From Pearls to Oil: A Lecture by David Heard

From Pearls to Oil: A Lecture by David Heard


Today the United Arab Emirates is known for its oil wealth, luxurious tourist destinations, and broad diversity of residents. There are millions of foreigners within this nation, enticed by attractive job opportunities and scholarship offers sponsored by the development of a well-endowed nation from a small tribal state to a powerful oil exporter.

Distracted by skyscrapers and shopping malls, it can be easy to forget that the UAE celebrated only its forty-first birthday on Dec 2, National Day.  The history of the UAE, grounded in humble beginnings as a land of pearl divers and Bedouins sometimes seems very far away. Distracted by the decadence of skyscrapers and shopping malls, the contemporary residents of grand cities like Abu Dhabi and Dubai sometimes fail to grasp the history of the United Arab Emirates and how the modern oil powerhouse emerged from a land of Bedouins and pearl divers.

David Heard’s critically acclaimed book From Pearls to Oil offers a comprehensive look at the changes in the human history of the United Arab Emirates. Heard, who came to the region that encompasses the modern United Arab Emirates as a consultant for oil development in 1963, witnessed the foundations of the country and documented them in his book. Heard was the guest of the NYU Abu Dhabi Institute on Oct 14 to talk about his reasons behind the writing of From Pearls to Oil. The conversation was structured as an open question-and-answer session, beginning with designated interviewers and opening up to audience participation.

Heard gave a preview of From Pearls to Oil, reiterating the summary and scope of the book. He defined the time frame of his writings, stating that he chose to focus on the development of the oil situation in the United Arab Emirates from the 1930s to 1970s, or before the establishment of the modern nation. Heard described this time as critical to understanding the social, political, economic and cultural transitions in the United Arab Emirates, because never before had the region been made to open up to the world on such a grand scale. He explained the history of oil in the Middle East and Gulf States, and elaborated on the discovery and politics of oil within the United Arab Emirates, focusing on his own contribution as a mediator between the sheikhs and the oil companies in the process of development.

At first Heard was interrogated by the interviewers about the process behind his authorship of the book. Heard explained that he came to the United Arab Emirates before its founding to work directly with the eventual leaders of the nation in oil consultancy. He thus became friendly with key leaders in Emirati history, as well as powerful oil chairmen and political figures throughout the Gulf. Over ten years of research and three years of writing, Heard developed his understanding of the topic of oil and its history in the United Arab Emirates. Heard stressed that his book is intended as a human narrative, rather than a technical discussion; he sees the most important facet of UAE development to be the human story. Heard explained to the audience that he wanted to create characters and bring the story to life. When criticized by a geologist in the audience for leaving out large explanatory excerpts as to the technology behind oil drilling, Heard countered with the fact that he did not intend to write exhaustive texts about technology, because that wouldn’t illuminate the social progress, which is what enables today’s modern state.

Through his description, it was evident that Heard’s political and diplomatic interactions helped to engender a great openness and cultural understanding of the Emirati leaders and foreign oil companies in the foundations of the modern United Arab Emirates and its effective oil business. Heard emphasized in his dialogue with the audience the word “patience,” which was necessary in the 1960s as he mediated talks with Emirati and foreign politicians in order to forge compromises necessary for the success of the oil contracts that recognized both tradition and modernization. This patience and cultural understanding is what Heard highlights in his book, and stresses as still applicable today. Heard concluded his talk with a reference to the traditional saying: “You are in one wadi, I am in another;” we live in different cultures, levels of understanding, and general social conditions, yet we all share a commonality in our mere existence that must be respected. Just as tolerance was essential to the creation of the modern state of the United Arab Emirates, cultural understanding and acceptance must continue for this nation and its residents to flourish.

[Photo courtesy of Matthew French]


Side Streets: Ghaf Gallery, Khalidiya

Abu Dhabi doesn’t exactly brim with art galleries. You couldn’t spend a day ‘gallery hopping’ as you might in other cities, and many people are under the impression that art galleries in Abu Dhabi simply don’t exist. But like so many things in this city, if you seek, you shall find.

The Ghaf Art Gallery, tucked away on Khaleej Al Abari St, behind Khalidiya Park, was opened in 2006 and is aimed at nurturing local talent. The title ‘gallery’ as applied to the Ghaf might seem ambitious to people more accustomed to huge spaces housing lots of work. ‘Hanging space’ might be more appropriate, but the Ghaf nevertheless has an important role to play in the local arts scene.

When I stopped into Ghaf, the exhibit featured six or seven pieces of digitally produced images of a dystopian, post apocalyptic society with the Abu Dhabi skyline lingering in the background. Past exhibits at Ghaf have included work from Zayed University students and other local artists (click here for a review of this work). Exhibits  change monthly, so no visit to the Ghaf will be the same as the next – fitting for a city constantly in flux.

Where: Behind Khalidiya Park on Khaleej Al Arabi St, just past the British Veterinarian. Cabs will take you to the Park, and you can walk down Khaleej St away from the Corniche.

Opening Hours: Saturday-Thursday, 9am-1pm and 5-8pm. Closed Fridays.


Side Streets: Abaya Couture at Mauzan


Tucked away in a quiet Khalidiya back street next to a falafel shop and a private gym, the Mauzan abaya boutique feels more like high-end New York couture shop. Leave the hub-bub of Khalidiya outside – this place belongs in its own private world of rococo opulence, with gilded full-length mirrors, endless racks of flowing, silk gowns, and a scattering of velvet armchairs where perfectly coiffed Emirati women can recline.

Granted, this isn’t just any abaya store – with annual showings in Paris and a team of designers who have previously worked for Chanel and Elie Saab–Mauzan (“rare pearl” in Arabic) represents the cutting edge of Islamic dress. Drawing from the latest international prêt-à-porter trends such as bright Aztec prints, intricate lace embellishment and clean-line sports luxe, Mauzan’s collection caters to the modern Arab woman who wishes to combine the contemporary design with traditional dress.

Unfortunately for the regular human being, Mauzan represents the elusive and dreamy world of couture! The prices aren’t to everyone’s budget, with the average hand-made abaya ranging from 17,000dh – 20,000dh. On the upside, the boutique offers a range of slightly more affordable party dresses and gorgeous, sixties-style kaftans (my favourite uses a traditional Japanese cherry-blossom print you’d expect to see on a kimono), which range from 5000dh – 10,000dh. Also, the choice of silk scarves (500dh – 12,000dh) and house perfumes make ideal gifts – the latter make use of local oils and spices, and start at around 200dh.

Address: Zayed 1st Street (Electra Road), Al Khalidiya, near the National Bank of Abu Dhabi

Welcome to Side Streets

Welcome to Side Streets


I love being lost. More accurately, I love getting un-lost. In an unfamiliar city, I relish the process of orienting myself to street names and landmarks, identifying routes on a map, and navigating public transportation. Alas, one of the first things I learned about living in Abu Dhabi is never to place confidence in a general “sense of direction.” The city is a sea of tall, shiny buildings, construction sites, and homogenous storefronts. Streets have several names, department stores echo across blocks, and while taxis are cheap, I can’t always communicate with the taxi drivers. Despite having taken the bus, I can’t decipher the schedule. I wander astray if I haven’t studied a set of directions in detail just before going anywhere, but I love these moments of wayward confusion, because no matter how roundabout the route, I always end up somewhere with a story to tell.

Last spring, a friend and I – tasked with photographing examples of Abu Dhabi flora for an ecology class – hopped into a taxi right off campus and asked for the Mangrove National Park, please and thank you.

“Mangrove Village?” asked the driver. We exchanged uncertain glances.

“Er…Mangrove National Park?” I repeated, tentatively.

“Mangrove Village?” our taxi driver nodded. Now, this moment illustrates a key aspect of the Abu Dhabi taxi experience. You either exit the cab, realizing that neither you nor the taxi driver really knows where you’re going; or, more inconvenient, perhaps, but also sometimes more exciting, you stay, knowing you’re fated to spend at least ten more minutes speeding around the city, taking swooping U-turns and potentially ending up far from your destination.

We chose the latter, and 25 minutes later arrived at a suburban compound. There were no mangroves in sight, but the sign read: Mangrove Village.

Lost but undaunted, we set off in the direction of a residential street flanked mostly by sand and private fences. We live in the heart of the city, in a high-rise surrounded by businesses, dilapidated apartment buildings, banks, and hospitals. The closest street is six lanes across. Mangrove Village was completely different – this was suburbia, Abu Dhabi style.

At one point, the development abruptly stopped. In front of us was a stretch of empty lot and torn-up sidewalk. Trees had fallen around piles of used construction material. We broke off conversation mid-sentence and stood, staring. I pulled a pair of sand-encrusted pants from the rubble.

We wandered around in slow motion, glimpsing swirls of cotton candy insulation and blue plastic sheeting among the debris. Staring at the ground in an attempt not to step on a nail, I didn’t notice right away what my friend saw – a door, propped in the midst of it all. And off in the distance, pristine and beautiful, the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque.

photo courtesy of Sachi Leith

Once we’d pulled our gazes away from what looked like the set of a post-apocalyptic film, we made our way back to the roads, found a cab, and returned to the more familiar areas of the city, where Abu Dhabi is easily sorted into opposites—extreme wealth alongside extreme poverty, mosques and abayas next to sunburnt tourists in bikinis, East and West, old and new, tradition and modernity. These oxymoronic qualities can be shocking, but never invisible. But the Abu Dhabi we saw out at Mangrove Village seemed naked, stripped of glossy facades and simple dichotomies. It was as if we saw each layer of the city being peeled away: the desert, the buildings, the mosque, the ghostly evidence of human labor. The Mangrove Village site looked abandoned, but perhaps work had only been paused, or perhaps something had been destroyed and was being re-built: we had stumbled into something that was in process, but what the process was, we couldn’t know. But walking there offered us a way to see beyond easy oppositions.

In “Side Streets,” Electra Street will take you along on adventures around Abu Dhabi as we uncover those places that are rarely destinations but are almost always more interesting than where you wanted to go in the first place: places where you can see the city growing, shifting, changing. We’ll explore little known restaurants, secluded shops, and unexpected cultural activities. We’ll be combing the streets to bring you details of artistic and cultural life that might not make it into the pages of Time Out. Electra Street is a magazine founded on the basis of journeys and exploration, both literal and figurative. With “Side Streets,” our aim is to get you a little bit lost on those journeys, if only to see what can be discovered along the way.

As always, if you have insider tips or questions of your own (Which sweets shop has the best coconut barfi in town? Where can I find a decent piece of non-Ikea furniture? What’s the off-menu special at that hip new café? Is there a slam poetry scene here in the Dhabs? How does one navigate the fish market? And does the public library actually exist?), we’d love to hear them. Send us your feedback through Facebook , Twitter (@ElectraStreet), or email (, or leave us a comment below.