The photographer who chronicled the UAE’s history with a camera

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Shukla at the Etihad Museum in Dubai and posing with the Rolleicord camera. (AN photo/Mohamed Fawzy)
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Sheikh Zayed signing his name on a photo for a young Shukla
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(Photo by Ramesh Shukla)
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(Photo by Ramesh Shukla)
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(Photo by Ramesh Shukla)
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Ramesh Shukla cradling his vintage Rolleicord camera. (AN photo/Mohamed Fawzy)
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(Photo by Ramesh Shukla)
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(Photo by Ramesh Shukla)
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Neel and Ramesh Shukla. (AN photo/Mohamed Fawzy)
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Ramesh Shukla. (AN photo/Mohamed Fawzy)
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Ramesh Shukla with his iconic image of the UAE's founding fathers. (AN photo/Mohamed Fawzy)
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(Photo by Ramesh Shukla)
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Neel Shukla, Ramesh Shukla and Rawaa Talass. (AN photo/Mohamed Fawzy)
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(Photo by Ramesh Shukla)
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Updated 02 December 2021

The photographer who chronicled the UAE’s history with a camera

  • The UAE’s National Day, celebrated on Dec. 2 each year, marks the unification of the emirates into a federation
  • Ramesh Shukla documented the UAE’s evolution from disparate sheikhdoms into an ambitious, modern nation

DUBAI: Veteran photographer Ramesh Shukla has lived in the UAE for the best part of five decades. He arrived from his native India just as the former Trucial States were approaching independence from Britain and embarking on a remarkable journey of nation building.

Now 84 years old, he witnessed firsthand the UAE’s evolution from a collection of disparate desert sheikhdoms and fishing villages into a global business hub synonymous with entrepreneurial dynamism, cosmopolitan cities and incredible skylines.

It is a transformation whose story he has diligently documented with his camera through the decades.




Sheikh Zayed signing his name on a photo for a young Shukla. (Photo courtesy of Ramesh Shukla)

His attachment to the country began by accident following a rather uncomfortable boat journey from Mumbai in 1965. At the time, Shukla was working for the Times of India newspaper, but the lure of exploration proved too great to resist.

Packing his most cherished possession, a Rolleicord camera, and as many rolls of film as he could carry, the young man, then in his twenties, set off on what would be a life-changing adventure.

“This is my camera,” Shukla told Arab News at Dubai’s Etihad Museum more than half a century later, carefully cradling his now-vintage Rolleicord.

“When I was 15, my father asked me: ‘What birthday gift do you want?’ And I said: ‘Papa, please give me a camera.’”




The old dhow wharfage in Deira in Dubai. (Photo by Ramesh Shukla)

Despite his desire to see the world, Shukla, it transpired, was not well suited to sea travel. Shortly after his ship, the Dwarka, set sail from Mumbai he began to feel horribly seasick.

Desperate to escape the incessant rocking of the waves, he disembarked at Sharjah, one of the Trucial States that at the time collectively were an informal protectorate of the British Empire.

Here he found lodgings with a local, who urged the young visitor to go to the Sharjah camel racetrack where a big event was taking place at the time. Eager to witness the authentic sights and sounds of Arabia, Shukla duly went along, camera in hand.

There, squatting on the ground alongside the racetrack, he spotted a group of men who would go on to found the UAE. Among them was Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al-Nahyan, who would soon become the new country’s first president, a position he held until his death on Nov. 2, 2004.




Ramesh Shukla cradling his vintage Rolleicord camera. (AN photo/Mohamed Fawzy)

Shukla took 12 photographs of Sheikh Zayed watching the races, and returned the following day to present him with one of his portraits. The ruler of Abu Dhabi, now commonly referred to as the “Father of the Nation,” was so impressed, he signed the print and gave Shukla his pen as a gift.

“That’s when the first connection took place,” Shukla’s son Neel, an art director, told Arab News. “That was the first time he met his highness. From that point on, Sheikh Zayed said: ‘Don’t leave this region. Stay.’”

Determined to remain, Shukla brought his wife and their son to live with him in his adopted country, during its formative years.

“I was with him all the time,” said Neel. “Before taking a picture, he would take my picture to make sure the lighting was accurate and then he would take the shot.”




The clock tower in Deira, Dubai. (Photo by Ramesh Shukla)

Entirely self-taught, Shukla developed a signature style of photography, capturing scenes of everyday life on black-and-white film, highlighting the simplicity of nomadic life in the country prior to unification and the oil boom.

Recurring subjects of his early work included hardworking Bedouin, herds of camels, traditional abra boats on Dubai Creek and Deira’s clock tower, photographed from above. He also documented the early days of Dubai’s first commercial airport and the city’s first museum.

“This was life in the UAE; there was nothing. There was no light and no water in my house,” Shukla said, highlighting the contrast between the limited amenities available then and the advanced infrastructure in the country now. Even the water he needed to develop his photos had to be drawn from a nearby well.

Though his lifestyle was modest, Shukla built a strong rapport with the UAE’s leaders, earning the informal title of “royal photographer.” His prized access to the royal courts meant that his photographs were much sought after, especially by the Indian news media.




Ramesh Shukla with his iconic image of the UAE's founding fathers. (AN photo/Mohamed Fawzy)

Much of Shukla’s collection has been preserved for posterity thanks to his wife, Tarulatta, who carefully archived her husband’s negatives, protecting them from the humidity and dust, at their modest home in Deira, which consisted of a dark room, a kitchen and a bedroom. The archive offers a compelling account of the UAE’s 50-year journey as a nation.

“He kept documenting history,” said Neel. “We are very careful about the collection. We don’t commercialize it — this is history. This is why he is loved more than anything else, because he’s keeping history sacred and close to him.”




A royal falcon keeper. (Photo by Ramesh Shukla)

Shukla’s business card features a miniature print of a photograph of which he is especially proud. On Dec. 2, 1971, he attended the historic ceremony during which the rulers of Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Sharjah, Ajman, Fujairah and Umm Al-Quwain came together to mark their independence from Britain and the establishment of their own unified country. Ras Al-Khaimah would join the union the following month.

It was here that Shukla captured on film what would become an iconic image of the sheikhs standing under the national flag of their new country. The flagpole stands to this day in Dubai’s Jumeirah district.

“There was great happiness,” said Shukla, recalling the day, half a century ago, he took the photograph under the same flagpole. “With one family, the UAE started.”

Union House, where the agreement that created the UAE was signed, is nearby. Shukla was there, of course, to capture on camera the historic moment when Sheikh Zayed added his signature to the document. His photo of the assembled sheikhs became the “Spirit of the Union” logo, which was widely used on the 45th UAE National Day five years ago.

Many of Shukla’s photos are displayed at stations along the Dubai Metro line. More recently, his image of Sheikh Zayed signing the union agreement has featured in the Expo 2020 Dubai passports.




Ramesh Shukla with his son art director Neel Shukla. (AN photo/Mohamed Fawzy)

In recognition of his remarkable contribution to the UAE’s national story, the photographer was among the first of Dubai’s creative community to receive a coveted Golden Visa, which grants holders long-term residency rights without the need for a national sponsor, and 100 percent ownership of their own businesses.

Shukla has certainly led an eventful life, documenting the history of a nation from its very inception, including its natural and cultural heritage, its most pivotal and proudest moments, and even the lives of its heads of state.

Yet, he does not believe in retirement despite working so hard for so many years.

“After the age of 100, life starts,” he said.


Israeli PM to press France on Iran, warn Hezbollah ‘playing with fire’

Updated 59 min 33 sec ago

Israeli PM to press France on Iran, warn Hezbollah ‘playing with fire’

  • France is among world powers trying to revive a 2015 nuclear deal with Iran
  • Iran has itself been in breach of the deal, ramping up projects with bomb-making potential

JERUSALEM: Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid will press French President Emmanuel Macron on Tuesday for a tougher and time-limited tack on the Iranian nuclear negotiations, and warn that the Tehran-backed Hezbollah group is “playing with fire,” an official said.
Lapid’s visit to France, his first abroad since becoming caretaker premier last week, is also a chance to flex diplomatic muscles as Israelis gear up for a snap election in November.
France is among world powers trying to revive a 2015 nuclear deal with Iran that the previous US administration quit and which Israel opposed, deeming its caps insufficient.
As Lebanon’s former colonial administrator, France has additional clout in Beirut — whose economic crisis-hit leaders were jarred on Saturday when Israel shot down three Hezbollah drones launched toward one of its Mediterranean gas rigs.
“The French are very, very active on the Iranian issue,” a senior Israeli official told reporters.
“It is important for us to make our case ... Israel opposes a return to the JCPOA (2015 nuclear deal). In the same breath, we do not oppose a deal. We seek a very strong deal.”
Israel is not a party to the nuclear negotiations. But Western capitals have been attentive to its worries about its arch-enemy and worried it might take preemptive military action if it deems diplomacy a dead end.
Since the US walkout, Iran has itself been in breach of the deal, ramping up projects with bomb-making potential — though it denies having such designs. Its technical advancements have set a ticking clock on the so-far fruitless negotiations.
“We want an end to the unending talks,” said the senior Israeli official, calling for “coordinated pressure” on Iran and offering help on “drafting an appropriate framework” for that.
Israel has de facto front with Iran in Lebanon, home to Hezbollah. The senior Israeli official, alluding to Saturday’s shoot-downs, accused the group of “playing with fire.”
The official declined to elaborate on that warning, but said Lapid would share with Macron “new material explaining how Hezbollah is endangering Lebanon.”
Hezbollah and Israel fought a war across Lebanon’s border in 2006 but have been in a largely stable standoff since.
The Karish rig near Lebanon’s coast will produce gas not only for Israel, but eventually also for the European Union, the official said, tapping into EU countries’ quest to replace Russia as an energy supplier since it invaded Ukraine.


Egypt FM in London to inaugurate partnership council

Updated 04 July 2022

Egypt FM in London to inaugurate partnership council

CAIRO: Egypt’s Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry headed to London to inaugurate the first partnership council between his country and the UK.

The council will be co-chaired by Shoukry and British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss. It will include political consultations and discussions on economic and trade issues, with the participation of British Trade Policy Minister Penny Mordaunt.

A spokesman for Egypt’s Foreign Ministry said the launch of the council comes in light of strengthening cooperation between the two countries in various fields.

While in London, Shoukry met with Lord Tariq Ahmad, British minister for South Asia, North Africa, the UN and the Commonwealth, to discuss bilateral relations.

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US offers cash rewards to curb Iran smuggling

Updated 05 July 2022

US offers cash rewards to curb Iran smuggling

  • Navy targets weapons and drugs in Arabian Gulf and Red Sea

JEDDAH: The US Navy is offering cash rewards of up to $100,000 for information leading to the interception of smuggled weapons and narcotics in the Arabian Gulf and the Red Sea.

The initiative by the Bahrain-based 5th Fleet does not directly name Iran but analysts said it was clearly aimed at curbing the flow of Iranian arms to the Houthi militia in Yemen and restricting the lucrative regional drugs trade operated by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.
“Any destabilizing activity has our attention,” 5th Fleet spokesman Cmdr. Timothy Hawkins said. “Definitely we have seen in the last year skyrocketing success in seizing both illegal narcotics and illicit weapons. This represents another step in our effort to enhance regional maritime security.”
Operators fluent in Arabic, English and Farsi will staff a phone hotline, and the Navy will also take tips online in Dari and Pashto. Payouts can be as high as $100,000 or the equivalent in vehicles, boats or food for tips that include information on planned attacks targeting Americans.
Asked whether new seizures could increase tensions with Iran, Hawkins listed the weapons and drugs the Navy hoped to intercept under the program. “That’s what we’re after,” he said. “That’s not in the interest of regional stability and security.”

Opinion

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The fleet and its allies seized $500 million in drugs alone in 2021, more than the four previous years combined, and intercepted the shipment of 9,000 weapons, three times the number in 2020.
Despite a UN Security Council arms embargo on Yemen, Tehran has long been transferring rifles, rocket-propelled grenades, missiles and other weapons to the Houthis in Yemen. UN experts have examined missiles aimed at civilian targets and oil infrastructure in Saudi Arabia and traced the components back to Iran.
The rewards program is the latest initiative under 5th Fleet Vice Adm. Brad Cooper, who also launched a drone task force last year amid rising tension with Iran. The US Navy and Revolutionary Guard naval forces have had several encounters in the Strait of Hormuz.
The Houthis said last week they were monitoring increased US activity in the Red Sea and Arabian Gulf.“Because of this, defense and confrontation options are open,” a spokesman said.


Al Jazeera reporter likely killed by unintentional gunfire from Israeli positions, US says

Updated 04 July 2022

Al Jazeera reporter likely killed by unintentional gunfire from Israeli positions, US says

  • Palestinian-American Shireen Abu Akleh was killed on May 11 during an Israeli raid in the occupied West Bank
  • Family “incredulous” after US reported it wasn't possible to determine whose gun fired bullet which killed her

WASHINGTON: Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh was likely killed by unintentional gunfire from Israeli positions, but independent investigators could not reach a definitive conclusion about the origin of the bullet that struck her, the US State Department said on Monday.

Abu Akleh, a Palestinian-American, was killed on May 11 during an Israeli raid in the occupied West Bank.

The US Security Coordinator (USSC), after summarizing investigations by both the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) and Palestinian Authority, concluded that gunfire from Israeli positions was likely responsible for Abu Akleh’s death, the State Department said.

“The USSC found no reason to believe that this was intentional but rather the result of tragic circumstances during an IDF-led military operation against factions of Palestinian Islamic Jihad,” the State Department said in a statement.

In forensic analysis by third-party examiners overseen by the USSC, however, ballistic experts determined the bullet was badly damaged which prevented a clear conclusion as to its origin, the State Department said.

Abu Akleh's family said Monday they were “incredulous” after the US reported it was not possible to determine whose gun fired the bullet which killed her.

“With respect to today’s announcement by the State Department — on July 4, no less — that a test of the spent round that killed Shireen Abu Akleh, an American citizen, was inconclusive as to the origin of the gun that fired it, we are incredulous,” the family said in a statement.

Palestinians have said the Israeli military deliberately killed Abu Akleh. Israel has denied this, saying she may have been hit by errant army fire or by a bullet from one of the Palestinian gunmen who were clashing with its forces at the scene.

The death of Abu Akleh, and feuding between the sides over the circumstances, have overshadowed a visit by US President Joe Biden due this month.


Lebanese PM criticizes Hezbollah over drone provocation

Updated 04 July 2022

Lebanese PM criticizes Hezbollah over drone provocation

  • The Israeli military said on Saturday said that it has shot down the three drones
  • Hezbollah issued a statement saying they were unarmed and were sent on a reconnaissance mission

BEIRUT: Lebanon’s caretaker prime minister on Monday criticized the militant group Hezbollah for sending three unmanned aircraft over an Israeli gas installation last week, saying it was an unnecessarily risky action.
Najib Mikati’s comment came two days after Hezbollah launched three drones over the Karish gas field in the Mediterranean Sea.
The Israeli military said on Saturday that it has shot down the three drones, before Hezbollah issued a statement saying they were unarmed and were sent on a reconnaissance mission. “The mission was accomplished and the message was received,” Hezbollah said.
Lebanon claims the Karish gas field is disputed territory under ongoing maritime border negotiations, whereas Israel says it lies within its internationally recognized economic waters.
“Lebanon believes that any actions outside the state’s framework and diplomatic context while negotiations are taking place is unacceptable and exposes it to unnecessary risks,” Foreign Minister Abdallah Bouhabib said, citing Mikati’s statement.
Israel and Hezbollah are bitter enemies that fought a monthlong war in the summer of 2006. Israel considers the group its most serious immediate threat, estimating it has some 150,000 rockets and missiles aimed at Israel.
The incident in the Karish gas field took place soon after US mediator Amos Hochstein recently visited Lebanese and Israeli officials, as talks were advancing.
Mikati on Saturday told reporters that Lebanon had received “encouraging information” regarding the border dispute, but refused to comment until after he receives a “written official response to the suggestions by the Lebanese side.”
Negotiations between Lebanon and Israel to determine their maritime borders commenced in October 2020, when the two sides held indirect US-mediated talks in southern Lebanon. Since taking over the mediation from late 2021, Hochstein has resorted to shuttle diplomacy with visits to both Beirut and Jerusalem.
The two countries, which have been officially at war since Israel’s creation in 1948, both claim some 860 square kilometers (330 square miles) of the Mediterranean Sea. Lebanon hopes to exploit offshore gas reserves as it grapples with the worst economic crisis in its modern history.

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