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How did Dubai, Abu Dhabi and other cities get their names? Experts reveal all

posted on 10/03/2007: 3793 views

What's in a name? Evidently, a whole world of meaning and significance. A name lends its bearer, be it people, culture or nation identity and recognition.

A city, for instance, derives its name from its geography or history. Often, some of the great city names are rooted in mythology. Athens for example is named after the Greek goddess Athena. The city's name is world famous and resonates easily in collective recognition.

When it comes to unravelling the origins and meanings of the names of places in the UAE, myth and reality inextricably intermingle.

It is difficult to trace the origins of the names of cities such as Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Sharjah because their history was traditionally passed down by word of mouth through folklore and poetry.

Not much was written down and much has been obscured by time. What is known is that the names of places in the UAE have roots in the Arabic language. Sometimes inferences can be drawn from the Arabic dictionary but mostly one returns to old stories and myths for clues.

It is well accepted that there are few written records of the cultural history of the UAE. According to Bilal Al Budoor, assistant under-secretary for Cultural Affairs at the Ministry of Culture, Youth and Community Development, the country does not possess "geographical or historical noting or recording … because the UAE is an extension of the verbal Arab atmosphere".

Al Budoor was referring to the region's approach to history which has primarily relied on the oral tradition for its sources.

The lack of documentation is a problem, says Al Budoor. "Even today, the UAE doesn't have a geographical dictionary. Even the National Atlas of the UAE, brought out by the UAE University, was first published in English and lost a lot of words and names [many became distorted or misstated] when it was translated into Arabic."

Information is scattered and has varying interpretations and narratives, and no in-depth studies exist.

"Even when the British wrote about this, they did so based on their own pronunciation, thus a lot of information was lost," says Al Budoor. Moreover, English writing hardly ever focused on the geography of the area and instead concentrated on the politics of the region.

Al Budoor hopes academics and other government departments will, therefore, carry out extensive research in the area.

Dr Fadel Handhal, a researcher in the history and culture of the UAE and a member of Abu Dhabi's Emirates Heritage Club, has pored through many books on the history of the UAE and found that the records lack definite historical names and dates.

"They are mostly based on guesswork, analysis, and mentions of some places in poetry and archives," he says.

Weekend Review interviewed a number of researchers and experts to help trace the origins of the emirate's names. Here are some opinions:

Abu Dhabi

There are various theories about the origins of the name of the present capital of the UAE, Abu Dhabi. "The area had a lot of Dhibaa [deers] and was nicknamed after that," Al Budoor theorises. Another story reveals that a man who used to chase Dhabi [deer] was named the "father" of the animal and the name caught on.

Abu Dhabi was previously called Milh or salt, "probably because of the salty water," Handhal says. Even now, this is the name of an island in Abu Dhabi.

The word Abu Dhabi means "Father of Deer" referring to the few Dhibaa living in Al Buteen area, Handhal says, adding that some Bedouins called the city Umm Dhabi (mother of deer). However, he says, the British archives refer to the city as Abu Dhabi.

"We still don't know when it was [first] called Abu Dhabi, but Milh was the old name of Abu Dhabi."

However, according to books written by Arab historians and poets, the name was first used more than 300 years ago.

Ahmad Mohammad Obaid, poet and author of Studies on the Dialects of the UAE, says the old name Abu Dhabi isn't found in Arabic geography books. Most likely, the name was originally, tho Dhabi, tho referring to an area that possessed something (in this case, deer), he says. Tho was perhaps dropped because it was either deemed too heavy or did not match the idiom of the local dialect.

Hence, its replacement with Abu, which means father.

Abu Dhabi is pronounced as "Bu Dhabi" by inhabitants of the western coast of the city. In the eastern part of the city, the pronunciation is "Abu".

Based on old Omani records, the present mainland of Abu Dhabi, Al Dhafra, was inhabited before Abu Dhabi. It was an island in the land of Bani Yas, where the dominant tribes, the Al Nahyan and Al Maktoum, resided.


To begin with, Obaid wants to shatter the myth that the origin of the word Dubai is not Arabic. He says researchers are convinced that Arabs have always named areas that they have inhabited.

He is puzzled by some who contend the name has Persian roots. Dubai is a city that has been known for its Arab population ever since it was established.

Dubai, Obaid says, is a diminution of the word Daba meaning baby locusts. An Arabic proverbs says "they came with Daba Dubai" meaning they came with a swarm of locusts from this area.

According to Al Budoor, mention of the name "Dubai" can be found in many stories. One of them is about a woman who was called Dubaa and who lived in the area. Another story, he says, refers to an insect that used to crawl or tadboo.

Handhal also refers to this story and says: "Daba is derived from the word Yadub, which means to creep. The word refers to the process by which the creek creeps into the land. The term is likened to the way a snakes creeps into the sand."

Others say the name's origins can be attributed to the term Dubbor [bee], which are also called Dibi [bees].

In the 1820s, Dubai was referred to as "Al Wasl" in books by British historians. That geographical record included the present-day areas of Jumeirah, Shindagha, Deira and Bur Dubai.

The area across the creek is known as Deira. "It [Deira] does not mean a house or Deyar of Bani Abis, but it means al estedarah, or roundness," a term describing the (rounded) shape of the creek when it joins land, Handhal says. "We do not know exactly why it is called Dubai.

However, researchers have come to two different conclusions about the nomenclature. "Dubai as a name was mentioned in the sixth century in books as a name of a location," Al Budoor says. But "the mind is comfortable with certain stories while other narratives seem very unlikely". Very little evidence can be found about the origins of Dubai except for references in stories narrated by the elderly of Dubai.


Al Budoor says many researchers have supposed that the word Sharqah, to which Sharjah owes its origins, comes from light. The terrain is so flat that the sun shines evenly on the land.

Sultan Al Omaimi, a UAE poet and researcher in folk literature, says that some historians speculate that Sharjah was the name of an idol worshipped in the pre-Islamic era which was known as Abed Al Shareq. It also had a feminine form called Al Shareqa.

This idol, therefore, dates back to antiquity, but has been throughout a strong presence in the region's traditions, says Obaid. Another theory finds that the word Sharqah comes from a fort in Andalusia — as is mentioned in the encyclopaedic book, Kitab mu'jam al-buldan written by the Muslim scholar Yaqut Al Hamawi.

Other researchers link the word Sharqah to the fact that the city is located to the Sharq, or east, of Dubai and Abu Dhabi. Hence the Arabic classical form of Sharjah is Al Shareqah. It is the colloquial form that is Al Sharjah.

In fact, Handhal says that the residents of Abu Dhabi call the inhabitants of Dubai, Sharjah, Umm Al Qaiwain, Ajman, and Ras Al Khaimah, the Sharagwah, or easterners.

Umm Khanoor is the other name for Sharjah, Handhal says. "There is a village attached to Sharjah called Umm Khanoor. However, nobody lives there anymore."


Al Budoor says that one of the prominent Arab tribes in the area was named Ajman. "So it could be that the tribe lived in that area and later moved," he says.

Obaid says that it is hard to find clear roots of the name Ajman because the verb, Ajm, has several meanings — some of which would apply while others would not.

One of the related meanings is Ajama, which refers to the date palm that grows from the seed. But a look at Ajman shows that the area is not rich in date palm. Another word extracted from Ajman is Ojma which can refer to sand to mean "a lot of sand" or Ramla Ajma which means an area without trees.

Handhal refutes the theory that the name Ajman originated from a village in Saudi Arabia whose inhabitants later moved to Ajman.

Some people say that originally the name of the emirate was "Aeyman", but changed to "Ajman" over time because the letter "j" was transferred to an "e". Handhal, however, says this is a mistake, because the word Ajman has been referenced in British archives since 1800. "Aeyman is the popular name for Ajman," he says.

Umm Al Quwain

Al Budoor says that the name Umm Al Quwain refers to two economic and agricultural powers that the emirate has historically possessed: the sea and the land. Thus, the emirate was seen as the mother of these two strengths. But according to Obaid, the word Quwain is inspired from Qawn which is a direct reference to iron.

Based on a historical reference, Handhal says that "the double powers" relates to one of the sheikhs (tribal leaders) because he had hundreds of cannons. But he adds that researchers still do not know who the sheikh was. Al Omaimi also refers to it as "Umm Al Quwatain", but agrees with Al Budoor that the name is a result of the pride that the city took in the two forms of geographical power it drew on.

Ras Al Khaimah

The name Ras Al Khaima has not been recorded in old transcripts despite the fact that areas within the emirate such as Joulafar, Rijam and Al Khail have written antecedents. It could be that the name itself is modern or that it is old but not transcribed in history books.

According to Handhal, the other name for Ras Al Khaimah is "Al Seer", which some researchers believe comes from Serah, an old Portuguese name for mountain. Another theory asserts that Seer means "the dynasty" of the Al Qawasim tribe. The grandfather of the Al Qawasim tribe was Qayid Bin Adwan, who set a Khaimah (or tent) at the entrance of Ras Al Khaimah.

Al Budoor tells a tale of a town leader who always noticed that when men went out on a fishing or hunting trip, found it difficult to locate the city while trying to return. To solve this problem, he set up a Khaima with a flag, to help the men pinpoint its location. A statue of an old Khaimah or tent still stands at the roundabout at the entrance of the emirate and the name probably comes from the tent of Sheikh Qayid, Handhal says.

There are legends associated with the name, Handhal explains. "Once upon a time, 2,000 years ago, the Queen of Sheba came to this part of the world and built a tent on top of a mountain. It was said that the Queen resided in the area for some time." Consequently, the area was named Ras Al Khaimah after her stay in the tent.

Historians also refer to old ruins on top of one of the mountains, which were called Qasir Al Zaba'a or Palace of Al Zaba'a.


Obaid says Al Fujaira was only mentioned in Al Hamawi's encyclopaedic book on countries and even then it was not mentioned in any detail.

The premise that the word Fujaira is derived from Fujoor (or libertinism) is very unlikely, says Obaid, because then the name would have been well documented. He sees the most likely root as linked to tafajur, which refers to "the bursting of water from the ground". This makes more sense, he says, since the area is rich in valleys.

On the other hand, Al Budoor speculates the name possibly means "light".

Other major cities of the UAE

Khor Fakkan: The name refers to the shape of the area. "Khor" is an extension of land between two water bodies. "Fak" means jaw and refers to the shape of the land where it touches the water.

Kalba: In Arabic, Kalba means "the land that bears strength". Some say that the area looks like the Arabic letter "Baa" and "Kal" means "as", hence the meaning "as Baa". Others say the name refers to a dog since the literal translation of the word means female dog, says Bilal Al Budoor.

Al Ain: An agricultural and cultivated land that has a lot of water wellheads or springs. Perhaps the discovered area happened to fall on top of a well.

Diba: One of the ancient names (from the pre-Islamic era) which could refer to a famous souq called Diba. After the passing of the Prophet Mohammad (PBUH), one of the peoples who resisted Islam were the people of Diba. Perhaps it may have also been named after an insect that crawls or "tadboo" that is mainly found in agricultural areas. (Gulf News)


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