the Tourism authority on market education around  on local culture, history and how to access it. The Western Region Development Council to provide the necessary logistics in the western region to ensure business sector growth. The Ministry of Economy and Planning for legislative reform concerning the home based business licensing. Awareness programs in schools and universities to inject the spirit of producer rather than consumer. Awareness to government institutions, around the importance of field work in the, to reach out and assist citizens in all the emirate and the importance of decentralization of government. Khalifa Fund for Enterprise Development, has initiated some of this advocacy work, with the launch of the pilot heritage revival project, to ensure results sustainability.

 

Sustainability challenges

 

Despite the fact that the project described in this document, is different from all other government initiatives in Abu-Dhabi, since it is the first of its kind in equipping artisans to be able to initiate a micro-enterprise, and arm them with the tools to understand the market and create business opportunities for them, rather than looking at heritage revival by applying wealth distribution techniques. The real change in the implementation strategy is the involvement of the concerned local community in the implementation process through awareness and people development.

 

Nevertheless, a government initiative's implementation strategy is always a function of the decision makers in the concerned government entities that implement them. Unless there is a critical number of government decision makers that believe in the same initiative strategy, from all concerned government entities; sustainability will remain a function of the initiative initiator or the government entity driving the initiative.

 

The other crucial sustainability element that was lacking in most of the previous government initiatives, is an exit plan. The culture of government dependency, without any requirements nor quality examinations of the deliverables, does not encourage growth and prosperity, in fact it makes any efforts to put any sort of standards very challenging and hence the deliverables degrade with time and dependency becomes a right, and sustainability of efforts to make the local community part of economic growth a bigger and bigger challenge.  

 

Government initiatives or plans for socio-economic development, should have a clear exit strategy planned from the start, or at least the initiatives' implementation strategy should change, as the society adapts and continuously measure impact on the local community to change implementation strategies depending on field impacts. Even with wealthy economies, where it might not seem to make sense to plan exit plans for government initiatives, it is still key to build a solid economy that becomes more and more dependent on its diverse private sector.

 

A national 'label' or 'stamp' , has been discussed, which would help identify a 100% hand-made Emirati product made from natural raw material, inspired from local heritage and of a good quality. This will become a challenging initiative for local artisans and a driver to keep their products at the top of market expectations. To ensure the sustainability of such a 'cultural product certificate', the specifications will need to be clearly defined and communicated, the quality standards will need to be communicated to all producers,  heritage will need to be documented and accessible… This will mean that, once more, all concerned government institutions with a concern for heritage revival will need to be part of the 'label' identification process, and a mixed committee should be formed. The exit strategy for such a delicate process, which will have an impact on local identity, should be treated with very high importance, while taking into account the social impacts of 'labeling' or 'not labeling' a product. Today social habits and the friendly, tribal preference culture is sometimes border line corruption, when it comes to selecting artisans that can or cannot, the rare business opportunities that exist.

 

A key success factor in a national identity branding launch, is local identity pride; local identity trust and believing in the local identity's potential to have its position in today's very competitive local market. The  fast and wide socio-economic jump and the fast and wide gap it has created between the Emirati way of life, has shaken the spirits of the local community, to the point of only perceiving themselves as consumers and not producers.

 

Another big challenge in local government initiatives, is execution speed. Launching a brand does not require much time, when the strategy is defined and the resources are available; but launching a national brand initiative, where people development is a key factor, is a long term process. Culture is people science, and people are influenced by several social, economical, psychological and cultural influences. This makes heritage revival, a long term process.

 

The presence of cultural elements, (handicrafts, poems, music, performance, food, perfumes) is a sign of a healthy nation with people proud of their roots, no matter how fragile their existence may be within their community. Heritage revival through entrepreneurship skills development, does not only have socio-economic impact on Bedouin women in the western region, but it also initiates a whole new way of thinking and trust in the local producers of products that will find their niche place in today's market of high street and fashion brands, and boost national pride. This will have a wider positive impact on other business sectors, and, if successful implementation continues, will improve local communities contribution to the national economy.

 

 

Biography

In June 2007, Khalifa Fund for Enterprise Development was created as an independent agency of the Government of Abu Dhabi, to cultivate entrepreneurship and catalyze the development of the UAE Small & Medium Enterprise sectors. The fund's vision is to be a world class model for fostering entrepreneurship and developing globally competitive SME's and its mission is to fuel entrepreneurial mindsets and drive the growth of globally competitive SMEs, with the active participation of Emirati nationals, in support of a sustainable national.

 

 

Leila Ben-Gacem, leads the heritage revival and micro-entrepreneur development initiative at the fund. Previously, Leila was an independent micro-entrepreneur export consultant, where she designed projects aimed at improving the socio-economic status of artisans, through international trade opportunity development. Before starting her own consulting firm, Leila worked with Hewlett Packard Medical products division, were she held several positions, such as Business development for Europe Middle-East and Africa for Hewlett Packard Germany, and later Business Manager in Libya. Leila holds a BS degree in Biomedical Engineering from Boston University.

 
Acknowledgements
To all the women in the western region that opened their homes to us. To Moza Al Mansoori, the Bedouin fighter for the rights of women in the western region. To Shaikha el Mehairi from the Western Region Development Council for her continuous advice and guidance, for Imma Plana of the Abu-Dhabi Heritage and Culture Authority, for her encouragement and support, and for the trust and support of Khalifa Fund management; His Excellency Mr. Hussein J. Al Nowais, Dr. Ahmed Al Mutawa, Mr. Nizar Cheniour, and the Sougha team.

 

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