ABU DHABI: Tucked away in a quiet, verdant corner of Abu Dhabi’s Royal Stables sits an unassuming little house with a white porch. It is quiet around here, the thick foliage and occasional whinny helping to drown out the sounds of the UAE capital, sprawling in every direction beyond the parameters of this tiny inner-city oasis.
The British couple who moved here chose it for that very reason: its peace and tranquility. That, and the fact it was gifted to them by the UAE's founder, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al-Nahyan.
Fast forward four decades and only one-half of the couple survives. Jocelyn Henderson, widow of British diplomat and renowned scholar of the Arab world Edward Henderson, still lives in the little house under the special protection of Abu Dhabi’s royal family.
Last week, she celebrated her 100th birthday. Pictures of her throughout her “birthday week” show her surrounded by balloons, flowers and old friends. In one, a beaming Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak Al-Nahyan, one of the UAE’s highest-ranking royals, wraps his arm around her. He had close ties to Edward.
Jocelyn is the grande dame of the oldest generation of surviving Gulf expats, a dwindling group of foreigners who arrived when the land was still known as the Trucial States.
Jocelyn’s husband had a big hand in that. Edward spent most of his career working in the Arabian Gulf, maintaining Britain’s relations with the land that eventually became the UAE, Qatar, Oman and Bahrain.
He played a key role in defusing the Buraimi border dispute involving Abu Dhabi, Oman and Saudi Arabia between 1952 and 1955. He was also a good friend of the famous British explorer Wilfred Thesiger.
When Edward died in 1995, the Independent described him as “steely-nerved and a subtle negotiator” and “one of the most prominent personalities” in the Arabian Gulf.
“He harmonized the aims of Britain with those of the Gulf with regard to oil exploration and the establishment of the oil industry in the lower Gulf,” his obituary said.
In the 26 years since Edward’s death, Jocelyn has remained a stalwart of the Abu Dhabi community, actively involved in many of the initiatives she helped establish four decades ago. Only recently has the encroachment of old age slowed her down.
When I arrived at the little house on a sunny Friday afternoon, several weeks before her birthday, I found her spritely and alert, her two Cavalier King Charles Spaniels bounding around her. A badge of the seven founding members of the UAE in front of a national flag was pinned to her chest. “Sheikh Zayed gave that to me,” she said. “He told me: ‘You must always wear it.’”
The couple knew the country’s founding royals well. Edward served in World War II as a member of the Arab Legion, before he was seconded to the British foreign service in 1956.
He was fully enlisted into the foreign service in 1959 when he was appointed political officer in Abu Dhabi. Subsequent posts took him to Jerusalem and Bahrain, and he later became Britain’s first ambassador to Qatar when the country gained independence in 1971.
Jocelyn had a distinguished career herself prior to their marriage, serving as private secretary to actress Sarah Churchill, daughter of Winston Churchill, and separately as secretary to Oscar-winning filmmaking duo Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger.
But she followed her husband without question, assuming her position as entertainer of house parties and dignitaries. She described her role as that of a “silent partner.”
“In many ways I was the perfect vision of an expatriate wife during his lifetime. I never spoke out of turn, I always made small talk with a visiting dignitary and put all of my energy into entertaining Edward’s endless flow of visitors,” Jocelyn wrote in her memoir, “The Gulf Wife,” published in 2014.
It was during their time in Bahrain that Jocelyn first visited and fell in love with the UAE.
It was a time before skyscrapers, sprawling malls and seven-lane highways, when Abu Dhabi was just a “small village” where the expat community all knew each other well.
She recalls traveling to Al-Ain for regular lunches with Sheikh Shakhbout, who ruled Abu Dhabi from 1928 to 1966.
The couple were in Qatar when Edward retired from the foreign service in 1974. He went on to teach at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University.
However, in 1976, they returned to Abu Dhabi to settle permanently at the request of Sheikh Zayed, who asked Edward personally to help organize the National Center for Documentation and Research. The country’s fortunes had by then changed dramatically with the discovery of oil.
With no such thing as retirement visas back then, Jocelyn and Edward lived under the protection of the Crown Prince Court.
Jocelyn too carved out a role for herself in Abu Dhabi. In 1978, she founded the Daly Library, one of the earliest private libraries in Abu Dhabi, and became a warden emeritus at St Andrew’s church, a role she holds until this day.
In 1982, Edward co-founded the American Educational Trust, best known for publishing the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs. He was also appointed a Companion of the Order of St Michael and St George, a British order of chivalry used to honor individuals who have rendered important services to the Commonwealth or foreign nations.
Jocelyn has worked to preserve the couple’s legacy in Abu Dhabi. The Daly Library, which was staffed entirely by volunteers, closed in 2014, but its books were donated to an organization in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Until its final days, Jocelyn remained its chief volunteer.
And the UAE’s royal household continues to ensure she is well cared for. Her eyes light up when she hears the names of the various sheikhs who regularly visit her.
“The sheikhs come to visit quite a lot,” said Jocelyn’s granddaughter, Kirstin Henderson, who moved in with her grandmother after she broke her shoulder eight years ago.
“Sheikh Nahyan comes often. He was very close to my grandfather because my grandfather was very close to his father. So, every now and again he comes and pays a visit. He always comes to see her if she’s in the hospital.”
Sheikh Nahyan had visited a week earlier to celebrate Jocelyn’s birthday. Although the pandemic meant they had to forego a big family celebration, Kirstin says they held a week of smaller celebrations instead. Jocelyn’s only daughter, who lives in the UK, was able to attend, as were some of her oldest expat friends.
Asked what the secret is to her longevity, Jocelyn says a lifetime of reading has kept her mind sharp. “It’s also how well she has been looked after here,” Kirstin said. “The UAE is such an important place to our family in general. This is the home that we’ve had since we were kids.”
Although Jocelyn has no intention of returning to the UK, she remains fond of her roots and is something of a royalist. According to Kirstin, Jocelyn has watched the Netflix drama series “The Crown” several times.
A letter from Queen Elizabeth II, sent to mark Jocelyn’s 100th birthday, is already framed and takes pride of place in the living room, visible from her favorite chair.
And in the hallway, near the front door, is another tribute to both her heritage and her adopted home: portraits of the queen and Sheikh Zayed hanging side by side.