Eyes shadowed by jutting white cliffs of eyebrow, Mark Moody-Stuart, 72, surveyed the scene at Jumeirah Etihad Towers. Golden marble and plush rugs enveloped a privileged population of bankers, government envoys, and the biggest fish among them, him.
The former chairman of the energy and mining giants Royal Dutch Shell and Anglo-American, and a current board member of Saudi Aramco, Sir Mark had flown into town to stoke the embers of Emirati-British business ties with a speech, which he would deliver in another five-star hotel in Abu Dhabi.
Both he and the emirate had changed much since he first set foot on this strip of sand in the 1960s.
Then a young geologist for Shell assigned to document the Arabian Gulf's riches, he frequently journeyed between the Omani mountains and a laboratory in Qatar. As he passed the Abu Dhabi coast, the sand appeared deserted.
Then, suddenly, Emiratis materialised, anxious to build a fire for their guests and brew fresh coffee that was among the few luxuries in a place where the oil riches had yet to arrive.
"If you wanted to get on with the work, you had to avoid people, because people were so hospitable," he recalls. "They would share more or less their last cup of coffee with you."
Although not yet wealthy, they were already worldly, he remembers.
"They were not isolated. They knew a lot about the world, so they would talk about in those days the war in Vietnam, which was a long way away, and things like that. It was kind of simplicity, generosity, and yet a wide consciousness of what was going on in the world."
Just a couple years younger than the 1939 oil concession that would later irrevocably change the course of Abu Dhabi, Sir Mark and Abu Dhabi have both risen in stature thanks to oil and the historic cooperation between the West and the Middle East to get it out of the ground. And the United Kingdom had a special relationship with Abu Dhabi since the times it was a British protectorate.
Today, that cooperation is in danger of ebbing with changes in the global economy and needs in the emirate, as British economic power wanes and Abu Dhabi looks eastward for growing economies to partner in the production of its most important commodity.
Hence Sir Mark's visit to Abu Dhabi, where he was to give a speech to the UAE-UK business council to promote continuing cooperation on a number of fronts, from natural resources to fashion design.
The historic contracts for onshore oilfields in which Shell, BP, Total, ExxonMobil and Partex all have a stake is set to expire in 2014 after a 75-year run. This time around, Abu Dhabi is calling the shots, with a tender process breathlessly followed by oil executives and diplomats across the capital.
"Way back in the 90s we had this date in mind," says Sir Mark in his professorial voice, slow and gravel-like. "There will be some changes. Some things will carry on."
His argument is in lock-step with other executives from Shell: Abu Dhabi needs technology, and Shell has it. Faced with growing capabilities in the emirate's national oil company and the consumer power of East Asian operators, western supermajors point to experienced engineers and vast research and development budgets.
Underlying the argument is a threat that without a good enough payment per barrel, the majors will take their capital and knowledge to other regions to produce oil that will compete with Middle Eastern resources.
Sir Mark points to the wave of nationalism that swept the Middle East in the 1970s, pushing out western producers from Saudi Arabia and lowering their share of oil in Abu Dhabi.
"The technology then went to develop new areas - the North Sea and the Alaskan north slope - and those areas could only be developed, ironically, because the technology migrated and the capital migrated," he says.
Sir Mark, a scientist at heart, can talk endlessly about nuclear fission and the migration from coal to fuel oil. But before dedicating his life to energy, he wanted to trade in another commodity.
He was born in Antigua, where his grandfather had built a sugar factory and a railway line to transport the good. Sir Mark's father grew the sugar empire by cleverly buying up small sugar plantations. One day he asked his son what he wanted to do when he grew up.
"I said, 'Well, I'd like to do what you do,'" recalls Sir Mark. "And he said, 'Forget it'."
His father forecast - wisely, it turned out - that sugar would not be a profitable business in the West Indies forever.
The young Mark loved nature, so he turned to geology. Some days he would hop on his bicycle to seek out rare rocks. As a young man he studied at St John's College, Cambridge, earning a doctorate researching river sediments from the Devonian period while living for more than a year in an Arctic tent "with the polar bears".
"I was interested in it, but I didn't know it was commercially valuable," he recalls.
His esoteric research into 400-million-year-old sediments had been funded by a company called Shell. In 1966 tit hired him and sent him to Spain, Brunei, Oman, Australia and Malaysia, steadily promoting him until eventually, in 1998, he was named as the chairman.
At the time, Shell was the world's biggest publicly traded oil company. The industry was on the cusp of a series of mega mergers and acquisitions that would see BP swallowing two American oil companies and Exxon and Mobil become ExxonMobil.
At the helm of Shell, Sir Mark became known for his controversial remarks about climate change, calling for a ban on cars he deemed "gas guzzlers".
These days he takes a more tempered approach to energy conservation.
"When I was a young man, we were providing energy to the world, and we realised that modern economies could not function without that kind of energy," he says. "And although there were local environmental side effects which could be addressed, it was only when climate change and the impacts of carbon dioxide were recognised that we realised there was a major negative potential.
"But we can't live without the hydrocarbons, so we need to try and produce it more efficiently."
Since retiring from Shell, his life centres around board meetings for Accenture and Saudi Aramco, and his yachts in the UK and Turkey.
Last year, he and his wife boarded a 40-foot sailing boat to go back to the pocket of the Arctic where they had camped and researched half a century ago (his wife had worked with him there). From the small boat, they surveyed the empty landscape and considered the prehistoric questions they had set out to answer when they were young.
"We went and looked to see whether 50 years ago, we thought we'd got it right or not," he says. "It's not commercially useful, but it's interesting. Not everything in the world is of commercial value."