Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 February 2020

British army officer who led Ras Al Khaimah's defence force dies in UAE

David Neild caught the attention of late ruler Sheikh Saqr bin Mohammed after peacefully disarming a rebellion with outlying tribes

David Neild (centre) speaks with Emirati men at a reunion for British expatriates in Ras Al Khaimah in February 2013. Jaime Puebla / The National
David Neild (centre) speaks with Emirati men at a reunion for British expatriates in Ras Al Khaimah in February 2013. Jaime Puebla / The National

David Neild, who established the defence forces for Sharjah and Ras Al Khaimah in the 1960s, died in the UAE’s northernmost emirate on Tuesday. He was 81.

Neild was born in Portsmouth, England, on December 1, 1938. He served in the Trucial Oman Scouts — the British security forces of the Trucial States — from 1959 to 1961.

He returned to the Trucial States in 1966, weeks before Sheikh Shakhbut bin Sultan Al Nahyan stepped down as Ruler of Abu Dhabi.

Neild was hardly out of his teens when he arrived in Sharjah in 1959.

Once the desert has got into your blood, it's hard to get it out again

David Neild

He was the youngest officer to serve in the TOS and spent his 21st birthday at his room in the Jahili Fort of Al Ain. After his first tour in what would become the UAE, he went on to serve in Kenya, Berlin, Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK before reapplying for the TOS.

"I started getting hungry for the desert again,” he told The National in 2014. “I think once the desert has got into your blood, it's hard to get it out again.”

His colleagues told him, “You are not Lawrence of Arabia” and he was advised it would not be good for his military career.

He insisted and was dispatched to Aden, a former British colony in present-day Yemen, for a three month Arabic course. He returned to Abu Dhabi in 1966, weeks before Sheikh Shakhbut Bin Sultan Al Nahyan stepped down as ruler of Abu Dhabi.

By the age of 30, he commanded B squadron at Manama, south of Ras Al Khaimah city.

David Nield leads the guard of honour outside the Ruler’s Palace in Sharjah in 1967. On the left of the picture is Sheikh Khalid bin Mohammed Al Qasimi, the Ruler of Sharjah, and on the right is Sheikh Sabah Al Salim Al Sabah, the Ruler of Kuwait. Courtesy Medina Publishing
David Neild leads the guard of honour outside the Ruler’s Palace in Sharjah in 1967. On the left of the picture is Sheikh Khalid bin Mohammed Al Qasimi, the Ruler of Sharjah, on the right is Sheikh Sabah Al Salim Al Sabah, the Ruler of Kuwait. Courtesy: Medina Publishing

He caught the attention of Ras Al Khaimah’s ruler at the time, Sheikh Saqr bin Mohammed, after peacefully disarming a tribal rebellion late 1968.

The RAK sheikh had already decided to form a mobile defence force for the emirate, following news of Britain’s plans to withdraw from the Trucial Coast in 1971.

It was a tense period. Discussions were under way for the form a federation of the seven emirates, Bahrain and Qatar. American companies were optimistic about the discovery of oil in Ras Al Khaimah and two thirds of the emirate’s borders were disputed.

Sheikh Saqr asked his subjects who would be best to build a force. Neild was the popular choice.

“Sheikh Saqr liked him because he was courageous,” said historian Saif Al Bedwawi, a specialist in UAE military history. “He was so good at military commanding and he was also a big man, you know, tall and he could shoot a gun. The men liked him and he used to come and sit down and drink coffee with them. The Bedouin respected him more for he knew so many things that other British military commanders didn’t know because they didn’t mix with people.”

David Nield on a training exercise in Ras Al Khaimah in 1970, with Ferret armoured cars. With him is signals officer Capt Abdullah, who was on loan from Saudi Arabia. Courtesy Medina Publishing
David Nield on a training exercise in Ras Al Khaimah in 1970, with Ferret armoured cars. With him is signals officer Capt Abdullah, who was on loan from Saudi Arabia. Courtesy: Medina Publishing

Neild was summoned to Sheikh Saqr’s palace.

“I want you to leave the British army,” Sheikh Saqr told the commander.

Neild agreed, resigned from the British military and set to work building a military force for Sheikh Saqr. He was its sole British officer. He travelled to London to purchase armoured cars, mortars and tanks through Crown Agents and trained a unit of 300 men in three years. Many had never held a rifle or worn trousers before.

The RAK Mobile Defence Force was officially founded in 1969. It was the fourth private army established in the Trucial States.

Nield left Ras Al Khaimah again in January 1972 when the unit was self-sufficient but was called back weeks later to set up the Sharjah National Guard, after the assassination of the Sharjah Ruler, Dr Sheikh Khalid Bin Mohammed.

The TOS were renamed the Union Defence Force. The Sharjah and RAK units later joined the UDF, which became the Armed Forces.

Neild left Sharjah to work overseas but returned to RAK permanently, with his wife Eileen, in 2013 to write his memoirs. They came as guests of Sheikh Saqr's son, the current RAK Ruler, Sheikh Saud.

The invitation was extended after a reunion of British expatriates, who had lived in the emirate in the 1960s, was held the same year. They included Ruth Ash, an English nurse who established close ties with mountain tribes, and Margaret McKay, whose husband introduced dairy cows to the region.

The former British expatriates were fondly remembered and greeted with a tribal party hosted by the mountain tribes in Wadi Qada’a.

David Neild takes part in a traditional Emirati dance during a welcoming ceremony by members of Hanus and Shehhuh mountain tribes at Wadi Qadaa, Ras Al Khaimah, in Feburary 2013. Jaime Puebla / The National 
David Neild takes part in a traditional Emirati dance during a welcoming ceremony by members of Hanus and Shehhuh mountain tribes at Wadi Qada'a, Ras Al Khaimah, in Feburary 2013. Jaime Puebla / The National

Hundreds attended to celebrate their return with rifle fire, drumming and the nadbah war cry.

For the people of Ras Al Khaimah, Neild had come home.

He asked his family to be buried in Ras Al Khaimah.

“He was that loyal to Ras Al Khaimah,” said Mr Al Bedwawi. “It is very sad not only as a friend because he became a sort of a symbol of the TOS and he had so many friends who trained with him. I asked one of them about him once and he said, ‘he not only was he a good officer but he was sincere in teaching us’.”

Updated: February 12, 2020 06:16 PM

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