The Englishman who chronicled a disappearing way of life in what became the UAE

Today Peter Lienhardt is almost forgotten, despite a landmark study of Emirati life and culture in the 1950s

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Passing through the towns of Abu Dhabi, Dubai and the Northern Emirates, or among the Bedouin of the desert nearly 70 years ago, you might have encountered a strange and unexpected wanderer.

Sometimes wearing a white kandura and constantly writing in a notebook, he was obviously European: pale skinned with large glasses and a shock of fair hair.

In fact he was an Englishman, an anthropologist working on his doctorate at the University of Oxford. The subject was the peoples of the northern Arabian Gulf and for three years he moved among them, studying their culture and customs.

His thesis, hidden from public view for more than half a century, is now a unique record of a way of life that would soon pass, swept away by the modernising forces of an oil economy.

Peter Lienhardt was about to turn 25 when he arrived in what is now the UAE and was then under the protection of Britain.

Peter Lienhardt wearing a bisht or Arab cloak in his study at Oxford University in the late 1950s or early 1960s. Photo: Estate of Peter Lienhardt

Born in Yorkshire to an English mother and Swiss father, he won a scholarship to the University of Cambridge, where, an accomplished linguist, he soon mastered Arabic and Persian for his bachelor's degree.

For his compulsory military service, he worked monitoring and translating Arabic and Persian at Bletchley Park, Britain’s top secret operation where Alan Turing and his team had cracked the wartime Nazi Enigma codes.

Resuming his university studies after national service, Lienhardt combined his interest in the Arab world and anthropology, first with a master's degree on the Northern Arabs at Oxford University, and then with a proposal for a doctorate that would involve several years of fieldwork in the Arabian Gulf.

Helped by a scholarship from the British treasury, he travelled first to Kuwait in 1952, but found the traditional way of life already fast disappearing, noting that “as the people get richer they are often busier and less accessible”.

The problem was oil, and the changes it had brought to Kuwait, with an influx of outsiders in such large numbers that they were no longer a novelty but an intrusion.

“As the number of foreign visitors increases, they cease to have the interest of being curiosities, so much so that company which was formerly open and easy going becomes remote and formal,” he noted with regret.

But there was another region uncontaminated by modern life. Oil had not yet been discovered in the Trucial States, seven emirates that included Dubai and Abu Dhabi.

In search of the traditonal Arabian way of life, Lienhardt travelled east down the Gulf, arriving in what is now the UAE.

His completed work would include every aspect of a way of life that was essentially unchanged for generations. He studied the differing cultures of life in the towns and in the desert, the roles of men and women and the relationship between the people and their rulers.

Compassionate, and with polite inquiry, he was welcomed into the homes, tents and majlises, even if people might be confused at first by his interest in their lives, and his formal Arabic, so different from the Khaleeji dialect, which he quickly had to master.

To the tiny population of westerners, mostly oilmen, diplomats and soldiers, he must also have been a curiosity.

One who remembered him was Susan Hillyard, who lived in Abu Dhabi from 1954 to 1958. Lienhardt, she recalled in her 2002 memoir Before the Oil, “looked very meek and gentle, with fair, curly hair and went around handing out medicines and asking endless questions”.

His appearance, however, “disguised a razor-sharp mind. His Arabic was excellent”, she said.

Sheikh Shakhbut with Susan Hillyard and her daughter Deborah in Abu Dhabi in the winter of 1957. Photo: Susan Hillyard

His fieldwork complete, Lienhardt returned to Oxford in 1956, two years before oil was discovered in Abu Dhabi. Further studies took him to the East Africa coast and the city of Isfahan in Iran.

Ahmed Al Shahi first met him in as a student in 1962, when Lienhardt became his post-graduate supervisor.

The two men developed a close friendship that lasted the rest of Lienhardt’s life and resulted, eventually, in Mr Al Shahi becoming his literary executor.

He deserves to be better known
Ahmed Al Shahi on Peter Lienhardt

“He was very kind, very helpful and very thoughtful, with many friends from Iran, East Africa and the Gulf,” Mr Al Shahi said. “He was always ready to put himself out for his students.”

He found life in Abu Dhabi difficult at times, Mr Al Shahi said, complaining about a diet consisting largely of rice and fish, and could find the interest in him as a westerner sometimes intrusive, but “he liked the Arabs” and kept his passion for the region and the people all his life. "He deserves to be better known," said Mr Al Shali, who lives in Oxford.

Lienhardt was a prolific writer, both as an academic and in letters, with a book, The Medicine Man, and several articles on the Gulf appearing in his lifetime, but much of his work remained unpublished.

His landmark doctorate was accepted by Oxford in 1957 but stayed sealed from public view because Lienhardt felt some of the material was too sensitive for general reading while its subjects were still alive.

He had also continued to revise and edit the work, a task finally completed after his death by Mr Al Shahi and eventually published as a book, Shaikhdoms of Eastern Arabia, in 2001 and in association with St Anthony's College, the leading centre for Middle East studies where Lienhardt had taught.

Mr Al Shahi has also edited his early Letters from Kuwait, published by the Centre for Research and Studies on Kuwait in 2017, the and is now working on Lienhardt’s letters from the Arab Emirates of the Gulf, the East Africa Coast and Isfahan (Iran), sent to his parents and brother Godfrey, which he hopes to see in print in the new year.

Peter Lienhardt with Sheikh Shakhbut bin Sultan Al Nahyan, Ruler of Abu Dhabi, outside Qasr Al Hosn. Possibly in 1961. Photo: Estate of Peter Lienhardt

Lienhardt returned to Abu Dhabi for a brief postscript in 1961.

He had developed a friendship with the Ruler, Sheikh Shakhbut bin Sultan, who persuaded him to take up the post as his adviser.

Lienhardt went home after three months to Oxford, where Godfrey was also teaching.

He would spend the rest of his life in academia. The two siblings were close, and neither married. Heavy smokers, they both contracted cancer, eventually dying from the disease, Peter six years before his brother, in 1986. He never returned to the Emirates.

Updated: December 05, 2022, 6:23 PM