It was my mother who first told me of my uncle’s years in the Trucial States. She had kept all the photographs he had ever sent her in one of those old albums with the corner stickers and would let me see them occasionally when I was young and inquisitive and insistent.
I remember in particular a set of four black-and-white photographs and an image of a boat by the sea. They were smallish, unevenly trimmed, and portrayed a large group of men as they danced in ragged lines. My uncle, who would usually write short notes on the back of each photograph, had written on the reverse of all of them.
My strongest memory of my uncle has always been of a home without a television. He lived in a large house with his wife and five children and would entertain guests with a Super 8 projector and an old Kodak Kodaslide. There was a rifle on the wall with a blocked muzzle and a khanjar he’d bought in Dubai, but I never paid much attention to the films he had taken or the photographs he had captured. He was handsome, and arguably knew it, and had a chuckle-like laugh. He still does, although distance and unfamiliarity have kept us apart.
He no longer lives in the old town-house that I remember as a child, but in a flat filled with the memorabilia of a civil engineer. For most of the year it is packed away, but is laid out immaculately across a large section of his living room when I visit one day in late autumn. A map of Dubai from the early 1960s is propped up against the back wall and a detailed plan of Ras Al Khaimah lies nearby. There are a handful of British Army maps of the Trucial States too amidst a sprinkling of drawings and a few old black-and-white postcards.
It is towards the Kodaslide home projector, however, that my attention is drawn. It is so old that a slide carousel and remote control are absent, with only a single slot present for every slide to be painstakingly inserted, viewed and removed. The images it projects onto the wall in front of me are remarkable in their simplicity: the Ruler of Ajman, kneeling in the sand on the first day of Ramadan, December 1965; a state visit by the Ruler of Kuwait, May 1966; and a group of Baluchi children, backs straight and posing for the camera, Deira, September 1967. There are hundreds of photographs.
Most had been taken between September 1964 and May 1968, when my uncle – Robert ‘Robin’ Webb – lived and worked in the Trucial States as a civil engineer for Sir William Halcrow & Partners. He was young, having turned 24 not long before his arrival, and fresh out of England. He had set up home in a flat in Deira over-looking what was then called Taxi Square (now Baniyas Square) and began work almost immediately – constructing the souq wharf in Deira, extending the customs wharf in Dubai, deepening and dredging Dubai Creek, and eventually carrying out the initial site investigations for Port Rashid. His work would eventually take him all over the Trucial States, to Ajman and Umm Al Quwain, Abu Dhabi and Ras Al Khaimah.
“For the deepening of the creek we had to blast through layers of hard rock and then dredge it all out,” he says. “I remember the Sheikha who lived in the old palace in Shindagha objecting because the palace vibrated every time we blasted just outside her front door. I was the one who had to go and see her and install vibration detectors on her home. Everyone thought I was going to be shot because she was such a fierce woman. ‘You can go Robin,’ they said. ‘You’re expendable. You’re young, not married’.”
Many of the photographs he took were simple snapshots – weekends away, parties, time out at work – but others captured people and places that have now changed beyond all recognition: dhows loading at the souq wharf before construction of the souq road; riot police in Deira during The Six Day War; armed Bedu in front of Dubai Fort.
“I had an old Kodak pullout camera – you know, one of those with the bellows – and my first photographs in Dubai were taken with that. I’ve still got it somewhere,” he tells me, now well into his 70s. “But I wanted to get a decent camera and I had a friend back in London who recommended the Yashica 35mm. It was either that or something like a Canon or Minolta or Nikon SLR, which were complicated in those days. But this Yashica I got was so simple. You could set the focus, the speed and the exposure with relative ease.”
Downstairs from his flat in Taxi Square was a Jashanmal store and an open-air cinema lay just across the road. A bank was located nearby and during the course of the year he lived in Deira he documented elements of the life he saw around him. One particular photograph – a view of barasti houses from his bedroom balcony at 4.30pm – was taken in October 1965. He was very precise about the recording of detail.
“There wasn’t a single road outside of Dubai,” he remembers. “There weren’t any roads in Abu Dhabi, just tracks. You had to be good at navigating, but once you got to learn the tracks and you could tell where you were – north or south or near the mountains or by the sand dunes – it became relatively easy.
“For my last job before finally leaving I designed and supervised the construction of the first town roads in Ras Al Khaimah, but for us expatriates with Land Rovers we could go anywhere. Outside of Dubai you drove on tracks, over the vast sabkha flats at low tide (at or around high tide nasty accidents could and did happen when the sabkha crust turned to toothpaste and the vehicle suddenly sank), over the sand dunes, across the gravel plains, or along the beach (again at low tide). Consequently night driving required an accurate knowledge of the tides and great vigilance. I remember an awful crash on the beach road to Ras Al Khaimah. It was a head-on collision between a Land Rover and a Bedford truck. Everyone in the Land Rover died as the bodywork was sheared off beneath the Bedford.”
© Robert Webb
For his first allocated period of leave a year-and-a-half after his arrival he returned to England via Iraq on the British India Line, stopping off at each port along the Arabian Gulf before disembarking in Basra and catching the train up to Baghdad. From there he travelled to Mosul and Istanbul, then on to Sofia, Venice and Paris on the Orient Express.
“There are so many memories of my time in the Trucial States. The excitement of responsibility at an early age. The fun of exploring the desert and mountains. The endless sunshine. The continuous parties. The frustrations of there being few or no women.
“But I enjoyed it as a bachelor because you were working like crazy. I know people nowadays say it’s terrible the way all the Pakistanis and Bangladeshis are treated, having to work in the middle of the summer, but we all did in those days. There was no air conditioning (there was air conditioning in the office but it didn’t work very well) and you were out on site in the blazing sun all day long. Nobody batted an eyelid. When I was doing the pipelines in the desert we lived in tents, but you just put up with it.
“Normally we would get up around 6am, start work and come home for breakfast at around eight or nine. Work would then continue until about one in the afternoon when we would go home for lunch. After lunch work would generally continue until about 6pm. The rest of the evening was then your own. Being in charge of harbour works often meant I would be out on the water and unable to return home for meals. These would then be taken cross-legged on the deck with the Arab boat captain and the Pakistani or Indian workers.
“You only had Thursday afternoon and Friday as a holiday, but then there was Christmas and Easter, which would be long weekends, and we’d go off into the mountains or out to Abu Musa or something like that. In the evenings we all drank and smoked hard and had a whale of a time.
“My favourite place to live was undoubtedly Ras Al Khaimah, where I lived and worked alone in an Arab house near Wadi Bih. I was looked after by a house-boy I employed and my driver and Pakistani labourers lived in a small house attached to a cool palm garden. There was a garage and a large compound around my house which the Pakistani men tried to turn into a lawn for me in their spare time. Nearby the RAK manager of the British Bank of the Middle East had a wonderful small swimming pool beneath a palm roof. The pool was above ground level with the water up to the top of the pool edge so that you could swim about in the shade looking out over the parched desert. It was heaven on earth.”
He eventually left the Trucial States by dhow for Bander Abbas in Iran on May 13, 1968, although he would return for short visits en route to the Philippines in the early 1970s. His journey home would be long, heading east through Pakistan and India before travelling to Thailand, Malaya, Singapore, Saigon and Hong Kong, and onwards towards Hawaii, Japan and San Francisco.
“I’ll always remember the lovely sunsets. I don’t know what they’re like nowadays but they were fantastic back then. The times spent on the beach were unbelievable when I think about it now. You could go anywhere and you’d be on your own. There would be no one for miles and miles. It’s crazy when you think about it.”
* An abridged version of this article first appeared in Vision magazine, December 2016