Jo Tatchell first arrived in the city of Abu Dhabi as a child in 1974, when the discovery of oil was quickly turning a small fishing town into a growing international community. More than thirty years later, change has reached breakneck pace: Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates, is becoming a dizzying metropolis of ten-lane highways and overlapping languages, and its riches and emphasis on cultural development have thrust it into the international spotlight. In A Diamond in the Desert, Tatchell returns to Abu Dhabi and goes on the hunt for the story behind the headlines-retracing old steps, planting new ones, and searching for clues to mysteries that have never left her. She finds more than she bargained for-a glimpse into a city that, before it meets a patiently waiting world, must first better get to know itself.
Abu Dhabi has a story to hide, and life there carries countless contradictions. The city is a tolerant melting-pot of cultures and faiths, but less than 7,000 of its 800,000 native residents are deemed eligible to vote by the ruling class and the nation’s president holds absolute veto power over his advisory boards and councils. The Emirates boast one of the world’s highest GDP per capita, but the poor distribution of wealth in its cities is staggering. Abu Dhabi’s royal family, worth an estimated $500 billion, lives off the sweat of the city’s migrant workers, who subject themselves to danger and poverty under barely-observed labor laws. But now, the city is making an international splash with a showy investment in tourism, arts and culture, perhaps signaling a change to a more open, tolerant state. A new film studio is sprouting up in Abu Dhabi, and the year 2013 will bring a new branch of the Louvre and a Guggenheim museum designed by Frank Gehry.
But can Abu Dhabi truly commit to a new era of liberty after so many years of control? As this sparkling city surges into the future, it devotes just as much energy to concealing its past. Tatchell’s exploration of Abu Dhabi’s history takes her to the edge of the Empty Quarter and on a wild goose chase around the city she once thought she knew, and her often-fruitless visits to newspaper archives in search of coverage of an old story reveal the city’s desperation to hush up bad news. She seeks out friends old and new, local and expat, and discovers that word of mouth delivers more of the picture than do scattered news clippings. Along the way, she probes unknown aspects of Abu Dhabian history and culture-its ancient system of tribal organization, the condition of the city’s million foreign workers, the emergence of women in Emirati society-that might somehow explain the complexity and contradiction of life there.
But Tatchell’s journey is nothing if not personal. Every turn she makes in the present conjures experiences from her past: the news that the offshore Saadiyat Island will house the city’s new museums evokes childhood camping trips there, while a reunion with a friend reminds her of their younger days partying in nightclubs and apartments dripping with riches. Memories of a young girl’s disappearance and a local’s gruesome death haunt her, but both mysteries have gone unsolved. Where Abu Dhabi wants to hide its scars, Tatchell can’t help but uncover them.
Tatchell takes us on a tour of the city with an outlook that’s part native, part critic, part wide-eyed traveler. The result is a truly original collage of perspectives and images, from a regal expatriate whose husband was one of the first Brits to settle in Abu Dhabi to young Emirati artists celebrating their newfound freedom of expression. A compelling piece of history told with an intimate narrative voice, A Diamond in the Desert is an eye-opening and often haunting perspective on just how much this fascinating city has changed-and, for better or for worse, how much it has stayed the same.
The year is 1965, years before the explosion of the economies of the United Arab Emirates: Longtime partners and friends Edward Henderson, a British Political Officer and supervisor of the blossoming oil trade, and Zayed bin Sultan al Nahyan, a member of the royal family and ruler of the Eastern Region, meet among the dunes of the sparsely populated Eastern Region outside of Abu Dhabi.
Henderson has taught Zayed the ways of Western business, while Zayed has opened the doors of his complex, closeted world to Henderson.
Zayed, unique within the royal family, holds a modern vision for Abu Dhabi, which at that time has only a fishing and date-farming economy. Zayed imagines a glittering, prosperous city here on the Persian Gulf.
Chapter 1 The Final Disillusionment
In the present time, Tatchell touches down in Abu Dhabi, more than thirty years after she first arrived. Recently her brother, Bill, mentioned over the phone the plans to open branches of the Guggenheim and Louvre museums on the islet of Saadiyat, where the Tatchells camped as children; the move signals a shift-perhaps toward a more open, tolerant Islamic state-for Abu Dhabi, which has never prioritized high culture.
The Tatchells were one of many expatriate families there: When Mr. Tatchell took a job managing a catering/supermarket company in 1974 (Jo is three), oil interest had begun to change the city from a from tiny seaside village to asphalt roads and UAE currency in the early 70s.
After attending boarding school and university in the UK, Tatchell returns to Abu Dhabi, but is eventually repelled by the injustice of the city’s wealth distribution and the indolence of its rich and returns to London in 1993.
Her two returns to Abu Dhabi, both in the 90s and the present, remind Tatchell of Wilfred Thesiger, a British explorer who, like T.E. Lawrence before him, embraced the discipline and loyalty of desert life when he first spent arrived in the 40s. When he returned in the 70s, he was disgusted by the indolence that oil and labor imported from the Indian sub-continent had brought on the people he loved; he called the new Abu Dhabi his final disillusionment.”
Abu Dhabi’s complex political structure features Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed al Nahyan (Khalifa), who as president of the UAE and leader of the Emirate of Abu Dhabi possesses veto power over a number of councils and advisory groups. The UAE’s 40-member Federal National Council is the only part of the government that incorporates the public, and hardly: 20 members are appointed by UAE rulers, and the remaining 20 are elected by voters effectively appointed by the rulers as well (only 6,689 of 800,000 Emiratis are eligible voters).
The government’s Plan Abu Dhabi 2030 sets out a 25-year strategy for the city’s development, promising ongoing access to the desert, sea and natural assets that are integral to our national identity, while building a global capital with its own rich cultural heritage.”
The Sheik’s father and predecessor, Zayed bin Sultan al Nahyan, remains a beloved figure after his death in 2004. His were the last instincts toward a conservative approach to development; in the four years since, there has been more construction than there was in the previous forty.
Chapter 2 Write the Bad News in Sand
The Abu Dhabi of Tatchell’s youth is a secretive city where news of crime and scandal is passed by word of mouth; a new newspaper, the National, tries to paint an honest picture, but old habits of secrecy die hard.
One incident has haunted Tatchell since her childhood: an English girl disappeared in a flash playing in front of her house. No one saw her vanish or found any traces of her, and the incident took on the quality of myth as the speculation since has taken place only in whispers.
The incident inspires Tatchell to hunt for the truth and better understand the city that, despite the time she has spent there, remains full of mysteries, but her trip to the city’s Cultural Foundation yields a fruitless search for the newspaper archive; Oil and Gas Journal and Gulf Business magazines are displayed in the reading room instead.
Chapter 3 Father of the Gazelle
Tribes, each led by one ruling sheikh, have been the primary mode of political organization in the Emirates for centuries; the Bani Yas tribe originally settled inland around the Liwa crescent of oases and eventually founded Abu Dhabi on the coast to the north.
Tatchell and her old friend Safwan drive out to the Liwa-they travel in Safwan’s brand-new BMW where as children they would have come by camel-and discuss Abu Dhabi’s religious openness compared to its similarly Islamic neighbor Saudi Arabia: churches dot the city, and Hindus and Buddhists are free to worship. Safwan left Abu Dhabi to study in the US, but has come back to stay, finding Tatchell through Facebook.
The Liwa, once nothing but desert on the edge of the Empty Quarter where Tatchell used to camp under the stars on family vacations, is now home to a lively new town of 30,000 people and includes a strip mall, a KFC, and a luxurious hotel that offers Abu Dhabi expats a weekend escape. Beyond the town stretch almost a million square miles of sand-the greatest expanse of dunes on earth.
Chapter 4 The End of Empire
Long before the discovery of oil, the Arabian Peninsula had been a prize for colonial powers like Britain and France because of its status as an imperial frontier,” a passage to trade with India.
Pearls quickly became the target of foreign interest on the coast; cultures ranging from the Egyptians, Greeks and Romans to the Chinese to Renaissance Europeans had prized them.
In 1853, the coastal tribes make peace with each other for the first time and come to be known as the Trucial Sheikdoms. In 1892, Britain and this group agree to the treaty of protectorate”: Britain would protect the sheikhs from enemies, and the sheikhs would forgo contracts with other foreign powers.
In 1950, the first drilling rig is planted and would eventually reveal oil reserves, giving the region overnight importance.
At the end of WWII, Zayed was far-sighted enough to realize that the future of the region’s tribes depended on unprecedented unity. Britain’s Labour government withdrew from Abu Dhabi in 1971; on December 2 of that year, the United Arab Emirates, a new country, came into being as the merger of several of the region’s tribes. Zayed, having steered the union, was appointed president of this new nation.
When Margaret Thatcher ends education grants to students from former Commonwealth protectorate in 1980, making British university prohibitively expensive, the US becomes the desired destination for Middle Eastern teenagers looking for degrees in marketing and engineering.
Chapter 5 Grande Dame
Tatchell visits the home of Jocelyn Henderson, the widow of British diplomat Edward Henderson. When Edward first arrived in 1948 as a member of the military, the city had only shanty homes-no running water, roads or schools. He later resigned from the military and returned to work for Iraq Petroleum Company, and his knowledge of the region and its people made him an essential advisor and negotiator.
Jocelyn reminisces about the earliest days of her husband’s relationship with Zayed, and the talent he had for settling disputes and gaining the trust of tribes beyond his own. Edward saw in Zayed the early signs of greatness, and when Zayed took over as leader of the newly formed Emirates, Edward went to work for him.
Chapter 6 I Against My Brother
The dark side of the region’s tribal system is rampant violence within and between families--even the reign of the al Nahyan family has featured a forty-year run of fratricide.
An Arab saying captures this use of violence for survival: I against my brother, I and my brother against our cousin, my brother and our cousin against the neighbors, all of us against the foreigner.”
After the discovery of oil, Shakhbut (Zayed’s brother and predecessor) resisted development; the early 60s brought the first post office and telephone system, but Shakhbut put a ban on construction in 1961.
A peaceful and British-supervised transfer of power from Shakhbut to Zayed occurs in 1966 after Shakhbut’s refusal to move forward with Emirate development frustrates local citizens and Brits alike. Zayed knows there is no choice but to embrace the discovery of oil and the stability it would bring his poor region: he brought his people from the desert to the world.”
Chapter 7 And Then There Was Oil
In the 1950s and 60s, development surges under Zayed and oil is first discovered in 1958. Scientists, oil executives, construction workers and engineers pour in from abroad, and caterpillar diggers roll across the sand to build homes for the influx of talent. Still, it was important to Zayed to retain the humility that came with faith and respect for the Koran.
Cranes become, and remain, a fixture of the Abu Dhabi landscape; the skyline is the most up-to-date picture of the latest construction ventures.
Environmentalists express concern about development’s drain on natural resources; the people of Abu Dhabi, and of the UAE overall, use more energy per capita than anyone else on earth. The coastline, its coral reefs, and its wildlife are endangered by constant construction.
Chapter 8 The Unseen Hand
Censorship has loosened since Tatchell’s childhood, when bare shoulders and legs were blacked out of magazine ads, but persists in more serious forms: media laws make it a crime to criticize the government, with jail time or a fine as punishment.
In the 70s, bad news like the English girl’s disappearance was also kept out of the press, away from foreign investors; crimes were only reported once the perpetrator had been caught and the police could be commended. Tatchell isn’t sure that papers have changed; they’re filled with business deals, not with serious crimes.
After her unsuccessful visit to the Cultural Foundation, Tatchell makes another stop in her ongoing search for a national archive, this time at Al Ittihad, an Arabic-language newspaper. The director there has little to offer but the phone number of yet another place, but Tatchell is thrilled by the possibility of uncovering some evidence of the city’s past.
Historical documents, sent to Tatchell by a British friend, reveal how close the U.S. came to declaring war on Abu Dhabi, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait in 1973, when these countries imposed oil sanctions in response to the U.S. support of Arab enemy Israel.
Chapter 9 The Pearly King
Tatchell visits Abdullah Masaood, one of Abu Dhabi’s most prominent businessmen and her father’s former partner.
Abdullah’s business empire, which includes car manufacturing, farming, jewelry and travel, has the land to build a new luxury beachfront development, but the government has halted him in hopes of using it for yet another highway for the city’s chaotic traffic. His manner is so calming that it is easy to forget his status in Abu Dhabi and his almost unimaginable wealth.
In thinking about the city’s forward-looking plans with Abdullah, Tatchell reflects on the nearby examples of Dubai and Saudi Arabia: both are floundering after years of over-expansion and bad debt. Abu Dhabi’s 2030 plan strategically avoids these mistakes.
Native Abu Dhabians count for only 20 percent of the local population. Abdullah, whose wife is English and whose son’s wife is American, is living proof of the global exchange in which Abu Dhabians are now active participants: The younger generation parties in Beirut, dresses in the catwalk collections of Paris, hires Filipina nannies to raise their children, summers on the Riviera and winters in Switzerland.”
Chapter 10 The Next Generation
Tatchell’s seemingly futile search to find Abu Dhabian public records from before 1980 continues: the one lead she had at the National Archive refers her back to the Cultural Foundation, where she began.
Michael, the brother of an old friend, drives Tatchell around the city and describes his daring business venture: a film studio that, only two years old, is already one of the largest in the conservative Middle East.
The unexpected news that Michael’s sister, Tatchell’s friend Elizabeth Donnellan, will be arriving the next day in Abu Dhabi sends Tatchell racing back through memories of her second stint in the city, after university.
On one disturbing night out with Elizabeth, 21-year-old Tatchell visits an apartment boasting outrageous wealth with a panther and gazelle as house pets. But a bizarre, violent video that the host puts on for his guests’ diversion, depicting an unknown girl’s accidental death on her spring break, has haunted Tatchell since. She realizes that some members of the younger generation, high on Western trends, have the uninterested countenance only huge amounts of money can bring.”
Chapter 11 The Song Remains the Same
Reunited after almost 20 years, Tatchell and Elizabeth discuss Abu Dhabi as a place that discourages settling down; Elizabeth, single at 36, laments the end of an intense love she enjoyed there.
For all its tolerance, the city did not allow expatriates to become citizens or own property until 2005.
In a nightclub the two women visit, Tatchell discovers when Thriller” comes on that the celebrity to whom Abu Dhabians most relate is Michael Jackson-a kid with too much money and nothing to spend it on.”
The two compare informal clusters of men in the nightclub to the ancient tribal custom of the majlis-a group of tribal leaders who welcomed guests to discuss the issues of the day. The tradition has persisted in Abu Dhabi, but folded in more outsiders as business and culture have demanded. The custom is built not on contracts, but on personal bonds.
Chapter 12 We Also Set Them Free
At lunch at Abdullah Masaood’s house, Tatchell is reminded that his family and those like it possessed slaves until the practice was outlawed in 1971. Slavery differed slightly in the Arab world in that slaves were often well protected and, in some cases, an extension of the family. Afro-Emiratis remain a testament to the area’s collision of cultures.
Today, Asian servants have taken their place, primarily rearing children.
Migrant workers, who work in the construction and maintenance of this most lavish of cities, face hazardous conditions. Laborers building or washing windows atop the city’s many skyscrapers teeter on scaffolding and wire without protection; accidents are frequent.
A disturbing gap exists between promises made and observable progress on human-rights. Emiratis’ lack of curiosity and outrage about their country’s poor human-rights record slows the efforts of outside organizations to intervene, though persuading Frank Ghery, the architect of the Abu Dhabi Guggenheim, to insist on better labor standards for construction workers on his building proved successful. In general, conflicts of interest, pursuit of profit and the view that workers possess choice all hamper change.
Tatchell pays a visit to Georgina, an Indian woman once her father’s personal assistant, now a thriving professional. The sacrifices she made in living so far from her homeland have paid off in finding an Indian community and raising a happy, prospering family in Abu Dhabi.
Chapter 13 Don’t Bury the Moon
Tatchell continues her search for public records at the National Media Council, housed inside the Ministry of Culture, Youth and Community. It has replaced the Federal Ministry of Information and Cultural, known for its heavy-handed monitoring of print, radio and television.
The Ministry of Culture is just another apparent dead end in Tatchell’s research.
At last, Tatchell finds the only explicit acknowledgement of the English girl’s kidnapping in a 1979 BBC program called The Oilman’s Wife, on the lives of expatriate women: one woman interviewed says that One or two things have happened here and it isn’t
safe to let the children out anymore.”
A friend of Tatchell’s parents confirms the government’s choice to look the other way on expatriate affairs: We just weren’t that important...we were there on the basis that we wouldn’t upset the status quo.”
Many versions of the English girl’s fate have circulated: Tatchell’s father believes she was found two decades later, alive and well in Pakistan, others say she was found dead and the police hushed it up. Tatchell reflects on the effect of Abu Dhabi’s hush-hush approach to bad news: when nothing is written down, the past becomes mutable.”
Chapter 14 The Astronaut’s Wife
Tatchell hears the story of a Filipina beauty technician, who enjoys the freedom to work that she is afforded here. She dreads retirement-it is expensive to stay in Abu Dhabi, but would live under the thumb of family in the Philippines or her husband’s native Syria.
Elizabeth introduces Tatchell to Reem, a charming, brazen young woman whose villa is yet another example of the city’s stunning wealth.
Tatchell traces the path to the Abu Dhabian woman’s current state as a largely indolent creature who, finding real work impossible due to cultural restrictions, become slaves to fashion and body image; under the tribal system decades earlier, women were merchants, mothers, farmers and defenders of the tribe in their husbands’ absence.
Local fortune-teller Amina is a Soviet woman who, like many of her countrywomen, came to the Emirates in the 1960s after marrying a UAE astronaut trained in the USSR-promised wealth and comfort, she discovered that a sand-blown tent was her home.
Partying at Reem’s, Tatchell’s circle discovers that their alcohol supply has run dry. The girls’ covert trip reveals a back-alley black market; with a liquor license most expats can buy alcohol; nationals are not permitted a drop.
Chapter 15 I Am Not My Country”
Meeting Reem’s fourteen-year-old niece Zain, who does not learn Arabic at her local school, reminds Tatchell of the threats on the region’s tribal heritage: traditional songs, cuisine, stories and dialects are all dying out.
The government seems to have recognized this: 2008 was designated the year of National Identity in the Emirates, and a conference on Emirati culture was organized in Abu Dhabi. The aim was to inspire an idea of the modern Emirati people.” Given the government’s sensitivity toward criticism, this public debate was a significant break with tradition.
Still, there is no way to reconcile Abu Dhabi’s desire to grow into a city of 3 million by 2030 with its need to establish a stronger balance between nationals and outsiders. This feeling permeates the UAE: Dubai’s chief of police was quoted as saying I’m afraid we are building towers but losing the Emirates.”
Tatchell reflects that Abu Dhabi lacks the engrained history that true civilizations require: it moves ever forward, but does it ever look back? The past, she thinks, is an embarrassing reminder of the struggles, the poverty and their insignificance.”
Abdulla al Amri, the director of the Cultural Foundation, introduces Tatchell to the idea of Middle Islam,” a progressive interpretation of Islam founded on pragmatism and a belief in dialogue and courtesy-the Koranic message remade for modern times. The government insists that all must be free to worship in their own way.
A gaping chasm exists between the wealthy Abu Dhabi elite, who buy up English football clubs as displays of wealth, and regular citizens; sooner, or later, Tatchell suspects, this lower class will no longer feel their true values are represented by their monarchy.
Chapter 16 Women, Insha’Allah
Tatchell learns that Jocelyn Henderson has been teaching local history to a group of female undergraduates from Sheikh Zayed University; the students can’t believe the great changes their country has undergone.
Education reform in Abu Dhabi is urgent: public school teachers are paid about $600 a month, and there are no female Emirati professors.
Still, more women graduate from university in Abu Dhabi than men, and the city boasts one of the highest percentages of female graduates in the world.
Sheik Zayed’s wife, Sheikha Fatima, was a driving force behind women’s education. In 1972, she founded the Abu Dhabi Women’s Association (an autonomous body, with its own budget, dedicated to improving education and professional opportunities for women). Three years later, she united the women’s associations of the seven Emirates to create the UAE Women’s Federation.
Today, women occupy powerful positions around the Emirates, including nine representatives out of forty in the Federal National Council, the UAE’s elected advisory body.
Still, family obligations come first, and even Fatima said publicly in 2003 that a woman’s freedom to pursue her career, while essential, should not interfere with the duties of motherhood.
Chapter 17 Island of Happiness
Tatchell visits Saadiyat, an island just off Abu Dhabi and about half its size, future home to the Guggenheim and Louvre branches and other development projects. The state has been trying to find a good use for the land for more than twenty years, and now Saadiyat is being cast as the site for Abu Dhabi’s new cultural center.
By e-mail, Tatchell’s brother Bill recounts an incident that she suspects has kept him from returning to Abu Dhabi: on a sunny 1994 afternoon boating off Saadiyat with their father, Bill witnessed a hit-and-run between a huge Australian boat and a local fishing boat. Bill tries to help, but is unable to save a national who dies among the wreckage.
The local police hush up the incident and Bill leaves Abu Dhabi; haunted by his failure to help and the lack of proper procedure and disclosure, he has never spoken of it. Bill’s involvement, combined with the gap between the local and expatriate communities, meant that he could be implicated at any time despite his connections. His paranoia about the local government’s desire to present its own version of events became too much to bear.
Tatchell’s return to the Centre for Documentation and Research to dig deeper into the story leads her to a tiny newspaper piece that contains none of the accident’s violent details; as with the myth of the English girls’ disappearance, it’s clear to her that there is a world above and a world beneath...public and private were not designed to mix.” The gap between Bill’s memory and the presented version of events is unsettling, and there is no access for an outsider. Today, Tatchell knows, nothing has changed.”
The plight of neighbor Dubai is one bad story that has made headlines: tens of billions of dollars in debt, the once-thriving city is said to have gone to Abu Dhabi for aid. Dubai’s misfortune is Abu Dhabi’s great opportunity: the more conservative capital can secure regional dominance and global reputation. Some locals speculate that Dubai will soon be a suburb of Abu Dhabi.”
Chapter 18 The New Islamic Golden Age
Abu Dhabi’s Emirates Palace hotel, which cost the government $3 billion to build, hosts the Emirati Expressions exhibition, a glitzy showcase of modern Emirati artists organized by the Tourist Development and Investment Corporation and aimed at preparing locals for the arrival of the Guggenheim and Louvre.
The art exhibition seems another place in Abu Dhabi where, for the first time, firmly established codes are open to interpretation: portraits, long forbidden by Islam for their implicit challenge of God’s ownership of the act of creation, represent a large number of the works.
Tatchell’s artist friend Wasel shares his aesthetic idea of UAE-ism”: the diversity and sense of contradiction that dominate the consciousness in Abu Dhabi and gives birth to art there. The idea stems from the challenge that UAE artists face in trying to incorporate elements of Western modernity with their own vision of their homeland and the myriad questions this combination raises.
Tatchell writes that Abu Dhabi has reached the limits of consumption and realized that oil will never create respectability; Abu Dhabi has thus turned its attention to the new frontier of intellectual and cultural empire.
Tatchell visits Abdulla al Amri to discuss the city’s choice to develop high culture; Al Amri attributes the decision to Sheikh Mohammed, President Khalifa’s half brother and the Emirates’ crown prince.
Mohammed, observing that history’s great civilizations were also beacons of learning and ideas, wants to ignite a second Islamic Golden Age” of art and culture to bring international esteem to Abu Dhabi; the first, in the 11th and 12th centuries, united scholars across faiths and prioritized liberal thinking over religious dogma.
The West needs Abu Dhabi to triumph in this more liberal, open state because of the threat we feel from the aggressive fundamentalism of nearby nations like Iran and Saudi Arabia.
Where the tiny country can not gain power through force, it may gain it through public initiatives that present the voices of citizens. Events like Emirati Expressions demonstrate that, for the first time after years of control, the state is turning to its people and asking for ideas.
Still, Tatchell suggests that change will be slow: Abu Dhabi’s deeply engrained priority of the community over the individual means that learning about liberty through theory or art will not overturn the existing system, even as it improves the lives of many of its citizens.
If this experiment works, it will be because Abu Dhabi leads with its ancient, tribal spirit of determination and diplomacy over glitz and glamour. Most of all, Abu Dhabi must shed the social hypocrisy of proclaiming itself a cultural, intellectual capital while restricting communication and unfairly treating its most vulnerable.