David Heard
David Heard landed in Abu Dhabi in the former Trucial States in 1963 Image Credit: WAM

ABU DHABI: When David Heard landed in Abu Dhabi in the former Trucial States in 1963, he never imagined that he would be witnessing the formation of a new country and staying here almost 58 years thereafter to celebrate its 50th anniversary.

"I came to Abu Dhabi really quite by chance, leaving behind England's green and quiet fields for the red sands and glaring white tracks in the desert," Heard, 82, tells Emirates News Agency (WAM) in an interview at his home in Abu Dhabi.

Scary introduction to Abu Dhabi

Although his "introduction to Abu Dhabi" was a series of scary incidents, that did not deter the British petroleum engineer on the first onshore oil fields in the emirate from continuing the life here and involving in finding some of the largest oil fields in the Middle East while working until June 2004 with his first and same employer over 40 years, Abu Dhabi Petroleum Company (ADPC). After retirement, he became an authentic chronicler of oil in the region with his well-researched books.

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Heard still remembers a small Dakota aircraft with four passengers, including him, making an emergency landing at an airstrip somewhere in the desert in Jebel Dhanna in Al Dhafra (western region of Abu Dhabi), one early morning in August 1963 because the plane's engine had some trouble.

"The pilot told us to get out of the plane quicky and he took off again and said, ‘Maybe I'll come back, maybe not.' And he didn't come back, and we were standing there in the middle of the desert. That was my introduction to Abu Dhabi."

It was getting warmer. The prospective employer had a small camp in Jebel Dhanna because they were building a pipeline there. "Someone came in from this camp, came to us and took us into the camp. And then by about midday, they put us in a Land Rover for a two-hour long drive through desert to a bachelor's camp in Tarif, which was a base for drilling in the desert."

Man missing in desert

Then came another scary experience within a few days; a colleague went missing in the desert while driving a small Land Rover alone from the onshore oil rig to the camp. A small airplane and vehicles were dispatched to find him but there was no success. Finally, he was found after a day, his vehicle got stuck in the desert.

Still, Heard was undeterred because he had chosen Abu Dhabi to experience something adventurous in life.

"After graduating in geology and physics, I was looking for an interesting job outside the UK or some adventure somewhere. And I happened to see a tiny advertisement in the Times newspaper that a company was looking for science graduates."

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A young rider on his horse on the Dubai Abu Dhabi highway road - 16/12/1987

Choosing Abu Dhabi's desert against Kirkuk's gated community

The petroleum company, a British consortium, accepted his application and offered him a job in Kirkuk in Iraq, where it had been producing oil for some years. The company had a nice gated accommodation for families, with all facilities such as hospital and club.

"It was something like Aramco's facility in Saudi Arabia. I didn't want to go there because it was sort of a miniature British town with British people and all luxury facilities. I wanted something more exciting."

When he asked about other options, the company mentioned Abu Dhabi, saying it was a "rough place for tough people."

"I said it's the place for me. So, after a week or two I got on a 100-seater jet, De Havilland Comet 4, and flew to Bahrain nonstop, which was quite rare in those days; normally there used to be a to stop on the way. Of course, such a big aircraft would not land in Abu Dhabi those days."

And then a couple of days later, he got on a small Dakota aircraft with three other people to Abu Dhabi from Bahrain, where oil company had its local headquarters.

"It was a very noisy and smelly aircraft. I'll never forget the smell of a mixture of onions and kerosene inside the plane [which made the emergency landing at Jebel Dhanna]," he recalls.

As the engineer in the field overseeing the production of the first oil from the giant Asab and Sahil fields, he lived in the desert camps.

Family life

He moved to a house provided by the company in the city in 1966 and his German wife, Frauke Heard-Bey, joined him in Abu Dhabi in 1967.

Unlike other oil companies in the region, ADPC did not a build gated community for its employees. "The company wanted us to integrate with the local society," says Heard.

The couple still remembers the house number and the first telephone number at their house. "Telephone calls were very expensive, and we had to wait for long, after booking, to make an international call. During special occasions such as Christmas, it was more difficult!" Therefore, they depended on letters to get in touch with family and friends back home.

UAE's formation

The couple already heard about the discussion on formation of the UAE from their Emirati friends. When the UAE Constitution's English translation was made, "we were asked to look into the draft," recollects Heard.

On several occasions, they had the opportunity to interact with the Late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, the Founding Father of the UAE, and many senior officials.

Heard continued his desert trips to oversee the drilling operations until 1980 when he became the representative of the company to the Abu Dhabi Government. After retiring from the company, he worked as a consultant with Abu Dhabi Supreme Petroleum Council until 2011.

He dedicated his retired life to research and writing about the history of oil in the region. His book "From Pearls to Oil, How the Oil Industry came to the United Arab Emirates," first published in 2011, narrates the history of the company he worked for, at one time the second largest oil company in the Middle East and the first to come to the Emirates in the 1930s. He has continued recording the history of the same oil company in three more books.

Active social life

Heard and his family had an active social life. He was a member of The Club, popularly known as the British Club, which had been established in 1962.

He was associated with the British School Al Khubairat since its inception in 1968. Later, Heard served as chairman of the school's board of governors for 21 years.

Queen Elizabeth honoured him and recognised him as Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in 1990, and a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in 2000, for his contributions to the oil industry and the British community in Abu Dhabi.

The couple's son Nicolas and daughter Theresa are also living here with their families, in Abu Dhabi and Dubai respectively. Another daughter Miriam is living with her husband in Chile.

The safest place in the world

"Why we lived here nearly 60 years, is simple. We have been very happy and satisfied. The friendships made so many years ago are still well maintained. We are treated very kindly by so many people. We are really at home here," Heard says.

The current global pandemic has also reinforced their decision. "Since the outbreak of COVID-19 last year, we have found that this is obviously the safest place in the world," says Heard