Nostalgia in Pall Mall

At the annual luncheon of the Abu Dhabi Sixties Group in London, members fondly and proudly remember their time spent in the Trucial States, writes Jonathan Gornall

Members of the Abu Dhabi Sixties Group last month at their annual lunch at the Oxford and Cambridge Club in London. Left to right, David Spearing, Ruth Raeburn-Ward, Edna Green, Neville Green, John Grundon, Peter Raeburn-Ward, Lady Anne Walker and Sir Harold Walker.  Stephen Lock for The National
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On a late Thursday morning in London's clubland, once the heart of the British Empire, few of the office workers hurrying to lunch paid much attention to the handful of elderly men and women who slipped through the elegant Corinthian columns guarding the entrance to the 19th-century Oxford & Cambridge Club on Pall Mall.
If they had, they might have noticed a certain something about them – a spring in the step and straightness of back that belied age and owed something, perhaps, to their having lived through interesting times in what was once one of the more out-of-the-way postings.
Veterans of Abu Dhabi in the 1960s, they gathered in a small dining room at the rear of the club. They had come to remember a time when they were pioneers in a harsh land, at a moment when the sun that was rapidly setting on their empire was simultaneously lighting the way ahead for an embryonic nation taking its first steps.
Each left their mark on the nation that would grow to become the UAE – just as that nation would leave its mark on them.
Not that everyone was convinced in the early days that the collection of minor sheikhdoms then still known as the Trucial States had any kind of a future.
"Frankly, we all thought it was going to go back into the sand," recalled Miles Stockwell, now 69, and one of the first guests to arrive.
His first sight of Abu Dhabi and Dubai had been in March 1968, as a young British soldier.
As the four-engine Bristol Britannia on which he was travelling from Bahrain to RAF Sharjah flew along the Gulf coast to Abu Dhabi and beyond, he gazed down – and saw "not a lot".
He and his fellow officers, he says, "would never have believed what it has become today".
Back then, he was a 24-year-old captain seconded from his regiment to command a squadron in the Trucial Oman Scouts (TOS), a force that had been set up by the British in the 1950s to keep the peace among the emirates.
He'd hoped for a posting to Oman, where "there was a chance of some kind of action. But it was full that year, and this was the nearest place".
During his time in the Trucial States, there was thankfully no action to match the bitter insurgency that had begun in the neighbouring Sultanate of Oman in 1962 and would last until 1976.
Captain Stockwell did, however, have some excitement.
His first incident, two months after his arrival, was a shooting between two tribes in Ras Al Khaimah. Keeping the peace, he recalls, "I sat there for three weeks in a tent", but there was an up side: "I learnt Arabic pretty quickly".
He served three years in the TOS, leaving in November 1970. But despite the lack of creature comforts – including proper roads and air conditioning – something about the place clearly got under his skin.
Five years later, word reached him that Sheikh Rashid of Dubai was recruiting soldiers.
Without hesitating, he applied and spent the next three years serving in the Dubai Defence Force.
And he wasn't done with the place. Inspired by Sheikh Rashid's vision for Dubai – "we were pretty keen on him" – when he left the army in 1975, he returned immediately and started a trading business.
Most of the British who came in the early days worked, of course, for the oil industry, whose persistence in the search for oil – which began in the 1930s and finally paid off in the1960s – laid the groundwork for the transformation of the Trucial States.
In the summer of 1964, John Grundon, 33, a veteran of eight years with BP, found himself in Abu Dhabi as leave replacement for the company's chief local representative.
His job was keeping the ruler informed about what was going on out on Das Island, centre of offshore oil exploration.
At that time, the ruler was Sheikh Shakhbut, who "was rather opposed to any sort of development," recalls Grundon, now 81, who got to know and like the ruler during frequent meetings in Qasr Al Hosn, the 18th-century fort that survives as Abu Dhabi's oldest stone building.
Grundon stayed just four months. When he returned to Abu Dhabi in May 1967, he found that everything – including the ruler – had changed.
Shakhbut had been succeeded by his younger brother, Sheikh Zayed, whose priority was to improve the lives of his people.
In such momentous times, excitement was never far away.
Shortly after Grundon arrived, the 1967 war broke out, and "the widespread belief among Arabs was that Britain and France were in collusion with the Israelis, and that led to a certain amount of problems".
The workforce had begun to organise itself and there was an attempt to ban French and British tankers from loading at Das island.
Zayed, however, showed himself to be an able and pragmatic leader.
"He realised that would be rather damaging economically, and said to us: 'We will carry on filling tankers that belong to you, or that are chartered by you, but would you kindly avoid sending in any of the BP tankers?', so we kept those away."
It was, says Peter Raeburn-Ward, 73, another former BP man and the organiser of the get-together, "a pretty special era. We were all, in our own way, pioneers".
He was posted to Das Island in September 1967, responsible for 2,000 workers as personnel officer for the non-British staff.
In 1969, the administration office moved to Abu Dhabi Island, where he was joined by his wife, Ruth.
She became one of the first teachers at The British School Al Khubairat.
Their son, James, would be born in the Corniche Hospital in 1986.
Prior to Abu Dhabi, Raeburn-Ward had worked for BP in California, where, on an immigrant visa, he only narrowly avoided being called up for the Vietnam War – and Kenya, "where we were shot at by Somali freedom fighters".
All in all, by the time he got to Das Island in 1967 "I was pretty well experienced".
Abu Dhabi, however, proved a different kind of adventure: "The marvellous experience of being in a country that was really just about to happen, but which had amazing links to the past. We were privileged to mix with the Abu Dhabians as friends".
He left Abu Dhabi in 1971, but returned again 20 years later to work with Abu Dhabi Gas Liquefaction (Adgas).
"When I went up to Buraimi and Al Ain, I was bumping into people who remembered me from the Das Island days."
He smiles at the memory.
"We had this group of young Abu Dhabians, we trained them and groomed them to be senior managers and they grew up with us. And they remained our friends because they were part of our family."
Now, sadly, the British branch of that family is dwindling in number.
Although the London reunion "went extraordinarily well", said Raeburn-Ward, from a potential list of 40 only 18 made it.
"Some of the old-timers didn't come for a variety of reasons," he said, "But it is a 50s-60s event, and we have to learn to lose some of them along the wayside, I'm afraid."
Those that remain, however, take justifiable pride in having played a part in the birth of a nation.
"What the UAE's achieved is amazing," said Raeburn-Ward, as he sat down with the others to reminisce over a lunch of guinea fowl.
"What impresses the most is that it's used its oil wealth to create something which is very, very viable, which is going to take them a long way."
Jonathan Gornall is a frequent contributor to The Review