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]