Grande dame of Abu Dhabi dies aged 100 after lifetime in the Gulf

Jocelyn Henderson, the wife of a former British diplomat, was a voice in her own right

Jocelyn Henderson, aged 19, during the Second World War. Photo: Jocelyn Henderson
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“I wasn’t expected to have an opinion and certainly not to share it in public,” Jocelyn Henderson once said of her life as the wife of a senior British diplomat.

Yet hers was a life hardly lived in the shadows. Nor was she ever short of an opinion, as revealed in her memoir The Gulf Wife, a title perhaps more than slightly tongue in cheek.

Her death, this month, at the age of 100, deprives Abu Dhabi not just of a formidable grande dame, but also severs a connection to a world few can now recall.

The memories are still very fresh for me, but I’m afraid that I get very bored by them now. I prefer to look forwards
Jocelyn Henderson

In 1960 Jocelyn Nenk married Edward Henderson, a British diplomat who had joined the UK’s Foreign Office in 1956 after previously working for an oil company and military service that included evacuation from the beaches of Dunkirk.

Henderson had also fought with the Arab Legion in Jordan and Syria and, in what was to be a lifetime of association with the Middle East, continued as political agent for Abu Dhabi and later British ambassador to Qatar.

At the time of their marriage, Henderson had been in his post at Abu Dhabi for a year, although he was long familiar with the country and its culture, traditions and leaders, including the Founding Father, Sheikh Zayed.

For Jocelyn, then 36, the security of marriage also came with, in public at least, a loss of her own identity, after a career as an independent woman that included private secretary to Sarah Churchill, the actor and daughter of Sir Winston Churchill, and working for Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, two of the giants of British film-making.

 Provided photo from  Jocelyn Henderson 's memior " Gulf Wife " Photo shows her In Jordan, while stationed in Jerusalem
 Courtesy  Jocelyn Henderson

Dutiful in her support of Henderson, with whom she would have two daughters, she once described her existence in an interview with The National as “the perfect vision of an expatriate wife”.

“I never spoke out of turn, I always made small talk with a visiting dignitary and put all of my energy into entertaining his endless flow of visitors.”

Her husband she described as “the last Victorian gentleman” who presented his bride with a copy of Lady Troubridge’s The Book of Etiquette, to better understand her new duties.

It included such advice as: “A gentleman, on entering a lift where a lady is present, should in all circumstances take it upon himself to remove his hat.”

This was far removed from a world about to be swept aside by youth culture and the music of the Rolling Stones and the Beatles. Yet it was also serious stuff.

The wife of a diplomat was under as much scrutiny as her husband. The unspoken question was “is it OK to let her loose in public?” she said.

“‘Does she use her knife and fork properly? Does she know how to behave?’ And if the answer was negative, this spelt the death knell for her husband’s career.”

Living first in Bahrain, then effectively a British colony, she moved to London after the birth of their first child, and only knew Abu Dhabi as a visitor, when she accompanied her husband on his regular trips to visit the Ruler.

Three years later, the formation of the UAE in December 1971 ended Britain’s role in the region and also the post of political agent, with Henderson appointed ambassador to Qatar, a post he held until retirement in 1974.

Henderson found it difficult to settle in Britain, and was happy to return to Abu Dhabi in 1976, where he was invited by Sheikh Zayed to create the National Centre for Documentation and Research to be based at Qasr Al Hosn, the former Ruler’s palace. The city was to become their home for the rest of their lives.

The capital was undergoing rapid transformation, and with it a huge influx of foreign workers that swelled the expatriate community, of which Jocelyn was now a senior member.

13 - February - 2014, Royal Stables, Abu Dhabi

Jocelyn Henderson, 92 Years old who runs the Daly Library which is closing. Fatima Al Marzooqi/ The National.

St Andrew’s Anglican church, where she became a warden, was one area where she could contribute, while in 1978 she founded the Daly Library, one of the city’s first private libraries, staying involved until it was closed in 2014, a victim of Kindle and the internet marketplace.

By then Jocelyn was 92, and living in a villa in the Royal Stables. Henderson had died in 1995, and for a while his widow found herself bereft of purpose.

“It took me many years to find out what to do with my time and, in fact, to find my voice again,” she said. “In many ways, throughout my married life, I was very much the silent partner.”

The publication of her memoir in 2014 allowed her to make public many of her true feelings. Wilfred Thesiger, the British explorer and a close friend of her husband, she described as arrogant, saying: “I didn’t like him much, he hated women. He was afraid of them.”

She celebrated her 100th birthday at her villa in August, with a visit from Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak, the Minister of Tolerance. Abu Dhabi, her home for 45 years, she described as a place where “you feel as if you are constantly moving, even if you are actually staying still".

Of her life, she said: “The memories are still very fresh for me, but I’m afraid that I get very bored by them now. I prefer to look forwards.”

Updated: November 18, 2021, 4:20 AM