Heard-Bey has a host of published work to her name, but the account of the UAE’s rise is still regarded as the best academic work on the country. The rendering of the details of the fraught negotiations before the federation was formed in December 1971 is definitive.
The first edition of Heard-Bey’s book, one of 70 published works, came off the printing press in 1982, a full 11 years after she started writing it. The 33 years between conception and the book’s latest update probably constitutes a publishing record in its own right. An Arabic version is now being prepared.
Heard-Bey’s own UAE story began on 28 November 1967, when, newly married to British geologist David Heard and her PhD about the modern history of Germany complete, she arrived in Abu Dhabi. Less than two months later, the UK announced it was withdrawing its forces from east of Suez. The protection provided to the Arab countries of the lower Gulf in treaties that were first signed in 1820 was removed at a stroke.
Winds of change were already sweeping one of the sleepiest backwaters of Britain’s disappearing imperium. Oil had been discovered in Abu Dhabi in 1958 and exports started four years later. When Heard-Bey arrived, Sheikh Zayed had been in power just 15 months but his programmes were already turning Abu Dhabi into a boom town.
Berlin-born Heard-Bey, the daughter of Rear-Admiral Erich Bey who died in 1943 while commanding the German Scharnhorst task force, found the Trucial States, as they were then known, to be alien but stimulating. ‘Probably the most difficult thing was that there was then a very small expatriate community which was all British,’ she says. ‘That was the reason why I branched out as soon as possible.’
‘I realised the country was changing before our eyes physically. Change and development was in the air. I wanted to understand what is the basis of this society that is now changing so fast.’ From Trucial States was the result.
Heard-Bey is a director of the Centre for Documentation & Research (CDR), a body originally founded in 1968. She began working there the following year. Government support for the CDR was understandably selfish. With Britain on the way out, a new regime had to be forged and that would inevitably involve defining internal and external borders. Abu Dhabi needed evidence proving the extent and length of Al-Nahyan’s rule. ‘With the exception of some very important letters between the shaikhs, there was very little documentation,’ she says. ‘Really the cupboard was bare.’
The CDR has a wider public information role. ‘From theword go, we decided to collect material about the whole region. The most prolific and detailed source of material is the India office archive in London where there are 23,000 files and material about the whole region. But we are also getting material from Dutch, Portuguese, French and German sources.’
‘We are continuing to collect, including newspapers and economic reports,’ she says. ‘The objective is to get everything written about the Gulf under one roof.’ The CDR’s new building will underline its role as a centre of research and teaching.
Heard-Bey enjoys her work and the country where she has raised her children and still lives with her husband, now an adviser to Abu Dhabi Petroleum Company. But they have bought a house in north Wales and the time will come when the Arabian journey must end. Says Heard-Bey: ‘We don’t want to become museum pieces ourselves.’
From Trucial States to United Arab Emirates