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Front view of the Gulf Field headquarters office.

Photo courtesy of Jon Park.

United Arab Emirates

By Sven Hagen Jensen

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Sven Hagen Jensen, M.Div. (Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan, USA) has worked for the church for over 50 years as a pastor, editor, departmental director, and church administrator in Denmark, Nigeria and the Middle East. Jensen enjoys reading, writing, nature and gardening. He is married to Ingelis and has two adult children and four grandchildren.

First Published: June 1, 2023

The first mention of a Seventh-day Adventist living in UAE was in 1975 when Mrs. Darlene Pickle held a series of health cooking classes in Dubai, where she lived. She also conducted a weekly Story Hour for the neighborhood children with help from her own five children.

Background

The United Arab Emirates (اَلْإِمَارَات الْعَرَبِيَة الْمُتَحِدَة) is a country located at the eastern end of the Arabian Peninsula in Western Asia. It shares borders with Oman and Saudi Arabia, and in the Persian Gulf maritime borders with Qatar and Iran. It has a strategic position slightly south of the strait of Hormuz, which is a vital transit point for world crude oil. Abu Dhabi is the nation’s capital, while Dubai, the most populated city, is an international hub. The country comprises about 83,600 square kilometers (32,300 square miles) and has an estimated population of 10.2 million (2023), of which 88.5 percent are immigrant workers and the remaining 11.5 percent Emirati.

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) is an elective monarchy formed from a federation of seven emirates, consisting of Abu Dhabi, Ajman, Dubai, Fujairah, Ras Al Khaimah, Sharjah, and Umm Al Quwain. Each emirate is governed by an emir, and together the emirs form the Federal Supreme Council. The members of the Council elect the president and a vice-president from among their members, but in practice, the emir of Abu Dhabi serves as the president, and the ruler of Dubai as both vice-president and prime minister.

Each emirate has its own unique history. The Emirate of Ras Al Khaimah was established in 1708. Then followed Sharjah in 1727, Abu Dhabi in 1961, Umm Al Quwain in 1768, Ajman in 1816, Dubai in 1833, and Fujairah in 1879. The maritime dominance of the Persian Gulf by Arab traders led to conflicts with European powers, including the Dutch, Portuguese, and the British Empires. Following decades of maritime conflict, the coastal emirates became known as the Trucial States with the signing of the General Maritime Treaty with Britain in 1820 (ratified in 1853 and again in 1892), which established the Trucial States as a British protectorate. This arrangement ended with independence and the establishment of the United Arab Emirates on December 2, 1971, following the British withdrawal from its treaty obligations. Six emirates joined the UAE in 1971; the seventh, Ras Al Khaimah, joined the federation on February 10, 1972.

Islam is the official state religion and also the largest (76 percent) but the government follows a policy of tolerance towards other religions and rarely interferes in religious activities of non-Muslims. An estimated 13 percent are Christian and there are more than 45 different churches (2010) in the UAE.1

The United Arab Emirates is part of the Gulf Field in The Middle East and North Africa Union Mission.2

Beginning of Seventh-day Adventist Mission

The first mention of a Seventh-day Adventist living in UAE was in 1975 when Mrs. Darlene Pickle held a series of health cooking classes in Dubai, where she lived. She also conducted a weekly Story Hour for the neighborhood children with help from her own five children.3 In 1978, a notice was put on the Bulletin Board section of the Review and Herald magazine from the Afro-Mideast Division asking to hear from any Adventists living in the UAE.4 In 1981, a request went out to Adventist church members asking for prayer for unentered territories, among them the UAE.5

In the late 1970s, the Gallyot family from India arrived in Dubai. Shortly after, the husband passed away, and Esther Gallyot, who was an ardent Adventist, searched unsuccessfully to connect with other Adventists. She and her daughter Pam worshipped on their own every week in their apartment. Esther found work as a secretary for Mr. Kanaan, a lawyer. She faithfully witnessed about Christ whenever she had an opportunity, even to the clients that came to the law firm. Pam got a job as a secretary in the British Bank of the Middle East. There she met a coworker, Patrick Kumar, who wondered why she did not join the others for coffee breaks. She explained that she was a Seventh-day Adventist and did not drink coffee for health reasons. He responded by telling her that his sister, Christine, was also an Adventist. They invited Esther and Pam to join them for worship on Friday nights in their home, where Esther would later run a Bible hour on Sabbath mornings for the children in the neighborhood.

In the early 1980s, a Filipino Adventist nurse happened to meet Esther and told her about a group of Filipino SDA nurses who met for worship in another home. The two groups subsequently joined together in Kumar’s home and established a small choir. Gloria Calebs, whose husband, Wreford, was an Adventist but had not yet arrived in Dubai, joined the group in 1984 together with Nori from the Philippines. Captain Roy Facey from England, who worked at the Naval Academy in Sharjah, also joined the group with his family. Together with Esther, they formed a Pathfinder group for the children and distributed Bibles and health books to the community, including the Police Department, as part of a major health campaign. Later on, due to a fire in the apartment of the Kumars, the group had to move their meetings and other activities to Esther Gallyot’s residence. In 1987, Middle East Union President Gerry Karst visited the group in Dubai and organized them into a company with Roy Facey as the leader.6 7

Meanwhile, George Mathews, who hailed from an Orthodox family in India, had arrived in Ras Al Khaimah in 1981 and worked as secretary for Sheikh Saud bin Saqr Al Qasimi, who later became the Crown Prince & Deputy Ruler of Ras Al Khaimah (most recently in 2023 ruler of the Emirate). An Adventist Indian couple, Brother Skariah and his wife Susheela, also lived in Ras Al Khaimah at the same time. In 1987, they began daily Bible studies which Mathew and his wife, Jolly, attended together with many others. As a result, a new group formed. Not too far away in Abu Dhabi, other believers also gathered together for worship.8

In February and March of 1988, Ernest H. J. Steed and Milo Sawyel of the International Commission for the Prevention of Alcoholism and Drug Dependency (ICPA) presented a two-day seminar in Abu Dhabi to the police representatives of the seven emirates. Steed writes in the April 1988 Adventist Review: “Government personnel seem eager to hold high standards for better living and are engaged in efforts to counteract alcohol and tobacco even though they have a more liberal stance than some other Islamic countries.”9 This was followed up in 1989 by another seminar for the police in Abu Dhabi by Thomas R. Neslund, also of ICPA.10

The year of 1989 was a memorable one for the Adventist believers in UAE. On Friday, March 17, 1989, the first four baptisms were conducted in the waters of the Persian Gulf off the coast of Ras Al Khaimah. Middle East Union President Svein B. Johansen baptized Wilma Tabaranza and Gloria Caleb from Dubai as well as George and Jolly Matthew from Ras Al Khaimah. The next morning on March 18, 1989, Bernice and Grace were baptized in Dubai. The Dubai company was organized into a church on that same Sabbath, with Esther Gallyot as elder of the Dubai church and Brother Skariah as leader of the Ras Al Khaimah company. Services in Ras Al Khaimah were held alternatively between George Matthews’ and Brother Alexander’s homes. It was not easy to accommodate the numerous people attending. When there was an official visit from the Middle East Union, and neighbors were invited, the small sitting room became quite crowded. The few elderly were given chairs while most people sat on the floor. The speaker had to be careful not to step on anyone.

The people attending the meetings were all Indians and mainly from the state of Kerala. The singing was in Malayalam, and the sermon was translated into the same language. The numbers in the Emirates grew, and church ministries took a more meaningful dimension. The first Gulf committee was formed at this time with Elders Johansen and Jensen from the Middle East Union and Brother Wreford Calebs from the UAE.11 The churches in the Gulf were pastored by David Dunn from the USA and later Dennis Pollatos from Greece, both with residence in Kuwait.12

In 1990, General Vice-President, Elder Kenneth Mittleiter, from the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, visited the church and baptized a new member in the Gulf. That same year, the Seventh-day Adventist Church was officially recognized by the Christian community in Dubai and could move its services to the Holy Trinity Anglican Church compound, where 30 other Protestant Christian church groups were worshipping. There were several rooms to choose from. Being a Sabbath-keeping church made it easier to be accommodated at a suitable time. The Good Shepherd Chapel became the church home for the Adventist congregation for a number of years, and a plaque was fixed with its name. On the compound was a small baptismal tank where new members could be baptized by immersion.13

The membership grew in the UAE, and the company in Ras al Khaimah was organized into a church in 1994.14 An Adventist presence was also recognized in Abu Dhabi and Al Ain. In Sharjah, an SDA Urdu group was worshipping at the Hall in St. Martin’s Anglican Church compound.15 In July 1995, Esther Gallyot became a delegate to the General Conference Session in Utrecht, Netherlands, representing the members in the Gulf countries.16

Growth and Consolidation

From 1995, Steve Brown17 from England became the pastor of the churches in UAE and Oman. With this new dynamic leader, the church work was greatly enhanced. Bible studies, mid-week prayer meetings, a vesper group established in Abu Dhabi, active Women’s ministries, and Sabbath services attracted many visitors. The church also grew through baptisms and people moving to find jobs in UAE. The Good Shepherd Chapel in Dubai, which could hold about 60, became too small, so the church moved to Laing Hall in the same compound, which was a bigger facility with room for 80-120. By the end of 1999, Pastor Brown left, and from 2000-2002, there was no resident pastor. However, regular visits from the Gulf section leader and from the Middle East Union staff continued.18

In 2002, Pastor Victor Harewood and his wife Candice came to UAE, and he took over as section leader for Gulf Section South, which comprised UAE and Oman.19 The first Sabbath worship service was held in Abu Dhabi on April 15, 2002. Believers in Fujairah began meeting for vespers. The Abu Dhabi Seventh-day Adventist Church was organized on Sabbath, February 8, 2003, by Middle East Union Secretary-Treasurer Homer Trecartin. The Adventurer and Pathfinder work was restarted in 2004. The Al Ain SDA Company was organized in 2005, and the Sharjah SDA Company was established with the start of English Sabbath morning services at St. Martin Anglican Church compound in 2006. The following year, on February 17, 2007, the Sharjah SDA Church was organized.20

With the growth of the membership in Ras Al Khaimah, there was a great need for a place of worship. George Matthew arranged an appointment for an SDA delegation to visit the Crown Prince. With Pastor Kjell Aune, Middle East Union president, leading the delegation, they met with His Highness the Crown Prince Sheikh Saud bin Saqr Al Qasimi on Tuesday, February 19, 2007, with an official request for a place of worship. With prayer and fasting and diligent follow up with the Ruler’s Office, the Legal Office, the Municipality Chief Engineer’s Office, the Adventist Church’s name was included in the list of eight churches, which were awarded with lands for the purpose of worshipping.

The Adventist Church received an official letter, dated November 17, 2008, from Ruler’s Office, awarding the church with Plot No. 7 in Al Hamra, Ras Al Khaimah, as a gift. This was a unique gesture which differed from the normal practice in the Gulf States, where usually the protestant churches were granted one place for worship under the leadership of the domineering church (for example, the Anglican Church). This meant that the Seventh-day Adventist Church was legally registered and could seek visas for its employees.21

Planning and fund-raising strategies immediately followed to begin building the first Adventist church in the Gulf. The plans included a three-story building that housed the office for the Gulf South Section and a church with a worship hall seating up to 500. The section leader, Victor Harewood, officially opened the construction site by unveiling the cornerstone during groundbreaking ceremony on January 8, 2010.22 “We are all very excited about this development and pray that this project will be the start of a new era for our church in this part of the world,” said Jóhann E. Jóhannsson, treasurer for the church’s Trans-European region, which oversaw the Gulf Section.23

The first Gulf Section South camp meeting was held in Al Ain in December 2010 with over 200 believers in attendance from UAE and Oman.24 Also in December 2010, the Middle East Union voted to merge Gulf Section South (comprising UAE and Oman) and Gulf Section North (comprising Bahrain, Kuwait, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and Qatar) to form the Gulf Field with Yemen as an added country. Pastor Michael Collins was appointed to be the president and Rogelio Taer as the secretary/treasurer.25

The Al Ain Church was organized in April 2011. On Friday, May 20, 2011, the new Gulf Field was organized, and the first Gulf Field constituency meeting was held. Then on Sabbath, May 21, the dedication and inauguration of the Ras Al Khaimah Church and office building took place.26 During the services, representatives from the General Conference participated as well as from the Trans-European Division, Middle East Union, other fields in the Union, the officers of the new Gulf Field and members from all the churches in Oman and UAE. Choirs and singing groups from the different churches blessed the occasion with their contributions.27

Inspired and encouraged by the inauguration of the new Field Office building, substantial growth and the organizing of new companies and churches in the UAE followed in quick succession: The Dubai South was organized as a company (2012) and as a church in 2014, Abu Dhabi Adventist Centre Company (2014), Dubai Visayan Company (2015),28 Fujairah Company (2015),29 Ajman Company (2016), Dubai Creekside Company (2016), Abu Dhabi Adventist Centre Church (2016), Ruwais SDA Fellowship in Abu Dhabi (2016), Mussafa SDA Fellowship in Abu Dhabi (2017), and Dubai Creekside Church (2017).30

The status as of December 31, 2022, is that the Adventist Church has a presence in all seven Emirates with churches in Abu Dhabi (3 churches and 1 in Al Ain), Dubai (4 churches), Sharjah (1), Ras Al Khaimah (1), Fujairah (1). There is also a company in Ajman and a fellowship in Umm Al Quwain.31 The membership in the UAE (2023) stands at 1,486 as of this writing.32

Over a span of about 35 years, the church has grown from a few members in private homes to vibrant fellowships of believers all over the Emirates. The members are immigrant workers mainly from India, Philippines, Sri Lanka, and Pakistan with a few exceptions from other countries. Some have spent a lifetime in the country, others have come for shorter assignments. The great challenge is to keep positively impacting the community with the good news of the Three Angels Messages.

Sources

“Delegates, Attached Unions.” ARH, June 30, 1995.

“First Adventist Church planned for Gulf Region.” ANN, January 21, 2010. Accessed March 24, 2023. https://adventist.news/news/first-adventist-church-planned-for-gulf-region.

“ICPA Officials Instructs Abu Dhabi Police.” ARH, March 23, 1989.

Johansen, Svein B. “Middle East Union Report.” ARH, July 6, 1995.

Johansen, Svein B. “New Adventist Group Established in the Middle East.” ARH, September 7, 2015.

Lukwaro, Gureni. “New Adventist Group Established in Middle East.” ARH, September 7, 2015. Accessed March 24, 2023. https://adventistreview.org/news/new-adventist-group-planted-in-middle-east/.

Middle East Union Executive Committee Minutes, December 22, 1993. MEU-93-262. Middle East and North Africa Archives, Beirut, Lebanon.

News Notes. “Afro-Mideast.” ARH, June 12, 1975.

Notices. “Information wanted on Adventists in the Middle East.” ARH, October 5, 1978.

Seventh-day Adventist Yearbook. Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Publishing Association. Various years. https://www.adventistyearbook.org/.

Steed, Ernest H. J. “ICPA Educates Against Drugs in the United Arab Emirates.” ARH, April 28, 1988.

“Unentered territories.” ARH, April 2, 1981.

“United Arab Emirates.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Accessed March 14, 2023. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_Arab_Emirates.

Notes

  1. “United Arab Emirates,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, accessed March 14, 2023, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_Arab_Emirates.

  2. Seventh-day Adventist Online Yearbook, “Middle East North Africa Union Mission,” accessed March 14, 2023, https://documents.adventistarchives.org/Yearbooks/Forms/AllItems.aspx.

  3. News Notes, “Afro-Mideast,” ARH, June 12, 1975, 20.

  4. Notices, “Information Wanted on Adventists in the Middle East,” ARH, October 5, 1978, 30.

  5. “Unentered territories,” ARH, April 2, 1981, 15.

  6. Gureni Lukwaro, personal knowledge from living in Dubai and from interviews with some of the founders and first members of the church. Luwaro wrote a paper entitled “History of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in the UAE,” which provided the high points of the history of the SDA church in UAE. This paper was given to Sven Jensen on March 15, 2023.

  7. Sven H. Jensen, personal knowledge from working in the Middle East Union and also based on the notes he kept from his visits to UAE, 1990-2000.

  8. Gureni Lukwaro, “History of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in the UAE.”

  9. Ernest H. J. Steed, “ICPA Educates Against Drugs in United Arab Emirates,” ARH, April 28, 1988, 18.

  10. “ICPA Official Instructs Abu Dhabi Police,” ARH, March 23, 1989, 7.

  11. Gureni Lukwaro, “History of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in the UAE.”

  12. Seventh-day Adventist Online Yearbook.

  13. Gureni Lukwaro, “History of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in the UAE”; Sven H. Jensen, who was present at Mittleiter’s visit and later worshipped with the Urdu group.

  14. Middle East Union Executive Committee Minutes, December 22, 1993, MEU-93-262, 151. Middle East and North Africa Archives.

  15. Svein B. Johansen, “Middle East Union Report,” ARH, July 6, 1995, 18.

  16. “Delegates, Attached Unions,” ARH, June 30, 1995, 21.

  17. Gloria Calebs, personal knowledge from being a church member of Steve Brown. Before his appointment, Brown was working for a company in Kuwait. He conducted a Revelation Seminar, which resulted in 16 baptisms. Gloria told the story in a video recording during the SDA Gulf Field Inauguration in Ras Al Khaimah in May 2011. Copy of the program is kept in the Gulf Field Archives.

  18. Gureni Lukwaro, “History of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in the UAE.”

  19. Seventh-day Adventist Yearbook, “Gulf Section South,” accessed March 14, 2023. https://documents.adventistarchives.org/Yearbooks/Forms/AllItems.aspx.

  20. Gureni Lukwaro, “History of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in the UAE.”

  21. Ibid.; Kjell Aune, email message to Sven Jensen, April 2, 2023. Aune was the MEU president from 2005-2011.

  22. Gureni Lukwaro, “History of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in the UAE.”

  23. “First Adventist Church Planned for Gulf Region,” ANN, January 21, 2010, accessed March 24, 2023, https://adventist.news/news/first-adventist-church-planned-for-gulf-region.

  24. Gureni Lukwaro, “History of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in the UAE.”

  25. Seventh-day Adventist Online Yearbook, “Gulf Field,” accessed March 14, 2023, https://documents.adventistarchives.org/Yearbooks/Forms/AllItems.aspx.

  26. Gureni Lukwaro, “History of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in the UAE.”

  27. Programme used for the SDA Gulf Field Building inauguration services conducted on May 20-23, 2011. A copy is kept in the Gulf Field Office.

  28. Gureni Lukwaro, “History of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in the UAE.”

  29. Gureni Lukwaro, “New Adventist Group Established in Middle East,” ARH, September 7, 2015, accessed March 24, 2023, https://adventistreview.org/news/new-adventist-group-planted-in-middle-east/. As of 2015, there are eight organized churches and two companies in UAE.

  30. Gureni Lukwaro, “History of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in UAE.”

  31. Gureni Lukwaro, email message to Sven H. Jensen, March 31, 2023.

  32. Jon Park, email message to Sven H. Jensen, April 20, 2023. Park is the Executive Secretary of the Gulf Field.

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Jensen, Sven Hagen. "United Arab Emirates." Encyclopedia of Seventh-day Adventists. June 01, 2023. Accessed June 18, 2024. https://encyclopedia.adventist.org/article?id=5E04.

Jensen, Sven Hagen. "United Arab Emirates." Encyclopedia of Seventh-day Adventists. June 01, 2023. Date of access June 18, 2024, https://encyclopedia.adventist.org/article?id=5E04.

Jensen, Sven Hagen (2023, June 01). United Arab Emirates. Encyclopedia of Seventh-day Adventists. Retrieved June 18, 2024, https://encyclopedia.adventist.org/article?id=5E04.