Early adviser on UAE borders dies

Academic who became an expert on the Gulf questioned British withdrawal for leaving small states in the lurch.

Prof J B Kelly
Powered by automated translation

Professor JB Kelly, an authority on the Gulf region who advised Sheikh Zayed, the founding president of the UAE, on disputed borders with Saudi Arabia and Qatar, has died at the age of 84. Prof Kelly wrote several books on the Gulf, including his work in 1968, Britain and the Persian Gulf 1795-1880, which, according to an obituary in The Daily Telegraph in London, established him at the time as the leading academic authority on the region's history.

He would later question Britain's withdrawal from the Gulf, the Telegraph said, on the grounds that it had destabilised the region and left small states to fend for themselves against their larger neighbours. This notion was strengthened as a result of his efforts, as adviser to Sheikh Zayed in 1971, to help the UAE keep the Khawr al-Udaid inlet, an area that is still under dispute. The Telegraph said John Barrett Kelly was born in Auckland, New Zealand, on April 5, 1925, the son of a chemist who died when he was two. Poor eyesight disqualified him from active service and he spent the Second World War on the docks in Auckland, later becoming a teacher in, among other places, Egypt. He moved to England to become a research fellow at the Institute of Colonial Studies at Oxford University from 1955 until 1958.

Prof Kelly first visited the Gulf in 1957, one of what the newspaper called a rare new breed of expatriates who first stopped in Iraq before travelling to what was then known as the Trucial Coast at a time when "the only Europeans in Abu Dhabi ? were oil men, diplomats or soldiers". The knowledge he acquired of the Gulf region made him much sought after by the British Foreign Office, said the Telegraph. Prof Kelly would serve as adviser on boundary disputes between the Trucial States (including those that subsequently became the UAE), Oman and Saudi Arabia - work that subsequently formed the basis for much of his first book, Eastern Arabian Frontiers, published in 1964.

He was introduced to Sheikh Shakhbut, who was then Ruler of Abu Dhabi, and his brother and successor Sheikh Zayed, and would remain firm friends with both. He was also photographed shaking hands with Sheikh Rashid bin Humaid of Ajman in 1957. The obituary in the Telegraph described Prof Kelly as "one of the foremost commentators on the Middle East", a view evidently shared in Washington, where he made his mark on American foreign policy after his advice was sought as a visiting research fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center and the Heritage Foundation in the early 1980s.

In 1980, Prof Kelly published Arabia, the Gulf and the West in which he set out his view that the British should not have withdrawn from the Gulf region. mchung@thenational.ae