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'Safest place in the world': British expat who landed in UAE 58 years ago

Wam/Abu Dhabi
Filed on July 6, 2021 | Last updated on July 14, 2021 at 11.06 am

David Heard at his home in Abu Dhabi. Photos: Wam

Meeting the late UAE founding father, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, in the 1990s.

Honoured by Queen Elizabeth as a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in 2000.

An invitation to Heard from the Ruler of Abu Dhabi in 1964 on the occasion of the first oil export from Jebel Dhanna.

"We are really at home here [in the UAE]," says Heard.

David Heard has been honoured by Queen Elizabeth for his contributions to the oil industry and the British community in 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 — or staying on almost 58 years later to celebrate its 50th anniversary.

"I came to Abu Dhabi quite by chance, leaving behind England’s green and quiet fields for the red sands and glaring white tracks in the desert," Heard, 82, told 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 life here and finding some of the largest oil fields in the Middle East.

Heard worked with his first employer, Abu Dhabi Petroleum Company (ADPC), until 2004 for over 40 years. After retirement, he became an authentic chronicler of oil in the region with his well-researched books.

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He 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). The incident occurred one early morning in August 1963 as the plane’s engine was experiencing trouble.

"The pilot told us to get out of the plane quickly and he took off again. He said, ‘Maybe I'll come back, maybe not.’ 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 from this camp and took us into it. 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."

Another scary experience came 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 had gotten 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."

Choosing the 'desert life'

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 a 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 — a De Havilland Comet 4 — and flew to Bahrain direct, which was quite rare in those days; normally, there would be a stop on the way. Of course, such a big aircraft would not land in Abu Dhabi those days."

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

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

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.

Heard 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 build a gated community for its employees. "The company wanted us to integrate with the local society," said 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!" They, therefore, depended on letters to get in touch with family and friends back home.

A nation is born

The couple had already heard discussions about the formation of the UAE from their Emirati friends. When the UAE Constitution’s English translation was made, Heard recollected: "We were asked to look into the draft."

On several occasions, they had the opportunity to interact with the UAE's late founding father, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, and many senior officials.

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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 since 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, he 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 in Abu Dhabi and Dubai respectively, together with their families. Another daughter Miriam is living with her husband in Chile.

"Why we lived here for 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 said.

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.





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