x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Time Frame: On the outskirts of Abu Dhabi, 1955

This photo was taken from the front door of the home of Peter and Susan Hillyard, the first expatriate family to live in the emirate.

A view of Abu Dhabi, pre-oil. Courtesy of BP
A view of Abu Dhabi, pre-oil. Courtesy of BP

Tracks in the desert sand disappear towards a cluster of palm frond homes and the ruler's fort. This iconic photograph has been reproduced endlessly (often without regard for copyright) as representing Abu Dhabi in the time before oil was discovered.

The story behind it is less often told. It was actually taken from the front door of Peter and Susan Hillyard's house on the outskirts of Abu Dhabi in 1955. The tracks are mostly made by their Land Rover, one of a handful of vehicles in town.

The Hillyards were the first expatriate family to live in the emirate. Peter Hillyard was the representative of Abu Dhabi Marine Areas, and effectively BP, which held part of the concession to explore for offshore oil.

Hillyard came here in 1954, overseeing the construction of a house for his wife, who had just given birth to their daughter Deborah in the UK. Mother and baby arrived the following year.

The house was of modern construction and was the first in the city - although it could not be properly described as such then - to have electricity, air conditioning and purified water.

Mrs Hillyard records only one serious design problem. The sand used to mix the concrete contained large amounts of salt, which dissolved in the first winter rains, leaving the walls somewhat porous. Peter Hillyard died in the 1970s, but his widow still lives in England. In 2002, she published Before the Oil, a beautifully observed memoir of their time in Abu Dhabi, in which she befriended many members of the Royal Family. Sadly, the book, which includes this image, is currently out of print, with second-hand copies fetching thousands of dirhams.

Time Frame is a series that opens a window into the nation's past. Readers are invited to make contributions to yourpics@thenational.ae