Disembarking in Abu Dhabi for the first time in August 1963, David Heard observes in his new book From Pearls to Oil: How the Oil Industry came to the United Arab Emirates that he had "arrived in a land that had largely stood still for centuries".
Yet, even in a world that was still defined by sand tracks and palm frond houses, it was already possible to feel the first salty splashes of a wave of progress that was about to sweep across the landscape.
Heard's very presence was a sign that things were changing forever along the shores of the southern Arabian Gulf. An oil engineer, he was part of a rapidly growing team that would soon uncork the vast pool of wealth that lay under the sands of the Asab and Sahil fields.
Behind him on that August day was a world that romantics like Wilfred Thesiger might have liked to populate with noble bedu tribesman leading camels and falcons across magnificent sun-bleached dunes, but which for the inhabitants was generally marked by poverty, unemployment, disease and great physical hardship.
In the next two decades, the emirates would become another place: of concrete and steel, broad highways, deepwater ports and international airports. New hospitals all but eliminated infant and maternal mortality rates, schools and universities drove out illiteracy and ignorance. Water flowed from a tap rather than a brackish hole in the sand.
What marks Abu Dhabi past and present, then, is not so much a dividing line as a cultural and economic canyon. But where do we place the first cracks of this schism? Is it that day in July 1962, when the master of the BP tanker British Signal hauled anchor off Das Island and steered the first cargo of Abu Dhabi crude down the Gulf and towards the international markets?
Or should we step back a little further, to late March 1958, when the drilling crew of the exploration rig Adma Enterprise have just noticed black streaks and a rainbow sheen on the lubricating mud pumping up from the steel bit twisting several thousand metres below the seabed underneath their feet and, as the blowout preventers slam shut, a new member has just presented itself for admission to the exclusive club of oil-producing nations.
Heard's book places this moment somewhat earlier.
From Pearls to Oil traces the very earliest days of oil exploration in what were then the Trucial States. And while Heard, now retired but still living in Abu Dhabi, has had a ringside seat for much of the past half century, the story that he tells is far older.
January 13, 1939, saw the signing the Abu Dhabi Concession Agreement that gave 75-year exploration rights to the first consortium of oil companies and, of equal significance, provided the Ruler, Sheikh Shakhbut bin Sultan Al Nahyan, with an initial fee of 300,000 Indian rupees that would be the nation's first serious taste of black gold.
Events far away would dash any hope of greater riches. Within eight months, Hitler's Panzer divisions were rumbling across the Polish border and much of the world was consumed by total war until 1945.
The obvious result of the Second World War was to stall oil exploration in the area for another 15 years. When oil was finally discovered, both on shore and under the sea, it was fully 20 years after Sheikh Shakhbut signed on the dotted line with Petroleum Concessions Ltd, as the oil consortium was then known.
In the meantime, the Rulers of the Trucial States could only watch as their neighbours grew wealthy on oil revenues and hope, with quiet desperation and a faith in God, that their share of this bounty would come.