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Middle East: Sheik Jackpot

6 minute read

Five times a day for the past 30 years, thin, threadbare Sheik Shakhbut bin Sultan faced west, bowed low, and prayed for an oil strike. His realm of Abu Dhabi was desperately in need of some good luck. Up and down the Persian Gulf, the states of Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Iran were rolling in oil wealth. But year after year, Abu Dhabi’s 25,000 sq. mi. of sand, date palms and barren offshore islands just got hotter, more humid and windswept than before.

Perpetual Truce. But then Allah responded to the sheik’s prayers—belatedly, but in overwhelming measure. Two vast oilfields have been tapped by British drilling teams, one at Murban in the sandy interior, the other in the shallow coastal waters of the gulf. Conservative oilmen estimate Abu Dhabi’s proven oil reserves at about 3.8 billion bbl., which at present royalty rates would return some $1.4 billion over the years. Ridiculous, say other experts: on the basis of latest discoveries, reserves may be as great as 38 billion bbl.

This has all been rather unsettling to Abu Dhabi, whose 15,000 Bedouins have got along for centuries on piracy, pearl fishing and intertribal raids. In the 19th century, the swift pirate dhows were swept from the gulf by Britain, which established “a perpetual maritime truce”hence the name Trucial States, given to Abu Dhabi and six other sheikdoms. Pearl fishing became unprofitable when the Japanese cleverly introduced cultured pearls to the world. There was nothing left to Abu Dhabi but intrigue: of the twelve predecessors of the present sheik, only three died peacefully in their palace beds. The rest were either murdered or violently deposed, usually by close relatives. Sheik Shakhbut took over in 1928 when his uncle was assassinated, after having earlier killed Shakhbut’s father who, in turn, had come to power by killing his older brother. Shakhbut is said to have ruled so long and safely only because his own two brothers swore a solemn oath on the Koran not to murder him.

Bugs in the Treasury. In his long years of oil-less rule, Sheik Shakhbut ran his country on customs duties of $140,000 a year, fought some desultory wars with his neighbors in Sharja and Dubai, and lived quietly in his mud-walled palace on an offshore island. He installed an air conditioner in his bedroom but seldom used it because he disliked the noise. He also put in a flush toilet and a pump to supply it with water; sewage disposal was simply a pipe jutting out from the palace wall. Nearly every day, the sheik sat cross-legged in his throne room holding a majlis, at which he listened to complaints of citizens, while Bedouin chiefs grouped around him, some holding on their wrists the hooded falcons that were Abu Dhabi’s only status symbol.

When the oil revenues began to flow in last year, everyone expected great things of Sheik Shakhbut. But it soon developed that what Shakhbut liked to do with money was count it, not spend it. He refused to accept checks from the oil companies, at first kept his cash under his bed. When the bedsprings began to bulge, he had the cash carted to a palace dungeon. It was only after rats began nibbling at the treasure chests and insects started eating the folding money that Shakhbut reluctantly agreed to accept the principle of banking. He now flourishes an outsize checkbook, emblazoned with the red and white flag of Abu Dhabi, but he still hates to sign checks.

Putting Off Payday. Britain, which has a mother-hen relationship to the allegedly independent Trucial States, last year promoted an Abu Dhabi development program calling for $70 million worth of roads, schools and public works. Sheik Shakhbut, 58, accepted the plan only in theory. Businessmen dealing with the sheik have a tendency to overnight grey hair. “He simply asks for 50% in every business deal!” sputtered a Levantine entrepreneur. Shakhbut may amiably concede that he has signed a contract for work to be done, then adds cagily, “But I didn’t say I would pay for it.” His penny pinching even extends to Abu Dhabi’s 47O-man army: each soldier is paid personally by Shakhbut, who stalls off payday as long as possible.

The sheik’s mind resembles a revolving door. Since Abu Dhabi has virtually no water (a glass of water costs about the same as a glass of gin), there is a desperate need for modern equipment to distill sea water. But the sheik has three times shifted the location of a proposed new distillation plant and may well shift it three or 30 times more. Groaned a frustrated British engineer: “We frequently do six weeks’ work for nothing.” The British produced plans to make Abu Dhabi city into a glittering modern capital that would be the pride of the Persian Gulf, but as fast as engineers lay out a new boulevard, Shakhbut grants permission to a local merchant to build a store in the middle of it.

Bustard Hunting. In an effort to broaden the sheik’s outlook, oilmen and the British government have given him red-carpet trips to Paris, London and New York. What interested him most was the large number of automobiles in the three cities. “Keep the cars going,” he said earnestly, thinking happily of the future consumption of Abu Dhabi gasoline. New York City struck him as a “town where people are not civilized. They live like ants or swallows in cliffs. The sun never gets down into the streets.” He was appalled by TV westerns: “All that shooting upsets the basis of good government!”

What delights Shakhbut is the traditional life of his people. “The thing that pleases me most,” he says, “is hunting for bustards with our falcons. It’s tremendous to see the falcon fighting the bustard and killing it. Each falcon has its own special owner and refuses to hunt for anyone else.” The sheik is also a connoisseur of camel’s milk—his only drink—and can tell by the milk’s taste what the camel has been eating and where it was in the desert. For the best milk, he explains, “we feed camels on sea mangrove and dried fish. This gives the milk a slightly fishy freshness we appreciate.” Shakhbut once owned a Cadillac, but when it finally broke down he just abandoned it. Now he makes his state visits in a bone-jarring Land-Rover, but without enthusiasm. “I did all my traveling by camel in the old days,” he sighs, “but now I have to go by car because if the ruler went by camel, people would think it peculiar.”

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