Meet the British expat celebrating 50 years of living and working in Abu Dhabi

David Heard is a British petroleum engineer who arrived in Abu Dhabi in 1963 – and never left. His career blossomed, his family grew and so did the emirate. James Langton and Bushra Alkaff Al Hashemi chart the extraordinary life of a much-respected figure.

David Heard with his wife, Frauke, and children in the UAE in 1985. Courtesy David Heard / Frauke Heard-Bey
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Most expatriates return home after a few years of tax-free income and winter sunshine.

Those who live in the UAE for more than five years are considered old hands. Those who stay for a decade are veterans.

David Heard arrived in Abu Dhabi in the second half of 1963. He is still here.

This week, Mr Heard celebrates 50 years of living and working in Abu Dhabi. He is the elder statesman of the city’s British community by some margin, but also equally familiar in the majlis and known and respected by the Emirati population.

When he arrived, as petroleum engineer for the Abu Dhabi Petroleum Company (ADPC), it was barely a year after the first shipment of oil. Abu Dhabi had no road and had barely acquired a fresh water supply. The foundation of the UAE was still eight years away.

One of the first to meet him was Mohan Jashanmal, who arrived with his family in the city in late 1964 to run the department store that still carries his family name.

“It was the only department store in town, so he would come in almost every day,” Mr Jashanmal recalls. “Coming to Jashanmal’s was like the only entertainment in town, with the newspapers and magazines arriving every day.”

After knowing Mr Heard for many years, he says: “For David, what was important was making a contribution to society not just working. It did not matter who he was helping. It was a small community then, very much like one family.”

Frauke Heard-Bey, his German-born wife, followed Mr Heard to Abu Dhabi in 1967, and two years later she joined the National Centre for Documentation and Research, then based in Qasr Al Hosn.

One of those who remembers the couple from those years is Ian Alston, whose fluency in Arabic led to his posting to the oilfields around Tarif in 1967, a year after Sheikh Zayed became Ruler of the emirate.

Now a consultant living in Muscat, Mr Alston initially met Mr Heard, by now based in the city, on his regular field trips to the Western Region. “I remember he was one of the few people — he was a petroleum engineer — who had a good grasp of the local people and the officials in Abu Dhabi.

“He was one of those people who empathised with the locals and was sympathetic to them.”

Outside work, Mr Heard was one of the central figures in the establishment of the British School Al Khubairat, with land donated by Sheikh Zayed in 1968, and where the first pupils arrived in 1971. He later served as its chairman. In 2000 he was honoured by Queen Elizabeth and made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE), for his services to the oil industry and the British community in Abu Dhabi.

Jackie Schwartz, an Abu Dhabi resident who worked for him at ADPC in the 1980s and 90s, says Mr Heard worked hard to make sure the British School project went as planned; as she describes it, with “quiet conversations in the majlis in the evenings”.

She says: “He has a quietly spoken, understated, modest manner. He always maintained that a British education of a certain quality was highly desirable.”

Zaki Nusseibeh, who became Sheikh Zayed’s translator in 1968 and serves as a cultural adviser to the Ministry of Presidential Affairs, has known Mr Heard since the late 1960s.

He calls the couple “a great example of a multinational family” who were “totally able to integrate well with Emirati society and always be welcomed”.

After retiring in 2007, Mr Heard and his wife remain in Abu Dhabi. “Many expats would want to retire and go back to their mother country,” says Mr Nusseibeh. The Heards, though, “did not look upon their time here as a just a job. They look on Abu Dhabi as their home, and are proud of the changes that took place”.

Many of those who know Mr Heard well say his empathy with the local culture plays a large part in the affection with which he is held.

Abdullah Mohammed Al Rumathi, from the days when he was a child, recalls Mr Heard sitting in his family majlis. On Thursdays, he remembers, Mr Heard would visit Ahmed Khalifa Al Suwaidi, the first foreign minister of the UAE.

“David is a humble man,” he says. “He drank our water and ate our food, even when it was on the floor. He adopted our ways in all dimensions, but above all he was an extremely respectable man who respected everyone around him.

“He is a man who cares. At that time people were in constant need of water and supply and he cared about his friends. True friendship is rare these days.”

Michael Tait, the British ambassador from 1986 to 1989, agrees. “He has a tremendous respect for Abu Dhabians. He is a person of shining personal integrity in an old-school British way and this has stood him in very good stead. He is the sort of Briton that Arabs respect.”

Adnan Pachachi, the veteran Iraqi politician who served as an adviser to Sheikh Zayed while in exile from the regime of Saddam Hussein, first came to know Mr Heard in the 1970s.

“He was very warm and extremely respectful with the people of this country. They appreciate this and like him for it.”

Mr Heard’s book From Pearls to Oil, the first history of the early days of the oil industry in the UAE, was published last year. It took several years to complete, with the author and his wife delving deep into previously unexplored oil company archives.

After spending five decades in Abu Dhabi, Mr Alston says the veteran expat has developed “a profound affection for local people and the local environment, and that comes shining through”.

Mr Alston adds: “He was very conscious that many people come to Abu Dhabi to make money and maximise what they can take out of the place, rather than what they could put back. He’s very nice, very decent guy.”

And Mohan Jashanmal admits that, after all these years, what amazes him is that Mr Heard has remained trim, while his own waistline has expanded. “I don’t know he does it. I know he likes to eat.”

And he says: “David still has a good sense of humour. He laughs at my jokes.”