Before the Oil: vivid account of a vanished UAE now available in Arabic

A refreshed edition of Susan Hillyard's moving account of life in Abu Dhabi during the 1950s also features new archive photographs

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A vivid account of a lost Abu Dhabi is available in Arabic for the first time.

Before the Oil traces the four years that Susan Hillyard, her infant daughter Deborah and husband Tim spent in the sheikhdom from 1954 to 1958.

Abu Dhabi was then a village of simple palm frond huts that surrounded the only stone building, Qasr Al Hosn.

There were no paved roads, doctors or schools - let alone an airport. But this era was about to be swept away forever.

The Arabic edition, launched in Geneva a few days ago, features scores of new archive photographs that document those years.

There was no Mina Zayed in Abu Dhabi during the 1950s, and tins of petrol were unloaded on the beach where the Corniche is today. Courtesy Tim Hillyard

Deborah Henley was just nine-months-old when she arrived in the region and she showed some of these images of the town and her mother at the launch.

“It was her dream [to have this published in Arabic],” said Ms Henley, who now lives in the Swiss city.

“As someone who held Abu Dhabi and its people and culture dear, and as a teacher, she would have liked this book to be in every secondary school and every university, so that the young people could read about just how their grandparents and great grandparents lived, the difficulties they faced, their stoicism and yet how hospitable they were.”

The 1950s were tough times in the emirate. The collapse of the pearling industry had devastated the local economy, while the search for oil had entered its third, fruitless decade.

Tim Hillyard worked for British Petroleum and a renewed effort to find oil under the seabed had begun.

They were the first European couple to move to Abu Dhabi and the Hillyards - who were British - built the first house featuring luxuries such air conditioning.

It was a time of kerosene-powered fridges, tinned meat and, occasionally, dugong stew.

They also provided rudimentary medical services to local people and forged long-lasting friendships with them and their rulers. Susan also kept a detailed diary, on which she based Before the Oil.

“My father encouraged my mother to keep these diaries, keenly aware that if oil was found the way of life in Abu Dhabi would change forever,” said Ms Henley.

Susan became known as “Umm Deborah”, or mother of Deborah, and learned Arabic. The book mixes historical record with personal observations such as one interaction between a guard and a visitor at the Maqta customs crossing into Abu Dhabi island when Tim’s truck became stuck in the sabkha (salt flat).

“Peace upon you.”

“And upon you be peace. What is the news?”

“There is no news. By God, Al Yard’s [Hillyard’s] lorry is stuck in the sabkha.”

“In God’s name what a mess!”

“What is to be done? It is the will of God. At least there are no camels involved.”

Fishing on board Faares, the wooden boat that the Hillyards used. Courtesy Susan Hillyard

Oil was discovered in 1958 just as the Hillyards were leaving the sheikhdom. Tim died in 1973, Susan in 2014 at the age of 87, and now her daughters - Deborah and Susanna Todd - are responsible for the literary estate.

The book was first published in 2002 and the new Arabic edition includes a foreword by Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak, Minister of Tolerance.

It was launched in the presence of the UAE’s ambassador to the UN, Obaid Al Zaabi, and it is hoped an event to mark its publication in Arabic will take place in Abu Dhabi later this year.

“You are the only person who remembers Abu Dhabi as it was, Umm Deborah,” Susan was told in a letter after she had left the country.

“The present always overlays the past so that it gets forgotten in a generation or so unless it gets written down.”

That letter came from Sheikh Zayed, the late President of the UAE, asking her to write a book.

“This was Sheikh Zayed’s wish and my mother's hope,” said Ms Henley. “Her children and grandchildren are proud to have achieved this.

“Without the long-standing support and advice of Sheikh Nahyan and of old friends in the UAE it would never have happened. We are deeply grateful to him, to friends and family in the UK and Switzerland and to those involved in the translation."

Before the Oil: A Personal Memoir of Abu Dhabi, 1954 to 1958, costs Dh96 and is available at bookshops such as Kinokuniya and Magrudy's and from