Obituary: Edward Henderson

Edward Firth Henderson, diplomat: born 12 December 1917; Political Agent, Qatar 1969-71; Ambassador to Qatar 1971-74; CMG 1972; married 1960 Jocelyn Nenk (two daughters); died Oxford 13 April 1995.

Steely-nerved and a subtle negotiator, Edward Henderson was a prominent personality in the Arabian Gulf, where he spent almost a lifetime nurturing Britain's relations with the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Oman and Bahrain. He harmonised the aims of Britain with those of the Gulf states with regard to oil exploration and the establishment of the oil industry in the lower Gulf. He also co-ordinated the policies of the British oil companies with the broader issues facing the British government, working sometimes as an "oil company man", at other times as a member of the Diplomatic Service.

Henderson was 22 years old at the outbreak of the Second World War; after coming down from Brasenose College, Oxford, with a degree in modern history, he immediately entered the Army. Posted to Syria in 1942, he served with the explorer Wilfred Thesiger, who, under the command of Col Gerald de Gaury, was raising a Druze squadron with which to fight the Vichy French and resist an expected German invasion of the region via the Caucasus.

Thesiger liked him immediately ("a charming and reliable man") and maintained contact with him to the end. It was in Henderson's house that Thesiger stayed before and after some of his desert journeys and there, too, that many years later Thesiger was reunited with the once youthful Bedouin travelling companions, Bin Kabina and Salim Bin Ghubaisha, whom he immortalised in his book Arabian Sands (1959).

After the war, Henderson served briefly in the army of occupation in Germany and then, for two years, with Glubb Pasha's Arab Legion in Jordan and Palestine. The spectacle of events in the latter region greatly distressed him. "I felt sure we were wrong to give them [the Jews] a country almost completely inhabited with Arabs who had been there since prehistoric days," he wrote in his memoirs, This Strange Eventful History (1988). "The country was not ours to give away."

Unable to intervene, he sought a new role and, in 1948, secured a post with Petroleum Development Ltd, a subsidiary of the Iraq Petroleum Company. Thus his career entered the processes by which Western intrusion transformed the antiquated Gulf sheikhdoms into hugely rich oil-producing states.

The problems facing him were ambiguous tribal allegiances and territorial disputes mainly between the rulers of Muscat and Oman, Abu Dhabi and Saudi Arabia, each of whom was eager to maximise his own authority and domains. Clearly, no oil company would risk the massive investment required by oil exploration and production unless these difficulties had been more or less surmounted. Competition between the rulers was duplicated by competition between the oil companies representing them and these, in turn, reflected Anglo- American rivalries: on the one hand the Arabian American Oil Company (Aramco), working with the Saudi Arabian government, on the other the British oil companies supporting the Trucial States and Oman.

In those early years, Henderson travelled tirelessly throughout the oases, mountains, deserts and gravel plains using RAF Dakotas or Chevrolet pick- ups equipped with jacks and tow-ropes. His task was to win over the Duru sheikhs whose tribelands covered the most likely sites of oil deposits and, more generally, to bolster the authority of the Sultan of Muscat, whose rule was disputed by the Imam of Oman and his supporters in Saudi Arabia. In doing so, Henderson and his colleagues were assisted by the formation in 1950 of the British levy force that was later named the Trucial Oman Scouts.

Between 1952 and 1955 Henderson also played a role in the Buraimi dispute which arose following the arrival in the Buraimi Oasis of armed Saudi Arabians. His famous sang-froid and skill at avoiding confrontation were demonstrated in October 1955, when he is said to have sent the driver of an exceptionally belligerent British officer on an errand in order to prevent him from awakening the officer before his planned offensive. By the time he awoke, it was too late. The Saudis having moved off after a severe warning and guarantees of safe passage, the British objective had been achieved without loss of life or serious casualties.

The Buraimi dispute gravely damaged Anglo-Saudi relations and it fell to Henderson to assist in seeking a long-term solution through arbitration. Since the distinguished Arabist George Rentz and other American scholars attached to Aramco were undertaking extensive historical research to back Saudi Arabia's claims, Henderson sought to balance the picture by collecting contrary evidence to submit to an international tribunal.

In 1956 Henderson was seconded to the Foreign Service for three years, during which the SAS and the Trucial Oman Scouts together with the Omani forces successfully strengthened the Sultan of Muscat's authority in the interior.

In 1959, now a fully fledged member of the Foreign Service, Henderson was appointed Political Officer in Abu Dhabi. Subsequent posts took him to Jerusalem and Bahrain. He then became Political Agent and, in 1971, Britain's first ambassador in Qatar when that country attained full sovereignty; it was there in the following year that he witnessed with approval the replacement of the ruler, Sheikh Ahmad bin Ali, by his more competent and hard-working cousin Sheikh Khalifah bin Hamad Al-Khalifah, who continues to rule Qatar today.

During his years in the Gulf Henderson befriended almost every ruler there. Of these his favourite was certainly Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan, whom he supported when the latter was the Governor of Buraimi and with whom he worked closely in redeveloping that region (now named Al Ain) after the cessation of hostilities. It was therefore natural that, after retiring from the Foreign Office in 1974, besides lecturing on Arab affairs and directing the Council for the Advancement of Arab-British Understanding in London, he should have returned to Abu Dhabi to work for Sheikh Zayed who had succeeded his brother, Shakhbut, as ruler in 1966 and assumed the presidency of the United Arab Emirates upon its formation five years later.

A respected and extremely popular figure, Edward Henderson served Sheikh Zayed devotedly, by helping to build up Abu Dhabi's Documentation Centre for Historical Research. His death marks the passing of a true friend of the Gulf Arabs and the loss of one of the few remaining British adventurers and Arabists of the old school.

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