When John Barrett Kelly arrived in Abu Dhabi in 1957, few could imagine what lay ahead. The emirate struck oil within a year and ten years later Britain announced it was leaving the Gulf.
Kelly was an expert on the frontiers of the Arabian Peninsula and Sheikh Zayed, then the Ruler of Abu Dhabi, hired him to help map the boundaries of the emirate and what would become the UAE.
Kelly amassed a unique collection of rare images, maps and letters during his time in the region.
He took photographs of fishing towns, forts and the Liwa oasis, while his private papers provide a frank and lively perspective on the British withdrawal.
The photos depict the houses people lived in and they lived the same sort of life as those of their ancestors. That time is gone now
He also took several striking photographs of Sheikh Zayed, including one of him holding a desert majlis. He sits on a rug, coffee is poured and falcons are admired, while in the background sits a classic car. New York University Abu Dhabi has now acquired the collection and made it accessible to all.
“The photos are important because they chronicle what life was like before the sudden influx of oil,” said Dr Saul Kelly, JB’s son and a history lecturer at King’s College London. “They depict the sort of houses people lived in and they lived the same sort of life as those of their ancestors. That time is gone now.”
JB Kelly was born in New Zealand in 1925 and he was of Irish heritage: his grandfather emigrated from there in the late 19th century. When the second World War broke out, he helped to build aircraft hangars for the US forces.
Afterwards Kelly worked as a teacher, spending stints in England and Cairo. His talent as a scholar took him back to England where in the 1950s he earned a PhD on Britain and the Gulf.
He made his first trip to the then Trucial States in 1957. In Abu Dhabi he met the Ruler of Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Shakhbut and his brother, Sheikh Zayed, who was then Ruler’s Representative in the Eastern Region. He forged strong friendships with both.
When Britain announced in 1968 that it would leave by 1971, Sheikh Zayed hired Kelly to assist with establishing the UAE’s frontiers.
“He had a lot of respect for Sheikh Zayed and Sheikh Shakhbut,” said Dr Kelly.
“They inherited oral traditions and here was a man who could add to that knowledge. He would have long discussions with them about family history. I think that was appreciated by the Rulers.”
His papers also offer an honest assessment take on how he personally viewed the British withdrawal.
According to his son, JB Kelly was a “blunt speaking man … who didn’t have a great deal of time for Foreign Office types in the Gulf” during his time there who felt didn’t appreciate the responsibility they had. He compared those who came here in the 1950s and 1960s for a posting of just two or three years unfavourably with the British personnel who served before 1947 when the Gulf was administered by Britain’s India service.
“[The Foreign Office] came late to administration in the Gulf and didn’t really have an affinity for it as they were diplomats and used to bargaining and bartering,” said Dr Kelly. “This is essentially my father’s criticisms of them. [He felt] most … were out there to pay for the school fees back home.”
After his work with Sheikh Zayed, he went on to advise the Omani government, worked in Washington and published several respected books. His early visits to Abu Dhabi laid the groundwork for his seminal 1964 book, Eastern Arabian Frontiers. He died in 2009 at the age of 84.
After Dr Kelly edited and completed his father’s last book, Desert Dispute: the Diplomacy of Boundary-Making in South-Eastern Arabia, he felt the collection should rightfully find a home in Abu Dhabi. NYUAD acquired the collection in 2019 and it encompasses close to 50 archive boxes that each contain dozens of documents.
“What really appealed about the collection was knowing JB Kelly was a pioneering historian of eastern Arabia,” said Brad Bauer, head of archives and special collections at NYUAD Library.
“I felt it had a lot of research potential,” said Mr Bauer.
“[These collections] can be mosaic stones to see a richer picture. It was important the collection be in Abu Dhabi and we are quite excited to have it.”
The archive has not been digitised yet but this could happen in the future, while a guide to the collection is online. Parts of it informed the recent exhibition at Dubai’s Etihad Museum about UAE-UK relations.
“It is a unique collection and you won’t find anything like that anywhere else in the world I don’t think,” said Dr Kelly. “I’m impressed by the job NYUAD has done. I’m grateful to them for that and to make it available to scholars and interested members of the public in Abu Dhabi.”