A last official link between the Gulf’s colonial era and its commercially dynamic present, Bill Duff devoted his life to Dubai and played a bigger part than any other westerner in the early transformation of the emirate from obscure outpost into global hub.
Duff, who has died aged 91, arrived as an economic adviser in 1959 in what were called the Trucial states. His mission came at the behest of the UK, which was seeking to boost social development among its Gulf protectorates as communist and nationalist agitation grew.
Sheikh Shakhbut bin Sultan al-Nahyan, ruler of richer neighbour Abu Dhabi, vacillated – only for Dubai’s Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed al-Maktoum to hire the self-effacing Scot, with whom he instantly hit it off. That lasting partnership with the wily Bedouin leader laid the financial foundations of modern Dubai. Duff built the accounts and customs departments of the ruler’s office, taking signatory powers together with Sheikh Rashid.
The UK meanwhile ousted Abu Dhabi’s ruler in favour of Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan, who with Rashid would go on to found the United Arab Emirates in 1971 at a ceremony next door to Duff’s beachfront villa.
Born in Singapore on May 13 1922, William Robert Duff attended Cheltenham College before reading classics at Oxford, where he excelled at boxing. After the second world war interrupted his studies, his soldiering ended in Palestine where a love for the Arab world began. As a captain, he was caught up in an attack by the Stern Gang of Zionist militants and, more happily, met his Polish wife Irenka.
Returning to Oxford to study Arabic, Duff then perfected his command of the language alongside diplomats and spies at the specialist British-run school in Shemlan, Lebanon. He was then posted to Kuwait with Bank of Iran and the Middle East, a forerunner of HSBC. Once installed in Dubai, he designed and built the financial architecture that channelled two decades of oil revenues into infrastructural development, from electricity and water to ports, airports and hotels.
Duff was at Sheikh Rashid’s side in 1976 when the ruler called Neville Allen of Halcrow, a UK engineering consultancy, to an early morning meeting on a hilltop 40km outside the city. There, the sheikh outlined plans for a vast port development and demanded a cost estimate by lunchtime. The result was Jebel Ali port and free trade zone, initially ridiculed as a white elephant. Today it accounts for one-quarter of gross domestic product.
In charge of electricity, Duff would also accompany Rashid on outings to lambast officials for a slow delivery of street lighting. He helped foreign companies too, for instance fighting off attempts by local officials to procure bribes from British investors in a cabling factory; he persuaded the ruler that Dubai needed business more than business needed Dubai. And as officials in Abu Dhabi, an investor in Bank of Credit and Commerce International, tried to persuade UAE governments to switch accounts to the doomed lender, Duff presciently blocked any such move.
Known to chide gently young Emiratis for their poor classical Arabic, he persuaded Sheikh Rashid to make a £750,000 donation to Exeter university’s Middle Eastern studies centre.
Duff also started the emirate’s first English-curriculum school, which until recent years was run by his wife. Dubai remained their home until his death on Valentine’s day. He and Allen are now interred in the same corner of the emirate’s desert Christian burial ground.
After Rashid died in 1990, Duff had assumed a lower-profile position, as honorary adviser, then retired just as Dubai’s frenzied property boom began. The fiscal prudence he instilled ebbed away as executives sought to dazzle both the royal family and the world with ever bigger, brasher projects.
The global financial crisis pricked the bubble; the emirate’s debts subsequently prompted a sovereign default scare. Trade, transport and tourism – the underlying economic drivers laid down by Sheikh Rashid – have since underpinned the city’s recovery. The department of finance, founded by Duff, has returned to prominence as Dubai balances its rebounding property market with a $130bn debt pile.
Unlike other expatriates such as Sir Maurice Flanagan, Emirates Airline’s founding chief executive, Duff went unhonoured by the British government, despite decades of promoting UK-Dubai ties. While at the centre of decision making for three decades, he also never acquired the wealth of some of his peers.
But Duff, who is survived by Irenka, daughters Diana and Sheila and four grandchildren, never regretted his life as a civil servant. As he told his family: “It is not about the money. How many people get to help build a country?”- Financial Times