The Abu Dhabi Oil Discoveries

In the 1930s Abu Dhabi was a poor fishing village on the edge of the desert, but the discovery of oil has revolutionised the Emirate. It is thought to possess the sixth largest proven oil reserves in the world and is now extremely rich.
This article appeared in Vol. 8, No. 3 - 2011


A seismic party crossing the desert, Abu Dhabi 1971. Source: Iraq Petroleum Company Abu Dhabi is often described as the world’s richest city but in the 1930s the opposite was true. Situated on an island, it was a simple fishing village with a fort. Although the local economy had once prospered on the pearl trade, cultured pearls from Japan destroyed the market for natural ones, ruining the trade and bringing poverty to the population. The rest of the emirate comprised mainly sand, with settlements and date plantations around the oases of Liwa and Al Ain.   

1930s and 40s: The First Moves

The ruler, Sheikh Shakhbut bin Sultan al Nahyan, was eager to find a good water supply. He had heard about Major Frank Holmes’ work drilling for water in Bahrain and thought the same might be done on Abu Dhabi island where only brackish water was recovered from shallow pits. He agreed enthusiastically to the British political officer’s suggestion that a water survey should be carried out and a request was duly made to the Iraq Petroleum Company (IPC), whose partners included the Anglo Persian (renamed Anglo Iranian in 1935) Oil Company, the forerunner of BP.  

Even so, when Anglo Persian geologist Peter Cox arrived in Abu Dhabi in 1935, he was surprised to find a lukewarm Sheikh Shakhbut: it seemed that the Sheikh was now more interested in oil than water. Shakhbut was well informed about payments that other rulers had received from oil companies, and was keen to discuss an oil concession. On 5th January, 1936 William “Haji” Williamson, on behalf of IPC, obtained a two year option for Abu Dhabi on a down payment of 7,000 rupees and 3,000 rupees a month (approximately £27,000 and £12,000 at today’s values). IPC created a subsidiary company, Petroleum Development (Trucial Coast) (PDTC), to explore the area.

The first survey of Abu Dhabi began in the same year. A PDTC survey party visited the Buraimi Oasis and studied the largest and most promising anticline of the region, Jebel Hafit, but everything pointed to future difficulties for oil exploration. Field geologists relied on mapping and plane tabling exposed rock formations and most of the interior of Abu Dhabi was covered in sand; only Jebels Hafit and Dhana and a few coastal outcrops were exposed. The oil company would have to rely on the “new” science of geophysics rather than geology to unlock the secrets of this land, but the technology would not be available until a decade later. Undeterred, PDTC obtained a 75-year concession for the whole territory on 11 January 1939.  

World War II intervened and exploration was put on hold. Once the war was over gravity surveys were started in 1946 and continued moving inland until 1950, when the going became too difficult for the company’s vehicles because of the huge sand dunes. After a break of three years, these surveys resumed with special equipment, including helicopters. By now, land transport had improved and crews were able to complete the gravity coverage of Abu Dhabi using vehicles such as Dodge Power Wagons equipped with low profile balloon-tyres.

1950s: Win Some, Lose Some

Murban No.1 Well. Source: Iraq Petroleum Company

Ruler of Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Shakhbut bin Sultan al Nahyan (centre), with IPC General Manager C.M. Dalley on his left, after turning the valve at the newly-built oil terminal at Jebel Dhanna to symbolise the first flow of oil, 21 March 1964. Source: IPC One important feature of the Umm Shaif discovery was that it confirmed the presence of oil in the Cretaceous Thamama Group, whereas most of the previous oil strikes in eastern Arabia had been in the Jurassic Arab Zone limestones. Source: S. Elder, The Journal of the Institute of Petroleum vol. 47, p. 310, October 1963 Commander Jacques Cousteau on board his ship, Calypso, which carried out a survey of the sea bed in the Gulf in 1954. Source: BP Archive PDTC began drilling for oil at Ras Sadr in 1950 and Jebel Ali in 1951, but both wells proved dry. PDTC’s focus shifted to western Abu Dhabi but progress was hampered by a boundary dispute with Saudi Arabia. The Buraimi Dispute, as it was known, closed parts of Abu Dhabi to oil exploration.

As a result of this dispute, PDTC was forced to drill the Murban No.1 well several miles off the seismic crest. The well struck traces of light oil and gas at a depth of about 10,000 ft (3,048m) but drilling ended abruptly at a depth below 12,500 ft (3,810m) when the well suddenly blew out with high-pressure sour gas, killing a petroleum engineer and brittling the drill string. The well had to be plugged and abandoned. Analysis indicated that the oil show had in fact come from a Cretaceous rock interval known as the Upper Thamama.   

The disappointing findings from this well pushed exploration westwards towards the region where the productive Jurassic Arab reservoirs might be found. When arbitration proceedings over the Buraimi Dispute broke down, PDTC continued its drilling programme in Abu Dhabi where two more seismic structures were discovered, Gezira and Shuweihat. Both were drilled but proved dry.  

Meanwhile, Abu Dhabi Marine Areas Ltd. (ADMA) had obtained an off shore concession. ADMA was jointly owned by British Petroleum and Compagnie Française des Pétroles (later Total). The company brought Jacques Cousteau on his research ship Calypso to the Gulf to map the sea bed geologically. There followed a seismic survey conducted by GSI Ltd. from their vessel mv Sonic, the results of which led to the location of the first test well being selected.  In 1958, using a marine drilling platform, the ADMA Enterprise, drilling began on the Umm Shaif field and oil was struck at about 8,755 ft (2,668m). The field, a super-giant about 300 km2 in size, came on stream in 1962, producing oil from the top of the Lower Cretaceous Thamama group (I and II), from the Upper Jurassic Arab D carbonates and Middle Jurassic Araej and Uwainat limestones.

This was followed in 1959 by PDTC’s onshore discovery well at Murban No.3. The oil field (now known as Murban-Bab) was delineated by seismic surveys in light dune terrain and was about 450 km2 in size. Oil came from several porous limestone zones of the Lower Cretaceous Thamama group. The field went on stream in 1964. By 1979 average daily production was 60,270 bopd and by 1980 cumulative production had reached 630 MMbo. In 1962, the company discovered the Bu Hasa field and ADMA followed in 1965 with the discovery of the Zakum offshore field.

1960s and 70s: Facing the Future

This photograph was taken in 1970 in the vicinity of Jebel Hafit, where Oligocene and Eocene rocks are visible on the surface. Elsewhere, the range of surface geological work is restricted because the Tertiary rocks are covered by extensive wind-blown sand and mud flats. Early exploration, both onshore and offshore, relied heavily on geophysical surveys to locate potential oilfields. Photo: Nick Lee Another line is fired: Party 19 in the Abu Dhabi desert, 1971. Party 19 was one of three seismic crews on contract from General Geophysical Company each with about 120 people and 36 vehicles of various kinds, including six mobile shot-hole rigs. In a typical day, about 1,500 shot–holes were drilled and over 1,000 geophones laid out and connected by cables to recording instruments. These geophones and cables were picked up and relocated several times each day. The field data was recorded and processed in a large computer complex in London. Starting in 1960, Party 19 surveyed the Bab and Bu Hasa areas, moved south-eastwards to Asab and subsequently covered most parts of Abu Dhabi. The crews completed operations in 1971 and their equipment was shipped to Saudi Arabia. Source: IPC In the early 1960’s PDTC relinquished much of the Trucial Coast area but retained Abu Dhabi and changed its name to the Abu Dhabi Petroleum Company (ADPC). In 1965 ADPC signed a 50-50 oil-sharing agreement with Sheikh Shakhbut. ADMA agreed the same terms in 1966. On 6 August 1966, Shakhbut was succeeded by his younger brother, Zayed. In 1971, Sheikh Zayed became president of the newly created UAE and the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company was created. In December 1974, the company gained a 60% interest in ADPC and ADMA, which were reincorporated as the Abu Dhabi Company for Onshore Oil Operation and Abu Dhabi Marine Operating Companies.

Oil in the UAE Today

Abu Dhabi city at night, November 2010. Source: Quentin Morton In addition to the oil fields mentioned, the main producing fields onshore are Asab, Sahil and Shah, and offshore are al-Bunduq, and Abu al-Bukhoosh (ABK). Oil production in the UAE was in the region of 2.3 MMbopd in 2010, and it possesses the sixth largest proven oil reserves in the world; but plans to boost production to 3 MMbopd have not yet materialised.   

In recent years the focus has turned to gas as increasing domestic consumption for power, desalination and reinjection of gas into oil fields increases demand. Gas extraction is not without its difficulties, however, as demonstrated by the sour gas project at Shah where the gas is rich in hydrogen sulphide content and is expensive to develop and process.

Acknowledgements: Thanks to Alan Heward and Peter Morton for their assistance with this article.  

Michael Quentin Morton’s father D.M. (“Mike”) Morton was Head of the Geological Department of the Abu Dhabi Petroleum Company (ADPC) between 1961 and 1966. Mike’s biography In the Heart of the Desert is published by Green Mountain Press (ISBN: 095522120X).


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