x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Oil's history, for better or worse

A trip to one of only two industry museums in the Gulf reveals a public ambivalence towards the discovery tat forever changed the region.

MANAMA // It was in the year 1932 that actress Elizabeth Taylor was born and the BBC World Service began broadcasting as the "British Empire Service". It was the year, too, that unemployment in the US soared to 33 per cent and the worldwide "Great Depression" reached its nadir. The Austrian-born Adolph Hitler obtained German citizenship, and the infant son of famed aviator Charles Lindbergh was kidnapped and later found dead in what was dubbed, "the crime of the century".

Of lesser note at the time - but of arguably far more consequence - it also was the year that oil was discovered in the Arab Middle East. On June 1 1932, some 7½ months after they sunk a drill into the ground in the shadow of a scraggly hill called the "Mountain of Smoke", a group of prospectors and scallywags led by the New Zealand owner of a pharmacy in Aden hit oil 35km south of Manama. Today, like a metal shrub with twisted branches, a capped well juts from the rocky ground marking the original spot where the massively prolific Arabian Oil Basin was first tapped.

Nearby is a plaque commemorating Jabal Ad Dukhan No 1 and a museum bearing the sign, "It All Began in Bahrain". Although Bahrain and Kuwait are the only two Gulf nations that boast museums devoted to the oil industry, the nine-columned, square building is a rather desultory sight, out of keeping with the repercussions of what was discovered here, not only for Bahrain and the Gulf but for the rest of the world.

It sits hard and without warning on a rarely travelled two-lane black asphalt motorway. The air is tinged with the nose-wrinkling odour of sulphur from a refinery a few kilometres away. Its hours are irregular. "A few people come," shrugs a singlet-clad worker from the Indian state of Kerala as he sprinkles water on a few petunias that ring the building and that are struggling to hang on. Inside, under the museum's lofty ceiling, models of oil derricks and oil installations, and black-and-white photos of ribbon-cuttings for hospitals and schools, abound. But asked about the social improvements that oil wealth has brought to his country and its 750,000 people, Abdul Latif, an official for the Bahrain Petroleum Company (BAPCO), turns reflective and equivocal.

"Oil has done a lot for Bahrain but it has also been a bitter enemy. We made a lot more from the sea," said Mr Latif, recalling the days when pearling sustained his family's seaside village - the era before Japanese entrepreneur Mikimoto Kokichi flooded the world market with cultured pearls in the 1930s. For all of the references in the museum to improved social welfare, they seem barely to hint at the tectonic changes that the discovery of oil has produced in the region. Still, there are hints of the happenstance and intrigue that forever changed the world of Mr Latif's family and countless others across the region.

A chronology stretching across one wall makes plain that until the 1932 discovery of oil in Bahrain, the Arabian Gulf had been all but an afterthought for most oil trackers. Vast oil fields surrounding the Caspian port city of Baku, where the first oil well was drilled in 1846, were yielding vast amounts of oil for companies operated by the Nobel brothers of Sweden and the Rothschild family of France. Oil also had been discovered in Iran, or what was then known as Persia, in 1908.

A picture of the mustachioed and square-jawed Frank Holmes, the New Zealand pharmacy owner, only begins to do justice to his determination. He ignored the advice of geologists who said eastern Arabia did "not present any decided promise for drilling on oil" and plunged ahead. According to The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money and Power, Daniel Yergin's 1991 magisterial study of the oil industry, Mr Holmes and Standard Oil of California (SoCal), which is now Chevron, were awarded the right to explore for oil in Bahrain only after he managed to strike something that Sheikh Hamad ibn Isa Al Khalifa, the ruler of Bahrain, deemed far more important: fresh water.

A copy of the agreement reached between the sheikh and SoCal underscores the overweening influence that foreign powers - and their emissaries clothed in knee-length shorts, knee high socks and pith helmets - held in the region. In signing the accord, the sheikh is "acting on the advice of the British political resident in the Persian Gulf", the text states. While the nattering of foreigners persists (writing in the museum guest book, one Niels Erik Jorgensen, advises, "Remember to turn the wealth from the oil into sustainable wealth for the people of Bahrain. It won't last 4 ever!"), the hydrocarbon epoch celebrated by the museum is giving way to a new era.

Although the ability of oil to provoke major crises and conflicts is likely to continue, now the talk is of a "non-carbon energy economy" and of the efforts such as the opening of a centre devoted to developing non-fossil fuels in the heart of one of fossil fuels' biggest producers - Abu Dhabi. Meanwhile, a further reminder of the sheer geographical luck that has graced many in the passing epoch comes not from any exhibits inside the museum but from Mohan, the Indian gardener tending flowers outside it.

"If we had discovered oil on Indian land, I'd be back in Kerala," he said ruefully." cnelson@thenational.ae