Sixty years ago, the sea gave up its secrets and changed Abu Dhabi forever

Dusk has arrived on March 28, 1958 and the Sun is sinking into the Arabian Gulf. An orange glow catches the drilling tower of the Adma Enterprise, the strangest creature these waters have seen. 

It is an offshore exploration platform, the first of its kind. The four hydraulic legs sit on a seabed of coral at the same spot from which, five years earlier, the French oceanographer Jacques Cousteau had retrieved rock samples that showed this might be the place.

The Enterprise, built in Germany and hauled by tug across four seas and 12,000 kilometres, has one purpose: to find oil. For each of the 77 days the routine has been the same. The drill is extended pipe by pipe, grinding hour by hour, deeper and deeper towards the strata in which Cousteau’s rocks suggest oil might be found. 

Tonight, as it has been every evening since January 10, the job is to shut down the operation until dawn. In working hours, a milky lubricant of mud and water is used to grease and cool the drill as it turns in its narrow vertical tunnel of rock. The lubricant also washes up samples of rock so they can be examined for signs of oil. 

As the samples are recovered, the cloudy liquid gushes across the decks of the rig to be washed overboard. From there it settles on the seabed. 

It is a mundane task made less so by the natural beauty of the surroundings. These waters of the Gulf are filled with millions of tiny organisms that glow at night, igniting the waves with a cold, white fire. It is a spectacular sight. 

A young Englishman named Mike Pennock is supervising the work this evening. As he watches the pale flickers of phosphorescence he notices something strange. One patch of the sea just beneath the rig remains dark. It is the area where the drilling lubricant has been flushed from the deck.

A growing suspicion enters Pennock’s mind. A bucket is attached to rope and lowered into the dark waters. It tips on the surface, then sinks and fills and is hauled back to the deck of the Enterprise. 

Pennock dips his hand into the bucket. The surface of the water feels thick and slightly sticky. It is not water at all, he realises. It is crude oil. 

At that moment, as night falls, a seismic force - for the moment unnoticed and unseen except by one young man - reverberates across the landscape. 

Abu Dhabi has entered the age of oil and nothing will ever be the same again.

A promise of black gold

1908: Oil gushes from the Masjid Sulaiman well, the first in the Middle East, in what is now south-west Iran (Courtesy BP)

1908: Oil gushes from the Masjid Sulaiman well, the first in the Middle East, in what is now south-west Iran (Courtesy BP)

Oil drove the ambitions of the great powers at the dawn of the 20th century. It fuelled the machines of industry, the growing fleets of cars and the early aircraft. The demand was tremendous and seemingly insatiable. 

In 1911, the new First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, made a momentous decision about Britain’s Imperial Fleet. From then on the world’s mightiest warships would be powered not by coal, but by oil.

There was only one problem. Neither Britain, nor any of the other European rival powers had oil of their own. Reserves had to be found quickly, then closely guarded. 

Britain was particularly well placed for this black gold rush. In 1908, British businessman William Knox D’Arcy became the first to strike oil in the Middle East, in what is now Iran. 

"Fortune brought us a prize from fairyland beyond our wildest dreams,” Churchill wrote in 1911 of the timely discovery. Two years later, Darcy’s Burmah Oil had been nationalised by the British government, laying the foundations for the company now known as BP. 

In October 1927 more oil was found, in what is now modern day Iraq, which was then another British sphere of influence in the Arabian Gulf after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. Year by year the black tide crept south. In 1932 discoveries were made in Bahrain, and Kuwait in 1938. 

The first of Saudi Arabia’s massive reserves was found that same year. In May 1940, as the Second World War brought an even more desperate hunger for oil, it was Qatar's turn.

Wherever it was found, oil transformed lives. It made vast fortunes for a few, but also brought jobs and prosperity to many. Shops filled with exotic imported goods and the streets with motor cars. The new oil capitals of the Middle East became a magnet for investors and anyone looking for work. It was the future. 

But what of Abu Dhabi? 

During the 1930s, a series of exploration deals had been struck with the rulers of the emirates that would later form the UAE. The Ruler of Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Shakhbut bin Sultan Al Nahyan, held out the longest, eventually reaching a deal in January 1939 after five years of tough negotiations with the British companies. 

The stakes were high. Across the region, the Japanese discovery of cheap, mass-produced cultured pearls in 1928 soon wreaked havoc with the economies of the Arabian Gulf. Pearl diving fell into catastrophic decline, made worse by the global economic slump of the Great Depression, which further hit demand for luxury goods. 

In such times, even the prospect of oil was enough to offer hope of a better future. The deal signed by Abu Dhabi in January 1939 promised a yearly bounty in silver coins of 100,000 Indian rupees, worth about Dh6.2 million in today’s currency, and with a penalty clause of 25 per cent extra for every year by which drilling was delayed. 

The promise was there for improved lives and even some immediate material benefits, such as funding for the massive expansion of Qasr Al Hosn to the structure that is familiar today. 

But the year in which Abu Dhabi signed its oil concession is better remembered now as the one in which the Second World War started. Any thoughts that exploration might begin were abandoned as the fighting began in Europe, then soon spread to the Middle East and beyond. 

The Arabian Gulf might be spared from conflict but it was not immune from the consequences.

For the next seven years, Abu Dhabi would have to fend for itself.

HMS Queen Elizabeth, the first warship powered by oil

Sheikh Shakhbut bin Sultan Al Nahyan, Ruler of Abu Dhabi, 1928-1966 (Courtesy BP Archives)

Qasr Al Hosn, photographed in the 1940s near the end of rebuilding, which was funded by oil concession payments (Sir Rupert Hay/Pitt Rivers Museum)

A new hope

Qasr Al Hosn with camels in the 1950s (Courtesy John Vale)

Qasr Al Hosn with camels in the 1950s (Courtesy John Vale)

The end of the Second World War in 1945 did not immediately bring about a resumption of oil exploration in Abu Dhabi. But important changes, legal and technological, changed the scope of what might be achieved. 

Nations were increasingly claiming the right to explore and exploit oil and gas under the seabed off their coasts, a quest made possible with the development of drilling rigs that could be moored offshore. 

Sensing an opportunity, Abu Dhabi declared that the existing oil concession did not cover offshore exploration, and so it was able to sell these rights. 

By 1952 the offshore concession had passed to a new venture, created by British Petroleum with a French company, Compagnie Francaise des Petroles (now Total), as a minority partner. The partnership would be called Abu Dhabi Marine Areas. 

The deal agreed to was that Adma would hold the concession for 65 years but had to begin drilling for oil within five years, or by 1958. The clock was now ticking. 

Finding the right location was the first task. In 1949 a young officer had left the French navy to set up his own research company, using an underwater breathing apparatus called an aqua-lung, which he had helped to develop. 

Jacques Cousteau, who would later find fame with his Silent World TV series, was able to lease a former British Royal Navy minesweeper, now a Maltese ferry, for a token one French franc a year. He renamed his new floating base Calypso after the mythological nymph from Homer's Odyssey.

Cousteau and Calypso sailed to the Arabian Gulf in early 1954, hired by Adma for 10 weeks of exploration in which divers would retrieve rock samples from the seabed for scientific analysis.

The samples and further investigation by a seismic survey ship, Sonic, had confirmed the potential for undersea oil. 

The expedition was accompanied by a young French filmmaker,  Louis Malle, and British Petroleum later released his footage as a short documentary. Malle would go on to win acclaim for films such as Lacombe, LucienPretty Baby and Atlantic City. 

Watch: Below, complete with plummy British accent and somewhat patronising style, this 1957 documentary "recreates" negotiations between British Petroleum and the Ruler of Abu Dhabi (who did not actually take part in filming)

Abu Dhabi seen from the air in about 1954 (BP Archives)

The beach of Abu Dhabi in the mid-1950s (BP Archives)

Jacques Cousteau puts on diving equipment on board Calypso in 1954 (BP Archives)

Tim Hillyard outside the house on the beach built for his family (BP Archives)

The beach in late 1957 (Courtesy Estate of Roderic Owen)

Back on land, things were also moving ahead.  British Petroleum had appointed a representative to take charge of the Adma project.

Tim Hillyard arrived in Abu Dhabi in 1953, initially to supervise the building of his family house a little way up the shoreline from the centre of town. 

It was the first modern building in the small community, with unheard of luxuries such as filtered drinking water, air conditioning, refrigeration and electricity, all made possible by a generator. The following year, Hillyard was joined by his wife Susan and their infant daughter Deborah, the first western family to live in Abu Dhabi.

Hillyard set up office on the upper floor of the Customs House, an older coral-stone structure once used by the Otaiba family, wealthy merchants from the time of the pearl trade. British Petroleum also paid for a rough jetty of concrete and stone, allowing larger boats to deliver supplies for the first time. 

But the real centre of operations lay to the north-west, across the Arabian Gulf. Das Island was more than 100 kilometres from the coast of Abu Dhabi. The island was under the authority of the Nahyan family through a representative known as a wali, or custodian, appointed by the Ruler.

Inhabited only by seabirds and the millions of flies that fed off their droppings, Das was devoid of vegetation, broiling in summer and lashed by storms in winter. But its location was ideal as a base for the oil drilling sites. Men and machines arrived in increasing numbers, shipped in on landing craft from Bahrain. Bulldozers put the seabirds to flight. Insecticide dealt with the flies, but perhaps not as completely as the workforce would have liked. 

Hills were levelled and their rocks used to build a harbour breakwater. A landing strip was built, big enough for the chartered twin-engined De Havilland Dove aircraft from Gulf Aviation. The workforce, drawn largely from the UK and the Indian subcontinent but also the local population, toiled and sweltered to meet a fast-approaching deadline.

Meanwhile, thousands of kilometres away to the north, another group of workers was rising to the challenge.

Voyage of the Enterprise

The Enterprise is launched in Germany (BP Archive)

The Enterprise is launched in Germany (BP Archive)

Extracting oil under the sea had been tried with varying degrees of success since the 1920s. The modern oil platform was based on engineering technology developed during the Second World War, when Britain built powerful floating forts on steel legs and fixed them to the seabed off the coast. 

It was now possible to drill out of sight of land, something that was tried for the first time in the Gulf of Mexico in 1946. It was an ideal solution for Abu Dhabi's offshore oil concession. But there were serious problems. 

The nearest shipyards with the technology to build such a platform were on the other side of the world. Once built, the rig would have to be towed thousands of kilometres through seas notorious for stormy conditions. 

It would ideally pass through the Suez Canal, except that it was closed in 1956, blocked by sunken ships after the disastrous Suez conflict triggered by Britain and France. 

Finally, it would have to be steered into the tiny harbour at Das to be prepared for operation. 

Adma pressed on undeterred. British shipyards, put off by the complexity of the project, declined to build it. But a German yard desperate for work after the war agreed to take on the challenge. 

So it was that the Adma Enterprise, as it was to be called, was built on the banks of the Kiel Canal, designed by American engineers with British equipment and German skilled labour. Work at the Gutehoffnungshuette yard began in early 1956. 

It was the strangest craft ever seen in those days; a huge rectangular box of steel overshadowed by four columns and a tower. 

Costing the equivalent of Dh60 million, it had four retractable legs 50 metres long and was capable of operating in water up to 25 metres deep. It floated, 60 metres long and 30 wide, with a draft of 3 metres. Once in position, the legs were lowered to the seabed at 5 centimetres a minute.

By now it was late summer in 1957 and the challenge was to bring the 4,000-tonne floating rig from the North Sea and the Atlantic Ocean to the Arabian Gulf. 

There was good news. With help from the United Nations, Egypt was able to clear the Suez Canal, reopening the vital waterway to the east in April that year. The ocean-going tug Thames, with a Dutch crew, had the towing ropes attached and the rig entered the North Sea from the western end of the canal, then moved down the coast of Northern Europe and through the English Channel.

Summer storms battered the vessel in the Bay of Biscay off Spain and Portugal, but after a month the Enterprise and Thames were sailing past Gibraltar and into the calmer waters of the Mediterranean. 

Following the coast of North Africa, the two vessels passed through the Suez Canal and then down the Red Sea. Finally, they entered the Strait of Hormuz, arriving at Das after 92 days at sea.

Once in harbour, extensions to the legs and drilling tower were added to make the rig fully operational. In the last week of December, Sheikh Shakhbut was flown in by helicopter for an official inspection. 

At the start of the year, the Enterprise went to sea again, a short journey of 32km east and north from Das, and on January 10 it was "spudded", meaning drilling could begin. 

For 77 days they drilled through the 30-million-year-old limestone, until on March 28, 1958, and at a depth of 2,668 metres - three times the height of the Burj Khalifa - the bit broke through the rock blocking the oil reservoir that would become the Umm Shaif field. 

After the celebrations, a small quantity of the oil was placed in glass jars and sent to Abu Dhabi. At his majlis in Qasr Al Hosn, it was formally presented to Sheikh Shakhbut. 

Finally, the long wait was over.

The Adma Enterprise at sea on its voyage from Germany to Abu Dhabi (BP Archives)

Former pearl divers found work inspecting the new rig for Adma (BP Archives)

Sheikh Shakhbut arrives by helicopter to inspect the new oil platform. The woman is a US journalist, Molly Thayer, a close friend of Jackie Kennedy (Estate of Roderic Owen)

Sheikh Zayed meets a senior official from British Petroleum on the eve of drilling (BP Archives)

The wealth of a nation

The tanker British Signal leaves Das in July 1962

The tanker British Signal leaves Das in July 1962

"Wealth is not money. Wealth lies in men. This is where true power lies, the power we value. This is what has convinced us to direct all our resources to build the individual, and to use the wealth which God has provided us in the service of the nation."

Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan

“There will be a time, 50 years from now, when we load the last barrel of oil aboard the ship. The question is, 50 years from now after we have loaded this last barrel of oil, are we going to feel sad? If our investment today is right, I think - dear brothers and sisters - we will celebrate that moment.”

Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan

It would be another four years before the first oil reached international markets, but Abu Dhabi's future prosperity was assured.

On July 4, 1962, the tanker British Signal set sail from Das Island carrying 254,544 barrels of crude, the first oil from Abu Dhabi to be sold on the open market.

The numbers that follow tell part of the next chapter in the story. By the following year, oil production had quadrupled to 44,000 barrels a day. In 1977 it had risen again to nearly 2 million and by 2011 it topped 3 million barrels.

The Umm Shaif field was followed by the even larger Zakum offshore field, and land discoveries at Murban Bab and the vast Bu Hasa. Collectively, the UAE's reserves are the seventh largest in the world. 

With the revenue from oil, the entire UAE was transformed. In 1967, Sheikh Zayed replaced Sheikh Shakhbut as Ruler of Abu Dhabi and initiated a five-year reconstruction plan that laid the foundations of the city today. 

The wealth brought jobs, free health care and education, and other benefits to the country's citizens. It also attracted expatriate workers in their millions from all around the world. Today the UAE population stands at more than 9 million. 

The country's Rulers have recognised that the fortunes of oil must also be used to build a future without it. Oil revenues have been invested in sectors including tourism, property, higher education and new technology. 

In another 60 years, the UAE will be as unrecognisable to us as it would be today for someone living six decades ago.

But all of it traces back to that one day in March 1958, and the dawn of the age of oil.

Words: James Langton 

Editing: Mo Gannon, Paul Stafford, Stephen Nelmes

Animated graphic: Aneesh Grigary

Graphics: Roy Cooper

Photographs: BP Archive, John Vale, Estate of Roderic Owen, Estate of Wanda Jablonski, Sir Rupert Hay/Pitt Rivers Museum

Opening image: Adma Enterprise rig off Das Island, 1958, BP Archive

Closing images: Abu Dhabi in 1967, BP Archive; Abu Dhabi in the mid-1970s: Alain Saint-Hilaire; Abu Dhabi in 2014, Silvia Razgova for The National

Film extracts: BP Archive

The New Explorers, Director James Hill

ADMA For Short, Director Ronnie Anscombe

Station 307, Director Louis Malle 

Copyright The National, Abu Dhabi, 2018