x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 20 September 2017

From Pearls to Oil: The UAE's path to prosperity

David Heard's impressive new book, which traces the very earliest days of oil exploration in the Trucial States, is an invaluable resource for anyone attempting to understand the UAE's beginnings.

A crew tries to free a car bogged down in Sabkhah.
A crew tries to free a car bogged down in Sabkhah.

Disembarking in Abu Dhabi for the first time in August 1963, David Heard observes in his new book From Pearls to Oil: How the Oil Industry came to the United Arab Emirates that he had "arrived in a land that had largely stood still for centuries".

Yet, even in a world that was still defined by sand tracks and palm frond houses, it was already possible to feel the first salty splashes of a wave of progress that was about to sweep across the landscape.

Heard's very presence was a sign that things were changing forever along the shores of the southern Arabian Gulf. An oil engineer, he was part of a rapidly growing team that would soon uncork the vast pool of wealth that lay under the sands of the Asab and Sahil fields.

Behind him on that August day was a world that romantics like Wilfred Thesiger might have liked to populate with noble bedu tribesman leading camels and falcons across magnificent sun-bleached dunes, but which for the inhabitants was generally marked by poverty, unemployment, disease and great physical hardship.

In the next two decades, the emirates would become another place: of concrete and steel, broad highways, deepwater ports and international airports. New hospitals all but eliminated infant and maternal mortality rates, schools and universities drove out illiteracy and ignorance. Water flowed from a tap rather than a brackish hole in the sand.

What marks Abu Dhabi past and present, then, is not so much a dividing line as a cultural and economic canyon. But where do we place the first cracks of this schism? Is it that day in July 1962, when the master of the BP tanker British Signal hauled anchor off Das Island and steered the first cargo of Abu Dhabi crude down the Gulf and towards the international markets?

Or should we step back a little further, to late March 1958, when the drilling crew of the exploration rig Adma Enterprise have just noticed black streaks and a rainbow sheen on the lubricating mud pumping up from the steel bit twisting several thousand metres below the seabed underneath their feet and, as the blowout preventers slam shut, a new member has just presented itself for admission to the exclusive club of oil-producing nations.

Heard's book places this moment somewhat earlier.

From Pearls to Oil traces the very earliest days of oil exploration in what were then the Trucial States. And while Heard, now retired but still living in Abu Dhabi, has had a ringside seat for much of the past half century, the story that he tells is far older.

January 13, 1939, saw the signing the Abu Dhabi Concession Agreement that gave 75-year exploration rights to the first consortium of oil companies and, of equal significance, provided the Ruler, Sheikh Shakhbut bin Sultan Al Nahyan, with an initial fee of 300,000 Indian rupees that would be the nation's first serious taste of black gold.

Events far away would dash any hope of greater riches. Within eight months, Hitler's Panzer divisions were rumbling across the Polish border and much of the world was consumed by total war until 1945.

The obvious result of the Second World War was to stall oil exploration in the area for another 15 years. When oil was finally discovered, both on shore and under the sea, it was fully 20 years after Sheikh Shakhbut signed on the dotted line with Petroleum Concessions Ltd, as the oil consortium was then known.

In the meantime, the Rulers of the Trucial States could only watch as their neighbours grew wealthy on oil revenues and hope, with quiet desperation and a faith in God, that their share of this bounty would come.

Still, as Heard demonstrates, the seven emirates might have been short on natural resources, but at least had Rulers who were long on patience. And a good thing too. Reading Heard's account of the early days of oil, you might wonder that oil was ever found at all.

It wasn't just the primitive technology involved - the first wells were bored by dropping a heavy pointed object over and over again until a hole had been bashed in the ground. The cast of egomaniacs and eccentrics that descended on the Arabian Peninsula in the 1930s frequently displayed a nearly lethal combination of ignorance and arrogance both to the local population and each other.

For starters, the British, despite effectively ruling the region's foreign affairs for almost a century and keeping everyone else out, really knew very little about Abu Dhabi. Those studies that had been carried out - for example, John Gordon Lorimer's exhaustive study of the Arabian Gulf, published barely 20 years earlier - were largely ignored when prospecting began.

Instead, the oil companies chose to listen to dangerous lunatics like Harry St John Philby, a crypto-fascist former British diplomat (and, incidentally, father of the famous Soviet spy Kim Philby) whose hatred of his homeland was probably compounded by being cashiered from the foreign service for undisclosed offences.

Philby, now styling himself Abdullah, had become a close adviser to the Saudis, after securing the local concession for Ford motor cars and acquiring a teenage bride in the Taif slave market. He used his influence to push a highly partisan view that rule of the Trucial States, which "owe their existence to piracy and pearls" extended no more than a few miles inland from the coast.

Inland, Philby promised, the areas considered most promising for oil reserves acknowledged "the writ of Ibn Sa'ud even to Buraimi eastwards", a conceit that Heard points out was "ridiculous".

Yet in this story, even Philby's eccentricities are eclipsed by two others: "Haji" Abdulla Fadhel Williamson and Major Frank Holmes, who between them duelled for the signatures of sheikhs on oil exploration agreements for much of the 1930s.

Williamson was marginally the older of the two and by far the more colourful. Born William Rupert Williamson in 1872, he fled his native Bristol on a tea clipper at the age of 13 and had never gone back.

Escaping the wrath of the Spanish colonial authorities in the Philippines who believed him a dangerous revolutionary, Williamson was sprung from a Manila prison in his 20s and eventually fetched up as a trader in Basra, embracing the local culture and faith to an extent that he twice performed Haj, but also provoking some astonishment by riding around on a penny farthing bicycle.

By the time the international oil companies had turned covetous eyes towards the southern Gulf, "Haji" Williamson was the man for local knowledge. The owner of a trading dhow and fluent in Arabic, he sold horses to the India army, peddled kerosene and, the British, suspected, was also not above a bit of gunrunning.

Williamson, therefore, despite being the "go to guy" in the Gulf, was far from being trusted. After all, he had "gone native", perhaps the worst infraction a white man could commit east of Suez.

Frank Holmes was a very different kettle of fish. Born in 1874 in New Zealand, he had worked as a mining engineer before joining the British army in India during the First World War. Arriving in Bahrain, he had some success drilling artesian wells and set about reinventing himself as an oil concessions broker.

Both Holmes and Williamson claimed good contacts with the local rulers and were offered the chance to sign them up.

Weighing up their respective merits was Brigadier Stephen Hemsley Longrigg, a respected Arabist who had served with the British occupation forces in Iraq between 1927 and 1931.

Longrigg had subsequently joined the Iraq Petroleum Company, the consortium formed by a number of oil companies, including British Petroleum and what is now Total, after the 1928 "Red Line Agreement" carved up the carcass of the Ottoman Empire to ensure that the various oil giants did not compete with each other when bidding for new concessions.

Longrigg's instincts did not always serve him well. He had been utterly taken in by Philby, who had concealed his close relationship with Ibn Saud (and therefore the rival American oil companies) to promote the kingdom's claim over what was patently Abu Dhabi territory.

Now, faced with a choice between Williamson and Holmes, he once again plumped for the wrong man. To be fair, it was an easy mistake to make. Williamson, aided by his friend, the colourful Bahraini businessmen Haji Yusef bin Ahmed Kanoo, had made a good start in opening negotiations with many of the ruling sheikhs, but in 1937 got himself into a spot of hot water after sending out a gossipy memo about the Ruler of Dubai. When the document was leaked, he was forced to leave town in a hurry.

Holmes - who may have played a role in the leaking - had been itching to get Williamson out of the way for some time. But having sidelined his hated rival, the contracts still failed to materialise, despite Holmes waving around gold watches and promises of expensive motor cars. By now some British officials had begun to suspect Holmes was playing a double game with their American rivals. In the end, disliked and distrusted by the oil companies and rulers alike, he too had abandoned the Trucial Coast as a bad job by the end of the year.

While all this was going on, a small team of hapless geologists was attempting to find out if there was anything worth drilling for.

Lacking aircraft and, indeed, modern seismological equipment, the intrepid explorers - part Burton and Speke, part Laurel and Hardy - had no choice but to work on the ground, frequently encountering terrain and inhabitants that were both distinctly unwelcoming.

Transport was a major hurdle. Nobody cared much for camels, so heading off to the west of Abu Dhabi, the team of Thomas Williamson and D Glynn-Jones hauled a pickup truck and a saloon car precariously to the deck of a dhow, unloading them on planks.

Understandably, the geologists preferred to work in the cooler months, but since it rained a lot, the vehicles frequently bogged down in the sticky mix of sand and gypsum known as sabkha.

Some of the most entertaining parts of Heard's book are geologists' reports, which he reproduces in several lengthy appendices. In one, Williamson (no relation to Haji) writes home to his employees that locals in remote areas had never before encountered a motor vehicle.

They were, however, familiar with aircraft, which they had seen flying overhead and assumed that the prospecters van was one of these monsters come down to earth, perhaps to devour them.

The team's locally hired drivers, Williamson observed, would watch as these villagers approached their vehicle and, overcoming their fear: "Finally stretch out a hand to touch. At that moment the driver would press the horn button, and all the bystanders would yell with delight as the victims fell over each other to get away from that bellowing monster."

The end of all this was no real evidence for oil and no contracts to drill for it; a state of affairs that by 1937 suited nobody. At this point, though, the nearest thing to a hero emerges in Heard's story: Basil Lermitte, another employee of Petroleum Concessions Limited, living in Dubai.

Lermitte, self-effacing almost to the point of invisibility turned out to be the man for the job. A description of him living in Dubai several years later noted that he "spoke Arabic and was familiar with several dialects, but he also knew the value of silence and patience".

Lermitte, the account continues, "frequently spent time with the

Arabs in the desert and adapted easily to their ways, the food and their behaviour. At the same time, when he entertained Europeans to tea, he served thin bread and butter on his Spode china and filled the cups from his Georgian silver tea pot."

Charged by an increasingly desperate Longrigg to sort out the mess left by Holmes and Williamson, Lermitte put away his silver tea service and went to see the sheikhs.

Joined by Longrigg, who had finally left Bahrain to visit the emirates for the first time, the oil companies finally began to make progress.

Dubai and Sharjah had already signed concession agreements, but the big prize, Abu Dhabi, took longer to land. If the British ever believed such an agreement could be easily brokered, they were swiftly disabused.

"I consider that the Dubai agreement was fully discussed and thoroughly understood and that every demand of the Shaikhs that could be met was agreed," a frustrated Holmes wrote to his superiors in June 1937. "To yield now to the clamouring of other Rulers is weakness of which they will be only too ready to take advantage."

While the negotiators might portray the sheikhs as capricious and mercurial, the reality is that the rulers knew how to drive a hard bargain and had a fine appreciation of the high stakes involved, not least for their impoverished people. In the end, though, the deals were struck, even if the changes they would usher in were still far in the future.

Heard's account is an invaluable resource for anyone attempting to understand this period, a time that until now has been neglected by historians. His gathering (with the assistance his wife, the redoubtable Dr Frauke Heard-Bey) of the source material, much of it stored in the dusty archives of the former Imperial Petroleum Company in London, cannot be described as anything less than a labour of love.

In particular, the reproduction of contemporary accounts of the negotiations, which take up almost half the book, are worth the purchase price alone, as is a reproduction of a series of maps drawn by the early geologists as they trekked across the desert lands. And while his book, like the UAE itself, has had a lengthy gestation, the end result is something unique.

James Langton is The National's news features editor.