Story of a lifetime of love for Abu Dhabi

The passing on Sunday of Susan Hillyard will leave a void in the lives and memories of all who met her.

Sheikh Shakhbut greets Susan Hillyard and her daughter Deborah in Abu Dhabi in the winter of 1957. Courtesy Susan Hillyard
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If the expatriate community of Abu Dhabi could be said to have a First Lady, that title could belong only to Susan Hillyard.

Arriving in 1954, as the young wife of British Petroleum’s representative, and with an infant daughter in tow, she was not just the first Englishwoman most people had encountered in the world before oil, but also one who was both gracious and welcoming.

It is testimony to the bond between Hillyard and the people she encountered here, that the news of her passing, on Sunday, at the age of 87, will be greeted with sadness by all who knew her.

Her time in the Emirate was marked by a renewed effort to find oil, which ended with the discovery of the first offshore field in 1958. While her husband, Tim Hillyard, supervised the construction of the forward exploration base on Das Island and handled relations between the oilmen and the Ruler of Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Shakhbut bin Sultan, it fell to his wife to act as unofficial ambassador and go-between for two cultures that would have found each other at first equally strange but soon discovered a common bond of friendship.

Her memoir of those times was later published in Before The Oil, a manuscript she laboured over long and hard, but which was eventually completed in 2002 at the insistence of Sheikh Zayed, the first President of the UAE.

Sheikh Zayed later wrote to her: “You are now the only person who clearly remembers Abu Dhabi as it was. The present always overlays the past so that it gets forgotten in a generation or so unless it has been written down.”

She gave generously of her time, even as her health weakened, sharing her memories with The National in a commentary for a video report to mark the 41st National Day in 2012 and assisting researchers from the proposed Zayed National Museum.

Her connections at the very highest level seem remarkable now, but were part of everyday life when Abu Dhabi’s first expatriate family arrived by dhow, via Dubai and Bahrain in September 1954, settling into Bayt Al Yard, the company house on what was then the outskirts of town, and which featured unheard of luxuries such as electricity and air conditioning.

In her book, she recalled the first tentative visits by the women of the town, curious at the unveiled stranger in their midst, while enjoying cooling drinks from a distillation unit that offered a welcome alternative from the salty wells that provided the rest of the town’s water supply.

It was only a matter of time before Hillyard, who had learnt Arabic as preparation for her posting, was invited to the women’s quarters at Qasr Al Hosn, the Ruler’s palace, for introductions to the sheikhas of Al Nahyan family, including the wife and daughters of Sheikh Shakhbut and, in time, Sheikha Salama, the mother of Sheikh Zayed and Sheikh Shakhbut. Formality soon gave way to friendship, with demonstrations of henna and incense.

Many older residents of the city will also remember Hillyard for the birthday parties thrown for her daughter Deborah, huge communal affairs in which the children of Abu Dhabi would arrive en mass for English party games on the beach and the promise of sweets and balloons.

Of a visit to Abu Dhabi in 1980, Hillyard later recalled to The National an encounter with a local man in his 30s while touring Sheikh Shakhbut’s private deer park.

“I said to him ‘do you remember Deborah’s birthday?’ And he said ‘of course I remember Deborah’s birthday – it was a terrific party!’ So I said, ‘well I am Deborah’s mother, Umm Deborah.’ So then he said ‘show her everything, everything she likes, show her everything’.”

For expatriate mothers living in Abu Dhabi now and, indeed, modern Emirati mothers, her life nearly 60 years ago would have seemed one of incredible hardship. Little fresh food, no doctors or medicine, home and family unreachable except by a letter.

Yet Hillyard’s account of this time is not one of endurance, but reveals instead an affection and appreciation of the people of Abu Dhabi and the shared struggles of their daily lives. She was of a breed of Englishmen who accepted the responsibilities of life and family, even half a world away from home, and did so with grace and without complaint.

Very little seemed to disturb her equilibrium, at least on the surface. Her adventures included surviving a storm on the company dhow, narrowly avoiding sharks while washing nappies in the sea and preparing impromptu dinners for visiting dignitaries with no more resources than a few cans of food purchased in the souq.

In that sense, she personified the famous British stiff upper lip, except there was always warmth and tolerance. These were gestures appreciated by the local community, and returned in kind. At Christmas, the Ruler and members of his family would visit the Hillyards in their home.

The connection with Abu Dhabi was not broken when the family left in 1958, leaving behind the child’s pedal car that her daughter had ridden with Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak, then a small boy, along the stone corridors of Qasr Al Hosn. She visited again in 2007 for the last time, to an Abu Dhabi unrecognisable from the first.

That connection is remembered again with her death, after a short illness, in England. Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak, the Minister of Culture Youth and Community Involvement, recalled her and her husband, who died in 1973 at the age of 53, as “pioneers” saying: “We will remember her with fondness.”

He added: “The Hillyard family would regularly come to Hosn and spent a great deal of time with Al Nahyan household. They were a close friend to the family members.”

Sheikha Alyaziyah bint Nahyan also paid tribute, calling Hillyard: “So un-foreign. There was a local sense right from the very beginning.”

Of Hillyard’s time in Qasr Al Hosn, Sheikha Alyaziyah said that “while others visited as guests, Umm Deborah entered as part of the household.

“Al Hosn was well acquainted with her friendly acceptance and casual informality. So it was not at all uncommon for Sheikh Shakhbut to stop by the Hillyards’ home from time to time.

“The family of Sheikh Shakhbut loved to surround her in Sheikha Salama’s quarters. They admired her character and charm and demonstrated the culture to her and their ways.”

Sheikha Alyaziyah recalled Hillyard being present at a royal birth, with the attending women shocked when the Englishwoman held the newborn boy up by his feet, the practice of western midwives to drain fluid from the lungs but unheard of in the Arabian Gulf.

The new mother, Sheikha Alyaziyah says, then picked up her son again and repeated the action, “which put all back at ease, especially after it was understood that it was for the child’s’ benefit. There was an understanding, a trust that was mutual, and a boundless friendship encapsulated in time and in memories that are still shared”.

For Nick Cochrane-Dyet, special representative for BP in Abu Dhabi, Hillyard and her husband “helped to ensure the success of the oil industry over the past decades”.

She was, he said, a woman “of enduring high standards who always showed integrity, sensitivity and an affinity for the people here. Her love for Abu Dhabi lasted a lifetime”.