It is 50 years ago since Abu Dhabi became an oil producing state with the sailing of the tanker British Signal. The National looks back at that historic day and uncovers a mystery about the oil's destination.
The day Abu Dhabi set sail as an oil nation
It is mid-afternoon on July 4, 1962. Two tugs have secured the bow and stern lines of the British Signal, delicately manoeuvring the 35,000-ton ship away from the loading platform until the BP tanker can proceed into the Arabian Gulf under her own power.
Overhead, a company photographer leans out of a clattering Bristow helicopter, capturing a moment of Abu Dhabi history. Stored in the vast tanks of the British Signal are 254,544 barrels of crude oil, the first that the Emirate has produced.
Fifty years ago that first cargo of oil, taken from the nearby undersea Umm Shaif field, was worth US$458,197. Allowing for inflation, the shipment would have been worth well over $3 million.
Except that a barrel of oil, priced at $1.80 in 1962, will fetch about $100 in July 2012. And that Abu Dhabi, which pumped around 10.5 million barrels a year after the British Signal sailed, today produces a similar quantity every three days. On such a foundation is built the wealth of the nation.
Among the crew of the BP tanker that day was a 20-year-old assistant cook, John Small. Like everyone on board, Small knew that it was a special day. For starters, there were the trays of canapes Small had to prepare for the official party, as the ship hosted members of the Royal Family and visiting oil company bigwigs, flown in to neighbouring Das Island, where the off-shore oil production facilities were based after the discovery of oil four years earlier.
Half a century later, Small, now retired from the sea and living in southern England, recalls the ship's arrival. "We knew it was big day. As we approached there was a fanfare with tugs pumping fountains of water and the ship was decked with flags."
He remembers also that the weather was poor: "There was a sandstorm and we couldn't really see the island."
Small had sailed up the Arabian Gulf before, loading oil from Kuwait. This time he joined the British Signal when she was laid up at Tilbury dry dock in London. He still has his papers, stamped June 2, 1962.
From Britain, the tanker sailed east through the Mediterranean, passing through the Suez Canal before turning north-east into the Arabian Sea. She arrived at Das on about July 2, connecting to the flow lines once her ballast had been discharged.
Normally a ship of this size would load and depart in 16 hours, but because this was a VIP occasion, the sailing was delayed.
After the formalities - which included a crate of ale for each crewman - the tanker set sail at 2.45pm, according to the records.
But to where remains something of a mystery. Abu Dhabi Marine Operating Company - Adma-Opco - which operates the offshore operations, says on its website that the oil was destined for Japan.
BP records say that the tanker was bound for its refinery at Aden. In its review of the year for 1962, the UK Institute of Petroleum, now known as the Energy Institute, also gives Aden as the destination.
John Small begs to differ. Ships of the size of the British Signal did not transport oil to Aden, he insists. Besides he has no recollection of arriving at the port.
Normally, Small says, these tankers would have taken a full cargo of oil back to another BP refinery on the Isle of Grain, at the entrance to the River Medway on the south coast of England.
But after a four-week journey that took almost exactly the same time as the outward trip, the British Signal instead docked at Glasgow in Scotland. And Small can prove it.
On August 4, 1962, his discharge papers were stamped and signed in Scotland, with his conduct marked "very good".
And so it seems likely that Abu Dhabi's first oil was sold not to power the wheels of industry in the Land of the Rising Sun, but in the Land of the Brave.