The Gulf Wife: ‘Old-timer’ of Abu Dhabi releases memoir

Jocelyn Henderson, the grande dame of 'Old Gulf' expatriates, looks back at her life in a new book. After years on the diplomatic trail, the author says she eventually emerged from her husband's shadow to find her own voice.

Jocelyn Henderson, aged 19, during the Second World War. Courtesy Jocelyn Henderson
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An afternoon tea was held at the British embassy on Sunday to celebrate the publication of a memoir, The Gulf Wife, and its author’s lifetime of devoted service.

It was a very British occasion for a very British honoured guest.

Jocelyn Henderson is an Abu Dhabi institution, the 93-year-old grande dame of a generation of surviving “Old Gulf” expats, such as the former oil company executive David Heard and his wife, the UAE historian Frauke Heard-Bey, and engineer David Spearing.

They arrived in the country before paved roads, luxury hotels and shopping malls, fell in love with the place, its customs and its people, and never left.

“The old-timers of Abu Dhabi are the core of a whole society that has grown up around them,” Mrs Henderson says. “And we still feel connected to something that we helped to build.”

Mrs Henderson first visited the capital and Al Ain in 1968 when she and her husband, the renowned Arabist and diplomat Edward Henderson, were living in Bahrain.

At the time Mr Henderson was serving as Abu Dhabi’s locum political agent but already had long links with the Trucial States, as the seven emirates were called before 1971.

Described by his wartime comrade and long-time friend Wilfred Thesiger as “a charming and reliable man”, Mr Henderson spent most of his career working in the Arabian Gulf, nurturing Britain’s relations with the territories that eventually became the UAE, Qatar, Oman and Bahrain.

Working first as a representative of Petroleum Development Ltd, he played a key role in defusing the Buraimi border dispute involving Abu Dhabi, Oman and Saudi Arabia between 1952 and 1955, before becoming a full-time member of the Foreign Service in 1959.

It was at this time that he was first appointed to Abu Dhabi as a political officer, before serving in diplomatic roles in Jerusalem, Bahrain and Qatar, where he became the first British ambassador in 1971.

Mr Henderson retired from the Foreign Service in 1974 but he and Jocelyn returned to Abu Dhabi in 1976 at the request of Sheikh Zayed, who asked him to help organise the National Centre for Documentation and Research. Mr Henderson died in 1995.

In many ways, The Gulf Wife is the story of how Mrs Henderson followed her husband without question for three decades, living the hidden half-life of an expat woman of her generation and class, before emerging from the shadows to find a new-found confidence and a voice of her own.

“When he retired from the foreign office Edward was most upset,” Mrs Henderson says. “He had spent over half his life involved in the politics of the Middle East and he felt entirely redundant. The same was true for me after Edward died.

“It took me many years to find out what to do with my time and, in fact, to find my voice again. In many ways, throughout my married life, I was very much the silent partner.

“I wasn’t expected to have an opinion and certainly not to share it in public. It was only after his death that I started to talk.”

The 20th century may have formed the backdrop for most of her life but in it she played a role that belonged firmly to the 19th.

“In many ways Edward was the last Victorian gentleman. He expected his wife to look after him and entertain on his behalf, which I did, busily occupied for many years,” she explains in the book.

“In many ways I was the perfect vision of an expatriate wife during his lifetime. I never spoke out of turn, I always made small talk with a visiting dignitary and put all of my energy into entertaining his endless flow of visitors.”

If that does not sound like the stuff of a biographical best-seller, it would be a mistake to describe Mrs Henderson’s life as one without interest or incident.

During the Second World War, she worked as the private secretary to the actress Sarah Churchill, the wayward third child of Winston Churchill, and became familiar with the whole family.

She also met actor David Niven and worked as a secretary for the Oscar-winning filmmaking duo Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger.

They were the duo behind such films as One of Our Aircraft is Missing, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp and the 1945 movie I know Where I’m Going, for which she also worked as part of the film’s continuity team.

But it was not until 1957 that a 36-year-old Jocelyn Nenk was introduced to the man to who would introduce her to the Arabian Gulf.

Mr Henderson, 40 at the time, was serving on secondment with the British foreign service. By the time the couple were married in July 1961, he had joined the service and was stationed as consul to Jerusalem and the West Bank.

It was there that Mrs Henderson first experienced life as a diplomatic wife in the Middle East.

To help her learn about her duties, he gave her a book, Lady Troubridge’s The Book of Etiquette, which included guides such as: “A gentleman, on entering a lift where a lady is present, should in all circumstances take it upon himself to remove his hat.”

It was a time when the most important question that might be asked of a diplomatic wife was: “Is she representative?”

“What they were really asking was, ‘is it OK to let her loose in public?’” Mrs Henderson says. “‘Does she use her knife and fork properly? Does she know how to behave?’ And if the answer was negative, this spelt the death knell for her husband’s career.”

In 1967 Mrs Henderson moved to the Arabian Gulf, which was considered a hardship posting in diplomatic circles as home leave was only granted every two years.

It was while she was living in Bahrain that Mrs Henderson first travelled to the UAE and met Abu Dhabi royalty.

“Sheikh Shakhbut knew my husband from his time in Abu Dhabi before and he asked to see Edward once a month, so on a Friday we would go up to Al Ain to call on him and have lunch.

“The first time Edward said to me, ‘You won’t be able to come with me’, but in fact, Sheikh Shakhbut was very keen and he insisted that I was brought into his majlis. When we arrived Edward walked in, led by Sheikh Shakhbut, and I followed politely behind as I’d been taught.

“But when we reached the door of the majlis, Sheikh Shakhbut said ‘Let your wife go first.’ That was really breaking all of the norms.”

When Mrs Henderson arrived in Abu Dhabi in 1976, her experience was very different from that of her husband.

For him it was a return to a country where he had spent some of the most eventful years of his diplomatic career, and which had been transformed by the discovery of oil.

“This was an Abu Dhabi that was on the road to splendour,” she says. “But it was not quite there yet. Abu Dhabi was a small village in those days when it came to the expatriate community, so much so that we knew everybody by sight.”

Even before her husband’s death, Mrs Henderson started to gradually find a role for herself.

In 1978 she founded the Daly Library, one of the earliest private libraries in Abu Dhabi, and she continues to act as a warden emeritus at St Andrew’s church.

The publication of The Gulf Wife is an important milestone in the development of what she describes as her own ‘voice’. She is also pleased to finally be able to put the book behind her.

“The memories are still very fresh for me, but I’m afraid that I get very bored by them now. I prefer to look forwards.

“The beauty of Abu Dhabi, coming from a 93-year-old who has been here for 35 years, is that you feel as if you are constantly moving, even if you are actually staying still.

“Such is the dynamic nature of this city, and indeed, the country as a whole.”

* The Gulf Wife by Jocelyn Henderson with Leila Warren is published by Motivate Publishing