Abu Dhabi // When Julian Walker flew into the Emirates this week, he had a reason to smile. As he passed over the boundaries of each emirate, he knew that those borders were agreed thanks largely to one person: himself. It was the former British consul's job to draw up the frontiers in the crucial years before the UAE was formed, a mission fraught with difficulty. "I spent five years working out the boundaries between emirates," he said. "That was a lot of pressure. I drew up the borders between Sharjah, Dubai, Umm al Qawain and as far across as Khor Fakkan, although not Abu Dhabi as that was done independently.
"I spent a lot of time in the desert, where it was easy to get lost. We had to map the whole place as no maps existed. I had to explore, get to know the territory, find out the opinions of tribesmen then consult Sheikhs Zayed and Shakbut before the boundaries were finalised. "I think I made the right decisions and time has confirmed that. Only one boundary has changed since, in Dubai near Hatta, and that went undisputed."
Mr Walker, who was born in London and is now aged 79, entered the British diplomatic service aged 23 after graduating from Cambridge University with a history degree. He had hoped for a posting in Russia but instead was dispatched to Lebanon to learn Arabic. It was from there that he made his way to what later became, under his guidance, the Emirates. On a rare visit to Abu Dhabi this week to share his memories as part of the 40th anniversary of the Center for Documentation and Research, which holds the nation's archival records, he said: "My father had a patient who was rather keen for me to go into the diplomatic service.
"Even after I was given Arabic lessons, I hoped I was going to Bahrain where they had a golf and sailing club. Two days before I was set to go there, a telegram arrived saying: 'Tell Walker he will not go to Bahrain, he will go immediately to Sharjah.' "I was not thrilled at the prospect, but once I got there it was fascinating." Arriving in 1953, Mr Walker took up post as the deputy British political agent and faced a number of challenges, both within the course of his duties and outside.
Life was tough for the British workers in the desert. Food was short and they survived on coffee and bread for lunch and an evening meal of corned beef and potato stew, tinned peas and, when desperate, lizards and snakes they killed themselves. "It was primitive," he said. "There were not many luxuries. Christmas parties were very awkward as we had the same tinned turkey and canned fruit every year.
"When I was transferred to Dubai there were no roads and the electricity hardly ever worked. We bought an ex-Royal Air Force Land Rover and the highlight of our time was going to the RAF cinema in Sharjah." The job threw up many political challenges too, such as an attempt by the Saudis in 1955 to push into Abu Dhabi's western region and reroute the boundary near Tarif. He forged a firm friendship with the late Sheikh Zayed, as proved when he hosted the sheikh and his brother Hazza during a visit to London in 1955.
In the 1960s, posts in London, Baghdad and Morocco followed before Mr Walker was unexpectedly summoned back to the Middle East as the British political agent. By then, Sheikh Zayed was ruling Abu Dhabi and heated discussions were going on about the possible union of the Trucial States as British troops prepared to pull out. "I learned in 1970 that my friends were in trouble and we were going to withdraw," Mr Walker explained. "There was no likelihood of an easy withdrawal.
"It was difficult in that we did not know what was going to happen. Politically, I tried to strengthen the Trucial states council and work out how we could leave. There was a definite feeling things could erupt in violence. "Each emirate was building up its own force, there were problems at the frontiers and there was a danger they could be at each other's throats." Instead, the emirates joined forces to form the UAE in December 1971 and Mr Walker was one of just a handful at the inaugural signing of the treaty, a moment so chaotic and with so many media present, a number of those gathered had to climb out of a window to escape because "you simply could not get out of the door. There were too many people in that tiny room".
Astonishingly, despite years of having a presence in the Emirates, Mr Walker said the British were never really in control. "It was a responsibility rather than an imperial power," he said. "The Saudis had all the wealth and could have bought allegiance. "Without Zayed we would have lost many disputes. We owed a lot to his influence among the tribesmen." Mr Walker went on to become the UAE's first British consul and served until 1972. He went on to Northern Ireland, Lebanon, Kuwait and Iraq.
He retired in 1994 but still returns to the Middle East twice a year to advise construction and consultancy firms developing in the region. Surveying the changes that have taken place since he first set foot on Emirati sand, he said: "Things have changed terrifically. The level of luxury and technology is incredible, especially when you compare it to what we had. I could never have pictured this all those years ago.
"But there are downsides to development. The foreign community does not seem to have the same contact with the local community. How many of those thousands of expats have any close friendships with locals or even know how they should behave with them?" Besides the firm friendships which he still holds dear, Mr Walker said his greatest legacy was "achieving and agreeing the UAE. The fact it still exists speaks for itself".