What do Neil Armstrong. Simon Bolivar, Napoleon, Richard Nixon and Shaikh Mohamad Bin Hamad Al-sharqi have in common?
This unlikely combination of celebrities all shared the honor in 1970 of having their famous faces struck in gold on handsome new coins issued by the diminutive but ever-enterprising Trucial States of Sharjah and Fujairah.
For several years numerous little shaikhdoms strung along the southeastern coast of the Arabian Peninsula have been delighting—and sometimes dismaying—philatelists around the world with their wildly imaginative postage stamps (Aramco World, November-December, 1970). More recently, several of the states have set out to entice the world's numismatists as well.
As with the stamps, coin designers have gone as far afield as the moon for themes. And to make sure there is something to fit every collector's pocketbook, many of the coins have been issued in silver as well as gold. The last point is especially important for enthusiasts in the United States, where the law places severe restrictions upon the ownership of gold coins.
Sharjah was the first of the Trucial States to strike its own coins to replace the Indian currency and the Austrian-minted Maria Theresa dollars which were used throughout the Gulf region. In 1964 Sharjah issued a silver five-rupee coin bearing the portrait of the late U.S. President John F. Kennedy. When the coin not only attracted worldwide attention but earned Sharjah a very nice return, several neighboring states decided to follow suit. The results? Some of the handsomest and most unusual coins produced anywhere.
First in line was Ras al-Khaimah, a tiny state up near the tip of the Oman peninsula. Ras al-Khaimah struck its first coins in 1969, a set of one-, two-, and five-riyal coins in silver. The same year Ajman, down the coast a few miles, issued a five-riyal coin in silver featuring crossed daggers and flags over a game bird. In 1970 Ajman also produced a series on wildlife. Ajman's Currency Board authorized the 1970 coins to be struck in both "proof" condition and ordinary quality condition. The "proof" coins, which are highly favored by collectors and carry premium values, come in a special plastic wallet.
But it is Sharjah and nearby Fujairah which have issued the greatest variety of commemorative coins. Fujairah's 1970 set of six silver coins includes a castle with the national shield below, a bust of President Nixon, and the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich. There are also three ten-riyal coins with an American space exploration theme. The first shows Michael Collins, Neil A. Armstrong, and Edwin E. Aldrin, the astronauts who made the first successful flight to the moon in July 1969; and the second shows Charles Conrad, Jr., Richard F. Gordon, Jr., and Alan L Been, the American astronauts who executed the second moon landing in November 1969. The third bears the Apollo XIII emblem, the fiery steeds of the god Apollo, drawing a chariot around the earth. Fujairah also issued the same set of six in gold.
Sharjah, in 1970, issued one-, two-, five-, and ten-riyal coins in silver. The coins bear representations of Leonardo da Vinci's celebrated "Mona Lisa"; the Jules Rimet Cup, commonly called the "World Cup" (a design commemorating the World Soccer Championships held at Mexico City in May 1970); Napoleon Bonaparte (marking the 200th anniversary of his birth); and Simon Bolivar, the great "Liberator" of South America. The coins' reverse sides feature the coat of arms of the state: crossed flags with a palm tree above, all encircled by laurel branches. The same designs struck in gold were valued at 25, 50, 100 and 200 riyals.
Unlike the coins of Ras al-Khaimah, Ajman, Fujairah and Sharjah, the coins of Dubai are being struck primarily for use as plain old money. It is interesting, too, that practical Dubai issues the coins in conjunction with the nearby Shaikhdom of Qatar and that the coins are made of copper-nickel and not of silver or gold. They come in five-, ten-, twenty-five-, and fifty-dirhem values. (Ten dirhem is about two cents. One riyal, 20¢, is made up of 100 dirhem.) The two states set up a joint currency based on the riyal in 1966.
On the west side of the Arabian Peninsula, far from Fujairah and the other Gulf shaikhdoms both geographically and ideologically, the Yemen Arab Republic also honored the U.S. moon landing of July 1969, with several handsome coins. The Republic's 1969 moon commemoratives include two silver two-riyal pieces: one shows astronauts Neil A. Armstrong and Edwin E. Aldrin walking on the moon's surface, while the other portrays the huge Apollo XI rocket on the launch pad at Cape Kennedy. A twenty-riyal gold piece also features the two astronauts walking on the moon's surface.
Even those collectors who believe in the general principle that coins should be issued to serve as money rather than as money makers will probably not be too upset by one recent development. Along with dozens of nations throughout the world since 1968, such varied Middle East countries as Sudan, Iran, Bahrain, Iraq, Syria, Jordan and Lebanon have issued special coins in cooperation with the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization.
These coins, usually featuring plant or food designs typical of the area (Bahrain's has a date palm, Syria's a sheaf of wheat, Lebanon's its famous fruits), are sold at premium prices to the public and the net proceeds of the sales are used to further the important work of the FAO around the world.
Robert Obojski, for many years the regular coin columnist for The Christian Science Monitor, recently wrote Ships and Explorers on Coins and was co-author of the Illustrated Encyclopedia of Coins.