In the Heart of the Desert
by Michael Quentin Morton
Green Mountain Press, 2006 and 2007. Pp. xvi 266. Maps, colour and b/w photographs. Appendices. Bibliog. Glossary. Index. Hb. £20 ISBN 978-0-9552212-0-0.
This thoroughly researched book is a biography of Mike Morton, an exploration geologist, written by his son who has used his father’s journals, correspondence, notes, sketches and photographs to give a fascinating account of the early days in the search for oil.
Geologists were among the first westerners to explore the remote areas of the Middle East. As a result of their efforts oil had been discovered before the Great War, but just as exciting finds were about to be made, the outbreak of the Second World War called a halt to all exploration activity. In his early chapters the author describes the first steps taken in the search for oil, but his story really begins with his father’s appointment as a geologist with the Iraq Petroleum Company (IPC) in 1945. Few of Mike Morton’s generation were to travel so widely in the Middle East at a time when communications were rudimentary and air travel was the exception rather than the rule. However, his career with IPC, lasting 26 years, enabled him to visit all the major sites and cities of the region, as well as penetrating the deserts of Arabia where few foreigners had trod before. His experiences in the Arab world cast a spell over him that would last until his death in 2003.
Leaving aside a review of his many exploits elsewhere, the main interest for readers of the Society’s Journal lies in the exploration of the uncharted territories that are now part of the Republic of Yemen. In 1947 Mike Morton was part of a small team led by Tony Altounyan which was tasked to explore Hadhramaut and Mahra territory. IPC had obtained a concession just before the War and had in fact sent two geologists to carry out a preliminary ground and aerial reconnaissance. It was the task of Morton and his party to obtain more detailed geological information that would help in assessing the oil bearing potential of the region. The party travelled by car and camel on an expedition that was clearly a great adventure for a young geologist. The travel through Mahra territory was particularly gruelling, and shortly afterwards Morton went down with malaria. This did not deter him from further travels and in 1948 we find him in neighbouring Dhofar. In 1949 Morton returned to Hadhramaut and travelled across the desert via Bir Asakir to Beihan. Once again the party was led by Tony Altounyan whom Mike Morton highly regarded for his ability to deal with the political and tribal problems facing the party. Inevitably there were tensions at times between the geologists and political liaison officers, but without the experience and skills of Edward Henderson, Stuart Watt, Dick Bird and others like them, the geologists would not have been able to enter tribal territory, let alone prospect for oil.
Mike Morton records meeting many personalities whose names will be familiar to readers of the Journal: Hugh Boustead, Jim Ellis and Wilfred Thesiger amongst others. Thesiger’s relations with IPC were strained and Morton writes that he (Thesiger) ‘is doing a mad scheme in the great sand desert north of here. He gave so many presents in previous years that it is rather difficult for us this time’. All the bedu talked of Thesiger whose activities IPC regarded with suspicion. Thesiger was, of course, afraid that the discovery of oil would corrupt the bedu way of life that he so much admired.
Although IPC never found any oil in Yemen, Michael Quentin Morton describes in his Epilogue a visit there by his father and a colleague in 1982 when they were working as consultants for Hunt Oil – the American company which made the first commercial discovery at Afif in 1984 and went on to develop eleven fields. The author also notes the interesting career of Hazim El-Khalidi, a famine control officer whom his father had met at Bir Asakir when he returned to Wadi Hadhramaut in 1949. In 2004 with the help of Robert Fisk, the author managed to track down Hazim’s son, Sa’ad El-Khalidi, and was able to record the life of yet another intriguing personality whose career took him to this once remote part of the world.
At the end of the book there is a selection of colour photographs, and the author has also included many interesting b/w pictures of people and places mentioned in the text. All the journeys are well illustrated with maps; and there is an impressive bibliography and a useful glossary of Arabic and geological terms.