100-year-old British expat has been calling UAE home since 1976

Jocelyn and her late husband, a former British diplomat, was a key figure during the foundation years of the UAE.

By Rasha Abu Baker and Ashwani Kumar

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Published: Thu 11 Nov 2021, 2:14 PM

Last updated: Mon 13 Feb 2023, 7:38 AM

At 100, British expat Jocelyn Henderson has certainly outlived most people of her generation. Yet, reaching this remarkable and rare feat is certainly not the only unique quality of this British expat and proud Abu Dhabi resident.

She has a long legacy of special achievements and experiences, many of which she accumulated while living in the Middle East, a journey which began for her at the age of 38.

Jocelyn and her late husband Edward Henderson, a former British diplomat, a respected Arabist and a key figure during the foundation years of the UAE, lived in Jerusalem, Bahrain and Qatar before settling in their adoptive home, the UAE, in 1976.

In those days, Abu Dhabi had no manicured intersections or high-rise buildings on every street, but was rather a city “…on the way to splendour, but not quite there yet” as Ms. Henderson once put it.

Edward’s links with Abu Dhabi, however, began way before then. He first moved to the UAE in the 1950s after having served in the region during WWII, and worked for an oil company. In 1956, he changed careers and joined the British Foreign Office and three years later he was appointed as the political officer in Abu Dhabi. His assignments took him to Bahrain, Jerusalem, Beirut and Qatar where he played a crucial role in resolving conflicts between neighbouring nations and developing good relations for Britain with countries in the region. He became a close friend and confidant to the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan.

“We went all over (the region). My husband learnt to speak Arabic in Beirut,” Jocelyn said, as she recalled her early engagements in those far-away days.

Her role as a supportive wife was chronicled in an aptly named memoir, ‘The Gulf Wife’, which was published in 2014. “My role was to support my husband in all things, to provide him with the stability to go about his work, and to be his societal companion in the diplomatic community,” she wrote.

But before she assumed the role of supportive wife, Jocelyn had a thriving career of her own. In the 1940s she worked in the film industry in London, assisting actresses like Wendy Hiller who was a household name at the time, and Sarah Churchill, actress and daughter of Winston Churchill, and getting close to the whole family. “Working for the Churchill family proved to be a watershed in my life. It was a unique opportunity to work for one of the most famous men in British history, but viewed through the lens of his flamboyant daughter,” Jocelyn noted in ‘The Gulf Wife’.

She later worked with the Nuffield Provincial Hospital Trust, joining a team of researchers who helped build the foundations for the National Health Service (NHS), the UK’s publicly funded healthcare system, which came into being after the Second World War, making healthcare no longer the exclusive domain of only those who could afford it, but accessible to everyone.

During her early years in Abu Dhabi, the city she has called home spanning six decades, Jocelyn was involved with opening of St Andrew’s Church where she continues to act as warden emeritus. She was also a founder of the Daly Library in 1978, the first private one in Abu Dhabi, when the city lacked a single bookshop. Jocelyn is also an honorary member of ‘The Club’, the city’s first members club for expats and citizens, which opened in 1962.

Edward’s insightful contributions to the discourse surrounding the independence of Gulf states were greatly appreciated, and the UAE’s Founding Father, the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, offered the couple a home of their choice in Abu Dhabi.

With each passing day, the Henderson’s relationship with the UAE grew stronger, to a point where the country’s Rulers have shown the family due acknowledgment and utmost appreciation. Jocelyn continues to live in what was their first choice for a home, the Royal Stables, some 45 years later, under their benign protection.

“We had been in various houses. We liked the Royal Stables because it is quiet. It’s very suburban. We settled here,” she said from her colonial-style bungalow nestling in the stable grounds, where she is a popular and respected figure.

“We built our first house here in Abu Dhabi. It was a pretty one. This place is my favourite. This is my home. Particularly in the winter here, it’s like English summer. You could wander around,” said the centenarian, who still loves travelling, meeting people and rejoices while receiving visitors at her home.

Jocelyn has had connections with many members of the Ruling family, including Sheikh Shakhbut bin Sultan Al Nahyan, the ruler of Abu Dhabi from 1928 to 1966; the late Sheikh Zayed; his wife Sheikha Fatima bint Mubarak, Chairwoman of the General Women’s Union, President of the Supreme Council for Motherhood and Childhood, and Supreme Chairwoman of the Family Development Foundation; and Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak Al Nahyan, Minister of Tolerance and Coexistence.

On her 100th birthday in September, she received a letter from Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II to congratulate her on her milestone achievement of longevity.

“I am very proud,” she said.

Adding cheer to the birthday celebrations, Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak paid her a visit on the occasion.

Kirstin Henderson, Jocelyn’s granddaughter from her daughter and only child, Lucy, lives with and looks after her grandmother. She said such visits are common place. “Sheikh Nahyan visits often. He also always visited whenever grandmother was in hospital.”

Kirstin echoed her grandmother’s feelings: “[We] are grateful to the UAE in so many ways, particularly feeling like this is home for both of us. The big part of the reason she has reached the age that she has is from living here. She is so proud of being able to have seen where the UAE was and to where it is now.”

Kirstin emphasised that Jocelyn is a strong, smart and determined woman.

“She still manages to amaze me every single day. She has been able to keep her dry sense of humour and her quick wit. But she gets on every day with such strength and determination. Not forgetting that she doesn’t go a day without putting her lipstick on - and that’s how I have seen her my entire life.”

“It’s been a long life,” adds Jocelyn with a smile, as she looks forward to outings to the nearby café in her electric chair as Abu Dhabi’s cooler season approaches.

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