x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Lasting impressions of the UAE

The photographer Guy Gravett's remarkable photo archive, only now emerging, renders timeless the faces and places of the UAE when it was still part of the Trucial Oman States.

A trader sits amid bottles, crates and a scale in the Abu Dhabi souq in 1962. The Flower Basket matches visible on the right are still sold here.
A trader sits amid bottles, crates and a scale in the Abu Dhabi souq in 1962. The Flower Basket matches visible on the right are still sold here.

As a young boy growing up in England, Crispin Gravett would listen to stories of his father's travels to a faraway place: one of desert dunes, of banquets eaten cross-legged and a leader called Zayed.

Crispin's father, Guy Gravett, made a series of trips to what was then the Trucial States in the early 1960s. Gravett, a professional photographer who today is best remembered for his work with the renowned Glyndebourne opera house, had been recruited by Abu Dhabi Marine Areas (Adma), the offshore oil exploration company now called Adma-Opco.

But while the commission required Gravett to record the nascent oil industry, he could not resist turning his lens on the emerging nation that would soon be called the United Arab Emirates.

Unseen for years, some of those photographs are published here for the first time. His visits took Gravett from the new city of Al Ain to the oil production centre on Das Island, and from the old souq of Abu Dhabi to the ordinary men and women of Dubai.

Gravett died in 1996, but his archives, which include portfolios from trips to Alaska, Libya and Pakistan's Khyber Pass, are only now emerging.

Crispin, who was just 8 when his father first visited the emirates, says while his father's assignment was to cover the birth of the oil industry, "he was interested in people primarily. He was a big chap, very affable. I think his service in the war made him at ease in the society of the Bedouin. I do also recall that he was highly impressed by Sheikh Zayed."

Gravett was born in England in 1919 and served in the British Army in Libya and the Western Desert in the Second World War, fighting his way up through Italy.

While his great passion was painting - he studied at art college - he became a freelance photographer after his discharge, with commissions that included Noel Coward, the actress Diana Dors and the painter Sir Stanley Spencer.

From the early 1950s, he began photographing the summer season at Glyndebourne, the opera house deep in the countryside of West Sussex, whose productions remain a highlight of the English social calendar. Gravett was appointed official photographer to the festival in 1955, and would spend 40 years there. The limited season at Glyndebourne allowed him to travel overseas on other assignments.

Crispin recalls that his father would spend typically six weeks at time on his assignments to the Arabian Gulf. In 1962, he spent time on Das Island, the year of the first oil exports, but also captured other aspects of life in those days, from the Trucial Oman Scouts on camel patrol to the grizzled features of a trader in Abu Dhabi's old souq and both Sheikh Shakhbut bin Sultan, then the Ruler of Abu Dhabi, as well as his brother, Sheikh Zayed, then the Ruler's Representative in the Western Region.

"He was particularly impressed by the sheikhs," says Crispin. "He would say that they had this terrific appreciation, especially Zayed, as to what the oil under their feet could do for the people, but also the remarkable changes it was likely to bring. "