February 1957, Abu Dhabi
Barely half an hour after taking off from Das Island, the tiny twin piston engine Gulf Aviation De Havilland Dove begins its descent towards Abu Dhabi.
In the clear morning air, the pilot can already pick out the narrow airstrip of packed sand and the small rectangular single-storey building topped with a wind tower that serves jointly as control tower, customs, immigration, arrivals and departures.
Gulf Aviation runs a weekly scheduled service from Bahrain to Abu Dhabi via the Royal Air Force base at Sharjah, but this flight is a special charter for the Iraq Petroleum Company (IPC), an international conglomerate that includes Shell, British Petroleum, Exxon Mobil and Total and has a mandate to search for oil in the region.
The lone woman coming down the aircraft steps that day is an American journalist in her late 30s and a guest of IPC. Wanda Jablonski, born in Slovakia but now a naturalised US citizen, is already a legend in the oil industry, equally at home in the company of sheikhs as in the boardrooms of the so-called "Seven Sisters", the all-powerful cartel of western companies that dominate the oil industry.
Jablonksi is on a mission. As the star reporter for Petroleum Week, the American trade journal that is essential reading for anyone in the oil and gas industry, she has arrived in the region to write an extended series of reports on the quest for oil, from Kuwait and Iraq in the northern Gulf, to Bahrain, Qatar and the Empty Quarter of Saudi Arabia.
Abu Dhabi is the next leg. The emirate, one of seven so-called Trucial States whose international affairs are administered by Britain, is one of the region's poor relations. A once flourishing pearling industry has all but collapsed in the Great Depression and with the introduction of Japanese cultured pearls in the 1930s.
The town has no electricity, paved roads, running water or any medical services beyond a doctor from Sharjah who visits twice a year.
The emirate's indigenous population of perhaps 30,000 is dwindling through migration to parts of the Gulf already made more prosperous by oil and there is little beyond fishing and subsistence farming to support those who choose to stay. It is not unknown for younger children to die from malnutrition.
Finding oil is Abu Dhabi's best hope of escaping grinding poverty, but the search has being going on since the 1930s without result. Most recently, offshore rights have been acquired by a consortium of BP and Compagnie Française des Pétroles.
One result of the deal is the arrival of the town's first expatriate family. BP has dispatched its senior representative on the Trucial coast, Tim Hillyard, along with his wife, Susan and, to the delight of everyone including the Ruler, their three-year-old daughter, Deborah. In the absence of any hotel, Jablonski will stay with the Hillyards. Dinner is usually tinned meat, but sometimes, as a treat, dugong stew.
Hillyard, just 36, is in charge of constructing a forward base on Das Island, three square kilometres of previously uninhabited rock and sand located more than 100 kilometres off the emirate's southern coast. Das is a US$12 million gamble by Abu Dhabi Marine Areas (Adma), as the French and British consortium is now known. Hillyard travels to the island on Farees, his personal motorised dhow.
Three years earlier, the famed oceanographer Jacques Cousteau and his research vessel Calypso had been recruited to survey the seabed around Das for promising rock strata. Now, with the onshore wells still dry, undersea drilling is still half a year away and time is running out.
Jablonski has already visited Adma's camp on Das, little more than a rude collection of huts and drilling equipment with a breakwater harbour. Now she hopes for an exclusive interview with the Ruler of Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Shakhbut bin Sultan Al Nahyan, the first he will have given to a western journalist. It is a four-kilometre ride by Land Rover across jolting desert tracks from the air strip to Qasr Al Hosn, the Ruler's fortified palace by the sea.
In her dispatch, published on March 15, 1957, Jablonski records her first impression of him: "Aristocratic, dignified and charming in manner ... delicate in appearance and curiously intellectual in his approach."
But it is oil - or rather the failure to find it - that preoccupies everyone from the Ruler down. Reserves have been found on both sides of the Gulf in a crescent that runs from northern Iran down to eastern Saudi Arabia. Beyond a point south and east of Qatar there are only dry holes.
Of five wildcat wells already drilled in Abu Dhabi, four have been abandoned, the most recent at 3,600 metres. The drill bit on the final well, Shuweihat 1, has just passed through 2,600 metres. It is still bone-dry.
"We're beginning to have an awful, gnawing feeling," one oil executive confesses to Jablonski, when asked about the very real prospect that the last of the oil in the Arabian Gulf has already been found.
Before leaving Abu Dhabi, the American reporter meets again with Sheikh Shakhbut. He is, she reports, a modest man "eschewing alike fancy foods and fancy gadgets", but with "an intense and understandable interest in all matters pertaining to oil - which his Sheikhdom so far lacks".
Directly, Jablonski asks Sheikh Shakhbut if he thinks there is any realistic prospect of ever finding oil and bringing prosperity to his people.
"Inshallah," the Ruler replies.
15 years later: November 1972, Abu Dhabi
It is late in the evening and flight 204 from London, a BOAC Super VC10 jetliner with seven crew and 151 passengers, is locked into the final approach at Abu Dhabi International Airport.
Ahead the flight crew can see the glow of the city's 3,000 metre runway, already competing with a thousand points of light from the dozens of new buildings springing up across the island.
Fifteen years have passed since Wanda Jablonski's first visit to Abu Dhabi. She is returning to the capital of a new nation, the United Arab Emirates, not yet a year old, and with a new President, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, the younger brother of Sheikh Shakhbut.
The American reporter, now in her early 50s, is still required reading in the oil industry, having now founded her own publication, Petroleum Intelligence Weekly. She is back in town, visiting one of the world's fastest-growing economies, with an annual income from oil estimated at over US$550 million. Its people, once among the world's poorest, will soon have one of the highest average incomes on the planet.
Jablonski meets with the President and the UAE's Minister of Petroleum and Mineral Resources, Mana Al Otaiba, the latter just 26 years old and a symbol of the nation's youth and vigour.
It was nine months after her last visit when the drilling platform ADMA Enterprise settled over a spot the company called "F-1" but would later become known as the Umm Shaif field. At 2,668 metres, the 30-million-year-old limestone finally yielded oil in commercial quantities. Within the year, more oil had been discovered, including an onshore field at Murban-Bab.
Four years later, on July 4, 1962, the BP tanker British Signal left the harbour at Das Island with Abu Dhabi's first oil export: 254,544 barrels of crude destined for Japan. By the time of its birth on December 2, 1971, the UAE was well on its way to claiming an estimated one sixth of all the world's oil reserves.
Black gold transformed Abu Dhabi. In 1972 the city was alive with construction - a deep-water port, banks, offices, hospitals, schools and shopping centres. The old ruler's fort had been superseded by grander palaces. Broad tarmac highways reached out towards Al Ain and Dubai. It was the final year of a five-year plan ordered by Sheikh Zayed that had seen nearly Dh3 billion spent on critical infrastructure projects, including Dh700m on new roads and highways - the first in the nation.
David Heard, a long-time resident of Abu Dhabi who worked for the oil industry in the 1970s, recalls looking out of his office window and "seeing great earth moving machines moving sand to construct Hamdan Street." They were making a dual carriageway and he thought, "how ridiculous, that big wide road".
The potential was breathtaking; the whole world was watching in fascination. In an interview with Jablonski, Sheikh Zayed told her: "It is my duty to provide the basics of a decent life for every citizen in the country. Our goal is to prepare the next generation to carry the responsibility."
Yet, while oil was transforming the nation, it did so out of sight to most of the population. It rose from deep in the desert and out at sea far from the fast-expanding city. If Abu Dhabi was the nerve centre of the new nation, then Das was its heart, invisibly pumping prosperity into every corner of the UAE. To underline its importance, Sheikh Zayed placed Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed bin Khalifa Al Nahyan, one of his most trusted supporters, in charge of the island.
More than 100 kilometres from the mainland and 166 kilometres north-west of Abu Dhabi city, Das's remoteness is at odds with its importance in the nation's story. Fragments of pottery have been found dating from the 15th century, but it was first recorded by Gasparo Balbi, a merchant and jeweller from Venice, who passed it in 1580, sailing down the Gulf from Basra to India to seek out pearls and precious gemstones.
Surveyors from the British East India Company added it to their maps during the 1820s, but when the search for oil began in earnest in the 1950s, Das was inhabited only by nesting seabirds and turtles.
This barren rectangle of sand and rock assumed a strategic importance with the arrival of the French underwater explorer Jacques Cousteau in 1954. Cousteau and his team had unparalleled underwater skills, and had been hired first by the D'Arcy Oil Company, which won the original rights to explore the emirate's deeper waters for oil deposits, and then by Adma, which took over in 1955.
Jointly created by British Petroleum and Compagnie Française des Pétroles, later to become Total, Adma believed there was real chance of finding oil in substantial quantities offshore. The question was, where?
Calypso, a converted British minesweeper that served as Cousteau's research flagship, was the first of a motley fleet that included the seismic detector motor vessel Sonic and the Astrid Sven, an ancient German-built freighter that had spent much of the Second World War refuelling Nazi U-boat submarines in the Pacific.
The survey produced results sufficiently encouraging for drilling to start. A site was identified, a former pearl oyster bank 15 metres deep and around 32 kilometres from Das Island. A 4,200-ton drilling barge, the ADMA Enterprise, newly constructed in Germany, and towed to the Gulf in an epic 92-day journey via the Suez Canal, moored over the selected spot and began to punch into the rock. Amazingly, it struck oil at the first attempt. "A nice sweet crude", according to the first engineers' report.
Meanwhile the transformation of Das had begun. Housing and medical facilities were constructed for the first of thousands of workers. To make more space for oil tanks and to provide construction material, the 50-metre hill that had once been the island's high point was flattened.An artificial harbour using half a million tons of rock was built at the southern tip of the island, along with a 1,400-metre runway.
From here, fixed-wing aircraft connected Das to the mainland, while helicopters clattered out to sea on the 20-minute journey to the Enterprise platform.
For centuries, human habitation on Das had been limited to a few fishermen and pearl fishers, who used it as a place of refuge during winter storms. Now men and machines began to arrive in ever increasing numbers. Among the workers was a teenager from Abu Dhabi, Al Haj Al Mehairbi, later to become private secretary to Sheikh Zayed.
In the early 1960s, Al Mehairbi was looking for work. He was also looking for adventure. On Das Island he found both. Coming from a pearl-fishing family, he was familiar with the sea. After a brief interview, he was told to report to the old airstrip the next morning for a flight to Das.
"It was the first time I had travelled by plane," he recalls. "I looked down at the sea and I was looking at my own future."
Al Mehairbi was put to work on clerical duties, and was later transferred to the island's hospital as a medical assistant, but ended up where he was happiest, on a small support tug, which he eventually ended up captaining.
Life on the island was "like a dream", he says. It was also not without its dramas. In one instance a helicopter lost power and was forced to put down in the sea. Using his knowledge of the local tides, Al Mehairbi was able to locate the precise spot to which the helicopter had drifted, rescue the crew and tow the aircraft back to Das.
The Das workforce was a mixture of local people, Indians and Pakistanis, a few expatriate Arabs, Filipinos and Europeans. Alan Horan was general manager on Das, working for Adnoc between 1971 and 1982 and a central figure in the development of the island. He had lived in the emirate before, for two years from 1960. Returning, he immediately noticed the transformation.
In 1962, when Horan left for the first time, most people lived in arish (palm-frond) huts and roads were made from coral and sabkha, a mixture of salt and sand that created a hard, smooth surface. "In 1971 there were roads, a pretty good airport, telephones. Sheikh Zayed had done a fantastic job."
By now Das had become a city in miniature, with a population of 7,000. Housing, medical care, sports facilities, a cinema and even an island store, courtesy of Jashanmals. The store was initially supplied through its existing operation in Bahrain, established in 1936.
The Das Island branch was set up in 1957, predating the first branch in the capital by seven years. By the 1970s, Jashanmals in the UAE had expanded and was being run from Dubai, with supplies shipped to Das on Adma barges.
"We were the only people who supplied British products. Anything with 'Made in England' on it was considered a number one brand," recalls Mohan Jashanmal, the current regional manager for Abu Dhabi.
"If someone wanted brown shoelaces you had to get them. If someone wanted toothpaste with stripes, we had to get it. There was no question of saying 'no'."
Al Mehairbi remembers that in his time on Das, it was possible to buy luxuries at Jashanmals that were unobtainable in Abu Dhabi. "Everything was imported from Bahrain: watches, material, shoes, perfumes and creams. When I went home, I would take it back for my family."
By the 1970s, workers were given a six-week tour of duty, followed by the same period as leave. A fleet of aircraft, including helicopters chartered from Bristow, was available to fly them to and from the mainland, saving a sea journey that could last as long as 10 hours.
Accommodation was "fairly basic for everyone", says Horan. "But the money was good and the food was excellent. Food is something you don't skimp on." The community was - and remains - entirely male, with a club for relaxation at weekends, several bars and plenty of sports facilities. "Cricket was very popular, also sailing." Indoors, Al Mehairbi recalls playing darts and snooker. Later, a bowling alley was added.
A few enterprising employees even constructed a six-hole golf course, building sand fairways that ended in greens which were immediately named "browns", and with a remarkably smooth putting surface created from a mixture of sand and oil. A tiny square of AstroTurf served as a tee. As Das was increasingly developed, the course had to be moved a number of times. "But they always managed to maintain it, no matter what was built," Horan says.
Besides the human stories, there were some remarkable technological achievements. The first earth-moving equipment was brought in on Second World War-vintage landing ships in the 1950s. Two decades later a more radical solution was proposed for the construction of a liquid natural gas plant.
The Sea Pearl was designed to float on a cushion of air; at 750 tons it was the largest hoverbarge in the world. Designed by a British company, Mackace, it was constructed on land near the Mina Zayed and could operate over sea and land.
Sections of the plant could then be built in Abu Dhabi and shipped to the island for assembly. Over water, the Sea Pearl was pulled by ocean-going tugs. On land, a fleet of bulldozers steered the barge to its final destination.
The Sea Pearl was just one solution to the many complexities involved in running an offshore oil operation in the Arabian Gulf. Das, the island itself, was another. Oil from the Umm Shaif field was pumped directly to Das along undersea pipelines, via a "supercomplex", a series of interconnected structures out to sea that controlled the various wellheads.
In the late 1960s, the massive Zakum fields had been discovered south of Das, and as these came on stream, a second supercomplex was built in 1978. By the end of the decade, five more undersea oilfields had been found, placing the island at the heart of the nation's economy.
Along with the oil came substantial quantities of natural gas, which needed to be separated from the oil and carried with it the ever-present risk of a destructive explosion. In the early 1970s, the technology did not exist to store gas, so the landscape of Das was punctuated by burning flares and the atmosphere polluted with a distinctive odour.
In 1973, an agreement was reached with the Toyko Electric Power Company of Japan to build a plant that would enable the gas to be transported in liquid form. Flaring - wasteful and polluting - became a thing of the past, and the country gained another valuable commodity to sell on the global market.
By April 1977, the first shipments of liquefied natural gas were leaving Das. Onshore oil production was even greater than on Das, with oil production centred at Habsham and a deep-water terminal at Jebel Dhanna. By then, Abu Dhabi was producing 1.45 million barrels of oil a day, worth US$7 billion a year in revenue. In just a decade, the income from oil had increased 20-fold.
Significant changes in the relationship between the Government of Abu Dhabi and the oil companies were also taking place. Just weeks before the creation of the UAE, in December 1971, the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (Adnoc) was founded, based first in modest offices above the Algerian Bakery in the old souq, but later in grander surroundings.
The Government did not intend to pursue the policy of wholesale nationalisation of the oil industry that had taken place in other Arab nations, but negotiated a larger 60 per cent stake to be held by Adnoc in both its onshore and offshore operations in 1974.
In 1977, a new national company, to be called Abu Dhabi Marine Operating Company (Adma-Opco) was formed to run the offshore concession, and the following year, a second national company, Abu Dhabi Company for Onshore Oil Operations (Adco), was created for the land operations.
The role of the oil operators in the lives of ordinary people also changed. It was not just the vast sums of money they were able to bring to the exchequer nor that they were major employers. Often the infrastructure they could provide was far ahead of anything the Government could yet manage. In the mid-1970s, Adma set up a medical clinic in Abu Dhabi for its workforce and their families. The clinic, built on land near the current Cultural Foundation, also opened its doors to anyone in need of treatment and became the nucleus of the city's health services.
As significant was the role Adma and Adco played in education. In the early days, the skilled workforce was dominated by expatriates, with much of the local population still barely literate. All that changed in the 1970s. Promising young Emiratis were given scholarships to study overseas and an educational training centre was set up in the city to develop both technical and managerial skills.
Beyond the nation's boundaries, the new Abu Dhabi Fund for Arab Economic Development (ADFAED) extended the bounty from oil to less-fortunate countries. Founded in May 1971, the ADFAED had by 1975 pledged nearly Dh900m on 28 projects in 11 Muslim nations from Yemen and Morocco to Sudan and Bangladesh. Abu Dhabi's oil was bringing fresh water to the farmlands of Jordan, electricity to Egypt and sugar refining to Syria.
As the 1970s gave way to a new decade, the waters of Abu Dhabi were again alive with activity. Once they had been the centre of the pearling banks where thousands of dhows gathered for Al Ghaus Al Kabir - the great dive. Now, deep under those same, long-forgotten oyster beds, the men of Das Island extracted a new treasure of incalculably greater value, raised with great steel islands and towers and sent to the world on a fleet of supertankers.