Sheikh’s palace Ras al Khaimah : Ras al Khaimah (RAK) is one of the seven emirates that comprise the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Most foreigners know the glitzy Dubai, some have heard of the capital Abu Dhabi, but few venture to the east of the country, where RAK is located. Materials scientists, however, amass at Al Hamra Convention Center in RAK every February when Prof. Tony Cheetham from the University of Cambridge organizes the annual International Workshop on Advanced Materials (IWAM) under the auspices of Sheikh Saud bin Saqr Al Qasimi, the ruler of RAK
Sheikh’s palace Ras al Khaimah
IWAM brings together a few hundred leading scientists in different fields of materials science for three days of intensive discussions, oral and poster presentations, and it concludes majestically with a cultural program and dinner at the Palace of the Sheikh. The palace is about a 40-minute bus ride from the Convention Center and I still remember how eager the neatly dressed participants were to enjoy an event at the house of the Sheikh just before boarding the buses. As soon as we arrived, we were greeted by the friendly family members and directed to a large reception hall, where we were seated in chairs arranged in a giant outer and a slightly smaller inner circles. The Sheikh came into the room and shook hands with every single one of us which, given our numbers, took quite some time. Occasionally, he asked where people were coming from or what their profession was. While Sheikh Saud and Prof. Cheetham gave a few welcome remarks and some general comments on the conference and its history since it first started in 2008, a number of coffee servers came into the room and offered us a cup of traditional Arabic coffee as a welcoming gesture. This coffee has quite a different taste from the one normally consumed in the West and its taste reminds more of tea than coffee. Its value is particularly in expressing welcome and paying respect to visitors. It is a tradition that the server will keep adding more liquid to your cup until you turn it upside down to indicate you are finished.
Prof. Cheetham jocularly remarked that this was the only conference he was aware of where participants did not leave prematurely but stayed until the very end to enjoy the grand finale at the Palace. The room where we were sitting had a huge carpet in the middle, golden ornamentations and a few prominent chandeliers in the ceiling, heavy velvet curtains hung on large windows to grant some privacy, and neat low tables with intricately carved trays filled with chocolate pralines individually wrapped in golden paper and arranged into a large pile. One can easily imagine the domino effect caused by the person who took the first piece of the “royal” chocolate!
Following the official welcome, we proceeded to a large dining area next door, where round tables were waiting for groups of eight people. Some were lucky and got to sit at the outdoor terrace and enjoy the mild UAE winter weather. Each person received a menu card on their right, which suggested that we would be served three courses. Already on the table were a range of Arabic mezze, which included stuffed vine leaves, fattoush and rocca salads, hummus (a chickpea spread), baba ganoush (similar to hummus but made of eggplant) and flat bread. Servers were continuously filling up our glasses with water and grape juice, which was served in long-stem glasses. Appetizer was followed by the main course, which included roasted chicken with vegetables and mashed potatoes enriched with brussels sprouts. The meal concluded with a lovely wild berry-chocolate cake.
Now that we were completely stuffed, we left the dining hall to move to the garden in front of the Palace. There was a DJ playing traditional Emirati Arabic music and the men of the house were getting ready for a dance performance. The traditional Emirati dance called Al Ayyala is performed in two rows of men dressed in typical kandooras (long white gowns with long sleeves) facing each other and holding bamboo sticks. They move different parts of their body and the sticks in the rhythm of the music, which includes flutes, drums, bagpipes and chanted poetry in a particularly expressive form of the Arabic language. Interestingly, this dance is even part of the UNESCO’s intangible cultural heritage list. It is passed from one generation to the next and symbolizes unity and cooperation. After the professional Al Ayyala dance was finished, conference participants were invited to join the dance and more or less imitate the professional dancers. It was quite remarkable to see world-class professors move to the sounds of traditional Arabic music! The evening later nicely demonstrated the internationality of IWAM as the DJ started accepting song suggestions of participants and we could hear beats from Algeria, Lebanon, India and elsewhere …
IWAM was started as part of a broader project for the establishment of the RAK Center for Advanced Materials. Founding of laboratories, industrial collaboration and annual meetings for exchange of ideas were all a product of Sheikh Saud’s mission to promote education and research in the emirate. Thanks to his generosity, dozens of undergraduate and graduate students attend the event yearly, including the unique experience at the Palace on the last evening of the conference.
Sheikh’s palace Ras al Khaimah