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Reflections on the Gulf

Based on personal memories, Gerald Butt evokes the atmosphere in the Gulf at the dawn of the oil boom era

The stench of oil in the air is one of the things I remember most vividly from my childhood. At the height of summer in Bahrain the discharge from the Sitra refinery seemed to hang like droplets in the intense humidity. The sour stench wouldn't go away—at home in Manama, in the car on the way to school, anywhere.

Bahrain in the late-1950s was the hub of the Gulf oil industry, as it was for regional diplomacy, trade and finance. So while my father was manager of the British Bank of the Middle East (BBME) in Bahrain, he was in charge of all the branches in the Gulf.

The Gulf in those days was emerging from the shadow of Britain's imperial past. Having been administered from British India, the rupee was still the only currency in circulation. Ships of the British India Steam Navigation Company plied the Gulf ports. My school was at the Royal Air Force base at Muharraq airport, and the top adviser to the ruler of Bahrain was a Briton.

The most dramatic change at the end of the fifties was the emergence of the Gulf as a major oil-producing region. Bahrain was an early starter in the oil business, thus its prominent role at that time. Kuwait's energy sector was advancing fast and Qatar was close behind. Exploration work offshore Abu Dhabi was looking extremely promising. But compared with cosmopolitan Dubai, a centuries-old trading centre, and certainly with Bahrain, Abu Dhabi was largely off the map.

In an effort to prepare Abu Dhabi for its imminent future as an oil producer, British diplomats persuaded its ruler, Shaikh Shakhbut bin Sultan Al Nahyan, of the benefits of having a banking sector. Shaikh Shakhbut was distrustful of modernisation and is said to have kept the emirate's wealth under his bed.

My father was given the task of setting up the first bank, which he did in 1959. My mother, Muriel, accompanied him for the official opening of the BBME in Abu Dhabi. Her journal describes the flight on a Gulf Aviation Heron aircraft. "The pilot," she wrote, "landed his plane on a sand runway between two lines of oil drums." There were no formalities to be endured: "One isn't worried by passport examination, customs, etc in Abu Dhabi. I wonder how long this pleasant state of travel will last."

The airstrip, Muriel said, had been "levelled and a lot of loose sand removed. But over the rest of Abu Dhabi one sinks in at each step, and in places it's a foot deep. Soft, fine, white and powdery sand, which gives off a strong glare."

On being driven to the newly completed bank house, she discovered that "the only way to keep going on that deep sand is to drive at speed in a zigzag fashion. Wheel marks are quickly covered by the fine sand, and here and there oil drums mark out the best track through a particularly bad patch."

Outside the house, the cooking of several whole sheep for the evening feast to mark the bank's opening had begun. A sofa had been placed at the far end of the living room for the guest of honour, Shaikh Shakhbout, who was to be presented with a gun flown out from Britain. Before the all-male guests arrived, Muriel was sent upstairs.

As for Abu Dhabi itself, my mother wrote that "the ruler's palace, an impressive fortress gleaming white in the hot sun, dominates the little town. Near the palace is the Police Camp." Otherwise, she noticed only "a few houses and shops".

On the flight back to Bahrain, the Heron flew over Das Island—"like an elongated khaki pocket handkerchief floating on a very blue sea"—the base for offshore drilling and from where exports would soon begin, marking the start of Abu Dhabi's meteoric rise into the ranks of major global oil producers.

My mother often said she was glad to have seen Abu Dhabi before the change. Her description of waking at dawn after the feast reads like an elegy to a world that's about to disappear: "A fresh breeze was blowing off the sea. There was an enchantment about Abu Dhabi at that hour of the morning, the rapidly rising sun throwing the palm trees into relief against a pearly pink sky, which gradually turned to a deep, deep blue. A long expanse of unspoilt coast was in front of us, with strong rolling waves breaking on the beach in foam-crested beauty." And, she might have added, not even a whiff of oil in the air.

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