Saved from death: how Abu Dhabi rescued Hajj pilgrims abandoned in the Empty Quarter

Dozens of pilgrims set off from Burma for Makkah in 1956-1957 but were left stranded in the desert after their guides abandoned them

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Two haunted faces stare out from the past. The man looks shocked and perhaps a little angry. The woman seems broken. Both clutch cards with names replaced by numbers and a language they almost certainly cannot read and barely understand.

Their identity cards are all that have survived. The man is 032080, the woman recorded as 036559, their real names unknown.

Both are part of a larger group of 83 men, women and children. Theirs is a familiar story, fleeing poverty and persecution only to eventually fall into the hands of people smugglers.

A Burmese Muslim man holds his ID card issued by the Burmese government. He had fled the country in 1957 hoping to perform Hajj and was rescued in Abu Dhabi.

In an overcrowded boat they travelled by sea, to be dumped, unceremoniously, without food and water on a deserted and unfamiliar shore. Only by a miracle did they escape death.

It is a familiar story, but this is not 2021 and overcrowded rubber boats making their way across the English Channel or sinking in the Mediterranean from Africa. Instead it is Abu Dhabi, on the eve of Hajj 1957.

The group, mostly families, were from Burma, today officially Myanmar. They were Muslims, from villages and towns close to what is now the border of Bangladesh but was then East Pakistan.

Today, we would probably identify them as Rohingya, a stateless people whose current persecution by the Myanmar authorities is well recorded.

The miracle that spared their lives was a long range patrol by the Trucial Oman Scouts, the internal security force of British officers and Arab soldiers that kept order in the days before the creation of the United Arab Emirates.

Another two days and the officer would have found 100 corpse
Susan Hillyard, author of 'Before the Oil'

In early May 1957, the patrol had reached Khor Al Odaid, a finger of land that stretches into the Arabian Gulf and which marks Abu Dhabi’s northern border.

As the soldiers stopped for a cigarette break, their commanding officer climbed a sand dune to take in the view. What he saw was later recorded by Susan Hillyard, a resident of Abu Dhabi at the time, for her book Before the Oil.

“Below his unbelieving eyes was a group of about 100 dark-skinned people, men, women, babies, children.

“One of the men looked up and tried to shout. The officer roared for his men to bring all the water they had. They spoke no known language, a baby had been born the day before.

“Another two days and the officer would have found 100 corpses.”

The group had been trying to reach Makkah, to perform Hajj, beginning that year on July 7. They were pilgrims, but also refugees. All the evidence suggests they had no desire to return to Burma, where, as Muslims, they were the minority and claimed to face violence from communist fighters.

Boats, including the Ruler’s personal dhow, were arranged to bring the group to Abu Dhabi, where shelter was found, including one of the town’s handful of mosques. Gradually, their story began to emerge, preserved today, more than 60 years later, in an archived file from the British government.

The group had left Burma, where they lived around Maungdow, a town across the border from Bangladesh and close to the city of Cox’s Bazaar, which today includes the Kutupelong refugee camp, home to tens of thousands of Rohingya who have fled persecution in Myanmar.

From Maungdow they crossed the border and made their way via Chittagong. Here they were able to use Burmese ID cards, rather than passports to buy tickets on the British India Line steamer Aronda for Karachi.

After spending a week in Karachi, they found another ship to take them to Dubai, where, with further negotiations, they obtained the services of a local nakhoda, or sea captain.

For a price, he agreed to take them in his dhow to Qatar, which should have been one of the safer land routes to Makkah.

Instead he landed them at Khor Al Odaid, even today one of the least populated parts of Abu Dhabi. The nakhoda was reported to have pointed inland with the words “Makkah that way. Not far.”

According to the official investigation, the group had also paid 800 rupees to “a group of scoundrels from Sind, who promised to guide them inland, but absconded in the night leaving them without food or water”.

They were left facing a 1,300 kilometre trek across the pitiless sands of Rub’ Al Khali, the Empty Quarter. The nearest Saudi Arabia city was Riyadh, 550 kilometres away. In the soaring heat of May, all would have perished in a matter of days.

Sand dunes in the desert region of Saudi Arabia known as the 'Empty Quarter', 1959. (Photo by Keystone Features/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Now safe for the moment in Abu Dhabi, their troubles were only beginning. Like many refugees today, they discovered that everyone seemed keen for them to move on somewhere else, but that no one was willing to accept them.

For Abu Dhabi, which was also caring for another 150 pilgrims whose dhow had broken down before it could reach Qatar, the influx was becoming expensive.

This was a time before oil had been discovered, and the town, with barely 2,000 inhabitants, was not the wealthy city of today. The Ruler of Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Shakhbut bin Sultan, argued, reasonably, that since Britain had taken responsibility for his country’s external affairs under a century-old treaty, the UK should pay its share of the bill.

Sheikh Shakhbut bin Sultan, Ruler of Abu Dhabi from 1928 to 1966, with two of his Land Rovers at Qasr Al Hosn, in 1956. The cars are flying the original flag of Abu Dhabi, which added a white corner in 1958.

London, meanwhile, felt the group should be returned home to either Burma or Pakistan at either country’s expense. Neither, though, recognised them as its citizens. Hopes that Qatar might admit them to continue to Makkah were also dashed.

Diplomatic exchanges from 1957 reveal the full extent of the problem. “As these pilgrims are destitute, the political officer in Abu Dhabi has been obliged to feed them and give them medical attention,” one dispatch complained.

It was calculated for two weeks' “minimum rations” Her Majesty’s government had spent 1,715 Gulf rupees — the local currency at that time — or 180 rupees a day, equally to £12, or £250 today, allowing for inflation.

Pakistan insisted that the group were Burmese. Burma claimed that the ID cards most carried were simply residence visas issued to foreigners.

“In the event of neither the Pakistanis nor the Burmese accepting responsibility the bill will, I imagine, remain ours,” a British official noted miserably.

Another problem was that many of the ID cards had become illegible with time, and were in a language that could not be translated locally. Still, there is enough surviving material in the files to give some indication who they were.

After translation by a former employee of the Burma Oil Company, now living in Bahrain, the man identified as 032080 was recorded on his ID card as being born in Sakhuya, a village near Maungdaw, and the woman, 036559, was from Hplekletbyin, also in Maungdaw.

Almost all the ID cards that could be read showed that the holders had, in fact, been born in Burma. Most were in family groups, and several in poor health. Within weeks, two had died, but there had also been two births.

A Muslim woman from Burma holds her ID card issued by the Burmese government. She had fled the country in 1957 hoping to perform Hajj and was rescued in Abu Dhabi.

They seem to have shown no sign of wanting to go back to Burma. After independence in 1948, the north of the country saw a bitter insurgency between the communists and the official government in Rangoon. As Muslims in a Buddhist-majority country, the pilgrims claimed to have been driven from their homes by communist fighters.

Shipping them to Pakistan was considered, but unless Pakistani citizenship could be proved, they would not be accepted, and this seemed impossible.

A plan to charter a boat to Karachi was drawn up at a cost of today's equivalent of £12,500 (Dh61,000), plus daily maintenance of £1,000. Again, no one was willing to pay up.

London tried another tack. Since Pakistan had allowed the group to travel to Dubai without passports, they were the responsibility of Karachi where they had boarded. Karachi disagreed.

By June 1957, nearly half the group had left Abu Dhabi, although it was not yet clear where they had gone.

Abu Dhabi during the 1950s. Tins of petrol are unloaded on the beach, where the Corniche is today. Courtesy: Tim Hillyard

In October, a British official travelled to Abu Dhabi, and found only one man, Amir Wazsiddin, who was working as a barber. The others, he said, had gone to Karachi and he planned to follow once he had enough money.

The huge sign of relief breathed by Britain did not last long. It emerged that the group had actually moved to Dubai, travelling overland to avoid immigration sea patrols.

They were now said to be living in Diera’s Naif district, a warren of streets surrounding a souq. “Some are beggars, others coolies. At least one has died,” a British official reported.

A month later it was rumoured that a labour shortage in Dubai meant they had earned enough money to sail to Karachi. True or not, for London the matter was officially closed.

While this was the most dramatic, there are numerous other reports of people smuggling along the Arabian Gulf during this time, particularly for the Hajj pilgrimage.

Anthony Rundell , second left, in 1960 as a squadron leader in the Trucial Oman Scouts with some of his men and their camels in Al Ain

Anthony Rundell, who served in the Trucial Oman Scouts between 1960 and 1962, says he heard several similar cases.

“There were reports of bedraggled groups of pilgrims being put ashore west of Abu Dhabi towards Mirfa – an area then completely undeveloped except for the oil company,” he recalls.

“A group was landed with shouts from the dhow skipper of “Makkah over there” pointing to the barren desert as they set out with no food or water from the barren shore while the dhow pulled out into the Gulf.”

Death, inevitably claimed many of them, with a disregard for human life that Hillyard, for one, at first found hard to believe.

“I told you I had met the sole survivor of a party of 40 in the interior,” Martin Buckmaster, the British political agent for Abu Dhabi, told Hillyard. “But you wouldn’t believe me.”

Hajj in the 1950s

Updated: July 19, 2021, 4:00 AM