The recent launch of the Arabian Gulf Digital Archive (AGDA) is a landmark moment in Gulf scholarship. An initiative of the United Arab Emirates’ National Archives, the AGDA offers a unique window onto Gulf history, by making freely available a massive and diverse digital corpus of primary source material relevant to the Gulf from the 1820s to the 2000s.
The present archive – the project apparently will continue to expand – is sourced from the National Archives of the United Kingdom. Documents include materials from the various official British representatives in the region as well as the various Whitehall departments which decided and reflected upon British policy. Much of this material was highly sensitive at the time it was produced, and was never intended to be read by anyone outside a restricted circle: working through the evidence today is therefore a fascinating, revelatory and to some perhaps even a shocking experience. Although mostly generated by the British state, the AGDA’s records do not reveal solely British perspectives. Much of the material is deeply concerned with recording and analysing Arab (and other) attitudes and actions; it includes detailed reports of discussions and correspondence with leading local figures, as well as facsimiles of Arabic documents from governmental and media sources. There are also video and photographic records.
The AGDA is easy to use and boasts a range of searching and accessibility features. It is possible to enlarge, save and print images. Each document is accompanied by a transcript which allows for convenient digestion of the contents: while the text recognition technology is not perfect and is unable to cope with handwritten characters, it nevertheless makes the task of research far less time-consuming compared to old-fashioned archival procedures, whereby the researcher spends hour upon hour in an archive far from home thumbing through thousands of pages in pursuit of often elusive evidence.
There are some lacunae. A recent search shows that FO 371/114576, FO 371/114746, FO 1016/362 (all Foreign Office files on Gulf affairs from the 1950s) are not available (although this is a drop in the ocean compared to what is available). Moreover, no Dominions Office (‘DO’) files have thus far been added. Although less frequently utilised by historians than Foreign Office papers, Dominions Office files, such as DO 35/7849, which reports on Kuwaiti interest in joining the Commonwealth in 1960, provide some remarkable insights on the Gulf states’ evolving relationship with the United Kingdom and the wider world. Most irksome is the absence of a searchable catalogue of the available material. Without a catalogue, searching for a specific file, and identifying exactly what AGDA can offer the individual researcher, becomes more of a chore than necessary.
Regardless of these glitches, the AGDA will rightly become an essential tool for any analyst of Gulf history, whether their interest is government or the media, international relations or trade, law or leisure. In a broader sense, the availability of the AGDA cache means that the Arab Gulf is now a world leader in making historical records freely open to the public via the internet. In addition to the AGDA, the Qatar Digital Library provides instant access to the Gulf records of the India Office, housed in the British Library, London. As British interests in the Gulf were mediated by the British colonial authorities in India until the 1940s, the QDL corpus is nothing less than a comprehensive archive of Gulf affairs from the eighteenth to the mid-twentieth centuries. Thus, the evidential picture for history of the Arab Gulf – at least as far as British sources are concerned – is now essentially complete.
01 October 2019