Abu Dhabi: The year was 1959. As a strapping young lad, Briton David Neild had just joined the Trucial Oman Scouts (TOS) as their youngest officer.
Neild was deputed to Al Ain’s Al Jahili Fort which was then the headquarters of the British paramilitary force, raised a few years earlier to protect mountain passes and keep inter-tribal peace.
It was at Al Jahili Fort where Neild first met the late Shaikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan, who was the Ruler’s Representative of Al Ain back then. Now 79, Neild lives in Ras Al Khaimah’s Al Hamra neighbourhood with wife Eileen and cherishes the fond memories of the visionary leader with whom he had several interactions.
“The Year of Zayed is a befitting tribute to the extraordinary personality of the great leader. Shaikh Zayed possessed a natural charm and made people feel special in his company,” Neild told XPRESS.
A ruler in the making
Between 1966 and 1972, Neild rose from Captain to Lt Colonel as the region witnessed several changes including the formation of the UAE as a federation on December 2, 1971. “Shaikh Zayed commanded massive respect. He would mingle freely with people and would often drive up to Al Jahili Fort in his open Land Rover to enjoy traditional coffee with us. Often he invited me to accompany him on hunting trips. It was evident that he was destined to lead the UAE and transform the country into a modern nation,” said Neild, who later recounted his memoirs in a book, A Soldier in Arabia.
In 1972, Neild left the UAE but returned shortly after the assassination of Sharjah ruler Dr Shaikh Khalid Bin Mohammad Al Qasimi to set up the Sharjah National Guard.
“During those days, all the seven emirates lacked basic infrastructure. There was not a single asphalt road in the country and hardly any schools or hospitals. The once lucrative pearl fishing industry had collapsed with the introduction of cultured pearls from Japan. The states issued their own passports and stamps, and border and tribal disputes were common. The only airport was at the Royal Air Force base in Sharjah,” Neild said.
“I am awestruck by the incredible transformation in the UAE that I have witnessed in the last 60 years. None of this would have been possible without the foresight of the country’s founding father,” he added.
In 2002, a TOS reunion was arranged by the UAE Ministry of Defence. His Highness Shaikh Khalifa Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, who was the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi that time, addressed the officers.
“He singled out three reasons for the smooth transition from the seven independent states into the harmony that is enjoyed in the UAE today. The first was the will of Almighty Allah, the second the wisdom and vision of his father and the third, he said (pointing in our direction) was ‘those old gentlemen sitting over there’. There was a huge roar of agreement from all present, ” Neild recalled.
Neild said he was in Mafraq on August 6, 1966, when Shaikh Zayed became the Ruler of Abu Dhabi. “I remember the surge of pride I felt in knowing such an exceptional person. He realised the importance of the unity of the seven states and believed that the wealth of Abu Dhabi should be used to the benefit of all. His vision is instrumental in unifying the states into one country and its rise to the position it enjoys in the world today,” he said.
Memoirs of a soldier
A Soldier in Arabia reveals the behind-the-scenes story of the events which led up to the creation of the United Arab Emirates in December 1971, with Ras Al Khaimah joining the Federation a few months later.
Soldier and adventurer David Neild was the youngest officer to serve in the legendary Trucial Oman Scouts when he joined them at the age of 20 in 1959. In 1968 Shaikh Saqr Bin Mohammed Al Qasimi, the Ruler of Ras Al Khaimah, with whom Neild had formed a good working relationship, called on Neild – now a Lt Colonel – to set up and command a national defence force for the shaikhdom, with the rank of Lt Colonel.
In 1972, Neild was asked to establish and command the Sharjah National Guard. The account of Neild’s career in Arabia is set against the backdrop of the emerging national politics of the day. It is both a valuable historic record as well as an entertaining and honest account told with empathy, and in the lean, objective style of a military man who, on a daily basis, had to balance the need for rapid political, strategic and tactical decisions with respect for the traditional ways of a complex tribal Arab culture.
The evidence of his success is revealed through the enduring relationship that has been forged with His Highness Shaikh Saud Bin Saqr Al Qasimi, son of the founding Ruler and his former employer, as well as the continuing presence and strength of both the Ras Al Khaimah and Sharjah Defence Forces.
A Soldier in Arabia is a firsthand account of a life lived to the full during a significant period of history on the Arabian Peninsula. The author writes with understanding and insight of the shaikhs and soldiers, statesmen and scoundrels encountered along the way.
Part memoir, part history, but always full of adventure, this compelling account will provide the reader with a better understanding of a part of the world frequently misunderstood by outsiders and an appreciation of the remarkable man who earned the lasting respect of both the leaders he served and the soldiers he led.