top of page

Craig and the Midas touch

The platform of the well-head was thirty feet above the Indian Ocean, supported by three lattice legs standing on concrete bases sunk deep into the sea-bed two hundred and forty feet below. There was the helicopter landing deck, painted in circles like a target and stuck out to one side of the platform, and the control hut, in which the dials of a white-painted console monitored the unseen flow of dark frothing oil that came up from deep under the earth and was diverted along the pipeline to the installations of the Jubayl Oil Company on the mainland, fifteen miles away. But nothing else; it was a sealed-in system; un-manned except for periodic visits, and there was no trace of oil to be seen in the control room, on the marine riser that contained the vertical sections of pipe—or indeed in the blue sea around. 

Or there shouldn’t be. That was Morton’s job, to investigate a reported leak. The oil company’s big, powerful workboat brought him and his little craft within a hundred yards of the well-head. The derrick lifted the eleven-ton Vickers Pisces III submersible from the deck and lowered it gently on to the calm sea. Morton stood by the ‘sail’ and held on to the hoisting cable—a slight young man, crew-cut (ex-U.S. Marines), dressed in navy shorts and singlet, with ribbed canvas shoes. He cast off the hook, stepped into the sail and lowered himself down through the hatch into the forward pressure sphere, designed to take a crew of two. He screwed down the cover and lay on the floor so that he could look through the low-level viewing ports while operating his controls.

Checking the dials, he signalled: ‘Sprat calling deck. Hatch secure. Venting now.’ The air roared out of the ballast tanks and the little square submarine sank through the bright-green water, lit by the fierce light of the mid-morning sun, down into blue-green, darker and darker, until at a hundred feet Morton had to switch on his searchlight to show up the bottom as it rose slowly towards him. When his sonar registered twenty feet above the sea floor he turned on the electric motors attached to the sides of the hull and began to move forward.

Soon he could see through the acrylic windows the great steel-lattice legs of the jacket. He had to steer between two of them, moving very cautiously, to reach the blow-out preventer and the joint that turned the oil into the pipeline.

There was no gush of tiny bubbles, no dark trickle of oil; in fact, nothing wrong at all, as far as he could see. Morton stopped both propellers and reported by underwater telephone to the bridge of the workboat, then manipulated his port and starboard motors to turn the little ship so that he could look down the first stretch of pipeline. But again, no tell-tale sign of escaping oil or the compressed gas that accompanies it.

Someone had made a mistake, but it was no skin off Morton’s nose; he had earned his operational bonus. He turned again, set the propellers at half-speed ahead, which was two knots, and the chunky little submarine moved out between two of the legs.

Quite suddenly, something appeared, something that should not be there. Sharks seemed to avoid the pipelines, and in any case he had never seen one that stayed still. But there was something, thirty yards away, half seen through a shoal of tiny fish, glinting in the searchlight’s beam. He drifted nearer, dead slow, and saw a man, standing on the sea-bed, his feet buried in the sand. A young man, darkly bearded, with long hair swaying in the current.

‘Christ!’ As he came nearer, he could see the man clearly, dressed in a white qamees, buttoned up to the neck, the head bare, the eyes sunk deep from the pressure of the water at this depth, but open and staring at him. As Morton frantically reversed, and then cut his motors, and the submarine sank down on to the skids, a cloud of sand rose round the man’s legs and hid the rope wrapped round them, and the weight that held them rooted to the sea floor.

Morton drew a sobbing breath, reached down and switched on the mud-pump, which began to squirt powerful jets of water, flushing away the sand. While he waited for the visibility to clear he adjusted the TV camera, and when the sand had settled took a series of shots for the video tape. Then he picked up the UQC underwater telephone and spoke to the bridge of the workboat. He made himself talk clearly, professionally, and listened to the orders from the ship two hundred feet above his head.

The man’s blanched face was on a level with his own, and a sudden swirl of current brought it swaying closer, so that the sunken eyes seemed to be peering in through the viewing port. Horrified, Morton was reaching for the controls to start the propellers in reverse, when the next slight stir in the water sent the corpse swaying helplessly backwards.

Morton sat back on his heels, trembling. He activated the ‘scrubber’, to freshen the air and help to fight his nausea, then began to operate the telechiric arm.

It was a very sophisticated mechanism, with a delicate steel elbow, wrist and claw, which as he operated the controls moved out from below the hull. The claw touched one of the man’s legs, worked downwards and closed its pincers around the rope. Morton could see clearly now that it was attached to a short length of heavy pipe, which had been uncovered by the jets. As he retracted the arm the rope tightened and the pincers slid down until stopped by the pipe, which jumped from its bed with a swirl of sand. Morton thought it would hold well enough; there was no need to use the heavier grab, which was also part of his equipment. He began to reverse cautiously, taking up the strain.

The body moved suddenly, leaning backwards, with the long hair streaming through the flickering water, the bound feet tottering forward as the rope dragged them through the sand. Morton turned his eyes away, and moved the ballast control to ‘Ascend’.

The Persian Gulf—or the Arabian Gulf, depending on whom you are talking to—is shaped like one of those up-curving silver-handled daggers worn by the dignified old men you meet in the soukhs. The haft of the dagger is wedged into the desert at the north-west end of the Gulf, where Iraq and Iran glare at each other across the shallow waters of the Shatt-el-Arab. The broad blade runs south-east and the point, turning sharply upwards, meets the Indian Ocean in the Straits of Hormuz. This is a channel, only thirty miles across in parts, that twists between the coast of Iran and the Musandam Peninsula, a rugged mountainous spur sticking up like a beckoning finger from the Arabian mainland.

All the tankers from the Gulf oil terminals must pass through the Straits to reach their destinations in Malaysia, Japan, Africa, the Americas and Europe. Here, at any time of day or night, you can see the great smooth ships sliding past, from twenty thousand to half a million tons. They come from Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq and five other Gulf states, loaded down to the line with urgently needed, ruinously expensive oil, at the rate of two and a half million tons a day—nineteen million barrels at twelve dollars every last one. And that is a lot of oil and a lot of money.

The hinterland of the peninsula is a hotchpotch of disputed areas with arbitrary frontiers drawn by foreign powers and depending on who drew the maps. The rightful borders of the former Trucial States, now the United Arab Emirates, are hard to establish because of the positions of the oases and the ancient rhythms of Bedouin life, not to mention rival claims to the oil beneath the sand. And much of the area, in any case, is occupied by nomadic tribesmen.

But there are also, wedged in among the Arab Emirates, two independent city states: Jubayl, on the Indian Ocean coast within the Emirate of Fujayrah, and Al Bakhra, just inside the Gulf on the opposite side of the peninsula. Al Bakhra has a phenomenally rich oilfield under its forty square miles of desert. By comparison, Jubayl, in spite of a larger and more fertile hinterland, might be thought a poor cousin. So it is, but not as poor as all that; its offshore wells supply the Emir with an oil revenue of over a hundred million pounds a year—and as he has only about twenty thousand souls to look after, he gets by.

At about the time when Morton first saw the man on the sea-bed, the Ruler of Jubayl was sitting on a gold cushion, cross-legged, his favourite pipe bubbling cheerfully by his side, and talking to a man, with a lined, weather-beaten face, who sat on his right on a carved ebony stool. This was Peter Craig, at present making a lecture tour of the Middle East as representative of the Police Adviser’s Department of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. He had pulled several strings for the privilege of sitting by the Emir’s side while he dealt out justice in his majlis, and was listening to his host with interest.

Sheikh Akhbar bin Zaid Al Adam was a tall man of sixty-five, with a commanding face, no darker than a European’s, a full black beard, generously silvered, and hooded dark eyes. He wore a russet-coloured abba, bordered with gold braid, and a white head cloth hound by the double aghal of black silk cord, but no sign of rank except the diamond-studded signet ring on his right hand. He was explaining, in slow but correct English, the procedure of his daily court.

On the Emir’s other side stood the Palace chamberlain, a white-bearded old man with a darkly furrowed face and a great hooked nose on which an old-fashioned pair of gold pince-nez was balanced precariously as he studied the list of plaintiffs’ names in his hand. A clerk with a notebook stood near.

Wide doors opened from the big hall on to a mud-walled courtyard, dazzlingly bright in the fierce sunshine, where a throng of people waited as patiently as their mules and donkeys tethered to the walls outside. In the courtroom it was cooler, but still well into the eighties. The hall was unfurnished except for the divan on which the Ruler sat, the splendid rugs hanging from the ochre-plastered walls and the Persian carpet that stretched across the polished cedar hoards. Around the room men sat with their backs against the walls, murmuring quietly together, with one eye on the chamberlain.

They were mostly Bedouin tribesmen from the hills, or farmers from the date groves of the oases along the coast, and they were attending the Emir’s majlis to hear their complaints dealt with, swiftly, cunningly, and with absolute authority by the man who held their loyalty. If he could not hear them today, they would come back every morning until he could.

The chamberlain consulted his list and called up two men, both shepherds, dressed in rough, home-spun robes and chequered head cloths. The Emir asked them each in turn, ‘Whose sons are you?’, and nodded thoughtfully at the reply. He knew he was going to hear a pack of lies from one or both of them, and it was his knowledge of their fathers and grandfathers, the age-old squabbles over water rights and women’s dowries, that would largely determine his decision. But they would not be interrupted while stating their cases. One began to speak in harsh, guttural Arabic, while the other stood back, showing exaggerated astonishment at such barefaced lies.

Time passed, while Craig watched, fascinated, from his place on the stool. He could understand little of the dialect the men spoke, but it was part of his training to watch faces and gestures—the way a man might curl his bare toes when afraid of being caught out, or lower his voice, as if in shame, when obliged to tell the truth.

The Emir gave judgement. It must have been a neat solution, for there was a cackle of admiring laughter from around the walls. The two men bent down to kiss the Emir’s shoulder, then straightened, facing him boldly and calling him by his name, Akhbar, as they made their ritual farewells. They went out without looking at each other, and there was the sound of loud voices and screams from their supporters. The chamberlain dictated a note to his clerk.

A halt to the proceedings was called, while everyone in the hall of the majlis was handed bitter, scented coffee in little cups by an old servant who did nothing all day but brew coffee on a charcoal stove outside the door and serve it from time to time in a long-handled copper pot.

The Emir spoke. ‘Many will have to wait until tomorrow, but I shall get round to hearing them all. I expect you think it’s a cumbersome procedure, Mr Craig?’

‘It goes a lot faster than with us, Your Highness.’

Sheikh Akhbar raised the mouthpiece of his bubble-pipe to his bearded lips and sucked for a time in silence. Then he said, ‘As you are aware, I attended your lecture yesterday evening at the Police Academy. Unfortunately I had to leave before the end, but I told one of my nephews, Salim, to apologise on my behalf. I hope he did so.’

‘Indeed he did, and asked some perceptive questions. He seemed to have followed my talk with interest. Sheikh Salim struck me as a very intelligent young man, Your Highness.’

The Emir sighed. ‘It is a pity he doesn’t use his gifts more profitably. He’s too busy enjoying himself. My other nephew, Yusif, is very different—serious and hard-working. You have met him, of course?’

‘Oh yes. He attended my other lectures most assiduously, and it was a pity he couldn’t be there yesterday for my talk on PFLOAG*. He’d told me he wanted to discuss their guerrilla techniques with me some time.’

*PFLOAG. The Popular Front for the Liberation of Oman and the Arabian Gulf, an extremist organisation set up in South Yemen, mainly with Chinese help. It is still waging a guerrilla war in Dhofar, the western part of Oman, and preaches popular revolution by violence throughout the whole of the Gulf area.’ Since the events in this story, the aims of the movement have changed.

Akhbar glanced at his watch. ‘He should have been with us two hours ago,’ he said, frowning, and spoke to his chamberlain. The old man reached into his voluminous robes, produced a pocket radio transceiver—police issue, as Craig recognised—and spoke into it. The quiet chattering around the walls stopped. All eyes were fixed on the little set. There was a pause, then a bleep-bleep. The chamberlain moved the slide and listened. He seemed a little taken aback, and spoke hastily to his master. Sheikh Akhbar’s rumbling voice replied.

The chamberlain issued instructions into the microphone and then addressed the men in the hall. They rose from their places, made obeisance to their ruler, and wandered out into the sunshine. The majlis had been suspended.

The Emir explained. ‘Apparently, Sheikh Yusif left his house yesterday afternoon and did not return to sleep. There is a European girl, I believe, but these things should be concluded at dawn. It is unlike my nephew to be so lacking in manners. I am asking for him to be found.’ The chamberlain was still barking orders into his microphone.

Craig stood up, but the Emir waved him clown. ‘Let us wait for him here, and talk a little. You seem to know a great deal, Mr Craig, about the Popular Front in Aden—what do you call it? ... PFLOAG. Thank you. Yes, you know a great deal. I suppose your intelligence services have spies in Aden, perhaps in the ranks of PFLOAG itself?’

‘I don’t know, Your Highness. The Foreign Office gets its information from a great variety of sources. All I see are the results.’

The Emir smiled sceptically. ‘Then you absorb them remarkably well. Now, the reason why Sheikh Yusif, the head of my Security Department, wants to discuss PFLOAG with you is that he thinks their operatives are active here. You have only been with us a week, but you may have formed some views of my problems. I asked you earlier for your opinion of my police force, and you said that you were much impressed by all that Commissioner Grant had done. So am I. Why should I then be worried by any threat of PFLOAG subversion? My people are loyal, I think?’ It was a question that expected the answer yes, and Craig gave it, with a qualification.

‘From all I have heard and seen during these few days I’d say that your subjects—the Bedouin as well as the townsmen—are very unlikely to lend an ear to talk of revolutionary change. But PFLOAG is a strong movement, with many Chinese advisers and both Chinese and Russian arms and money, and it is out to do exactly what its name implies, upset the governments of Oman and the states of the Gulf, among which, as we know from their propaganda centre in Beirut, Jubayl is included. They are dedicated to the pure theory of Marxism and much influenced by the Maoist teaching that revolutions can only be brought about by mass insurrection and civil war.’

‘But the Russians do not believe that, surely, any more than I do?’

‘No. Their current theory is that their best road to world communism—which they still declare to be their objective—is through what they call national bourgeois revolutions and the paraphernalia of democracy. That is why they maintain themselves in such strength in Aden—to confuse the issue and prevent the Chinese from having things their own way.’

‘And PFLOAG is an atheistic movement, is it not?’

‘Yes, sir. Which explains why they were at first able to make such headway only among the animists of the Dhofar tribes in southwest Oman, and since then the Sultan’s forces seem to have contained the war satisfactorily. But PFLOAG has no lack of either funds or determined men; and they have cells in every Gulf state, and no doubt here as well. They even have a link with the Palestine Liberation Organisation.’

‘The Bedouin,’ remarked the Emir in his deep voice, ‘are devout Muslims. They will have no truck with atheists.’

‘I agree, Your Highness. I don’t think you have anything to fear from the Bedu. But you also have many people of mixed race and a great number of expatriates, who may not be so devout, and they fill almost all the middle rank administrative positions, the school staffs, the police and part of your defence forces. Can you trust them equally?’

The Emir shifted his great bulk on the cushion. ‘They are paid enough, in Allah’s name. Have you any reason, to think—?’

‘No, sir, I have not. No reason whatever. But you cannot expect the same unquestioning loyalty from them as from your tribesmen.’

‘You tell me what I know all too well, Mr Craig,’ said Sheikh Akhbar irritably. He waved his hand, and glasses of sherbet were brought. He took a sip, and, turned to Craig. ‘I am doing my best to keep the foreign tradesmen and artisans contented. Their taxes are very light. I am also doing my best to replace the expatriates. I have opened more and better schools, I give generous scholarships for the brighter young people, even women, to have the chance of secondary education. With misgiving, I send the brightest to attend the universities of Beirut and even Oxford—although,’ he added, with a sideways glance at Craig, ‘they’re unlikely to learn anything of advantage to Jubayl in those fermenting vats of subversive thinking.’

‘I agree,’ said Craig gravely. ‘I was up at Cambridge.’

The Emir roared with laughter and slapped him on the back.’ Then he continued more seriously, ‘The trouble lies in our history, you see. For three hundred years and more, Jubayl was a prosperous city, living on its trade. Our ships carried cargoes between the Gulf and the East, and in earlier times our slaves and dancing girls were renowned throughout the world. 

‘We also exported dates, dried fish and live sheep, and had a pearl fishery; we attracted merchants, craftsmen, gold-workers and shipwrights from Baluchistan, India and Persia, and they prospered and settled here, so that in the city most of the people are of mixed blood. But they were not interested in education, except the richest. Their sons learned their trade or craft slowly, the hard way, and married within their classes. 

‘The tribesmen had even less interest in schooling, as long as a few could read the Koran. Their concern was survival; the hoarding of water and fertile soil, and skill in the use of firearms to help defend their camps and their flocks. It was only ten years ago that the oil was found, and made me rich. I gave every head of family a state stipend, now greatly increased, so that there should be no poverty, and began to modernise my country, but slowly and cautiously. There were not enough teachers or skilled men, so as you pointed out I had to import them. I still hope that in another ten years there will be enough educated Jubaylis to take over all the jobs now held by expatriates. But it is not sure, Mr Craig. The old ways remain. Now that I have removed the threat of hunger, why should a man strive to rise above his station? Who wants to be a teacher, when he can be an independent sheep farmer in the hills, with a government subsidy, or take over his father’s stall in the soukh and spend all day haggling—and we love nothing better—over the price of a gold bracelet. I will tell you what is the trouble: it is this world of money we have been forced into. The young don’t want to work, they want to be rich. The oil has brought us many benefits, especially since the price was raised four times after the Israeli war, but to each one hangs a curse. I have become like that king of the ancient Greeks—what was his name?’


‘King Midas. Like him, my golden touch can bring unhappiness.’

He caught a smile on Craig’s face, and said sharply, ‘You are thinking I can simply withhold my Midas touch. I can leave the oil in the ground, and not turn it into gold?’

He was a very shrewd, wise old man, thought Craig. ‘But that, Your Highness, is just what you don’t wish to do?’

‘I dare not. I am not ashamed to say it. The people’s expectations rise because they know I can turn the oil into gold. If I refused they would kill me—even my tribesmen would think me mad and unfit to rule. They have become addicts of money, and nothing will satisfy them unless they have more and more, until they rot. What happened to King Midas?’

‘I think his golden touch was removed, and he founded Ankara.’

‘That does not commend him to me,’ said the Emir, primly. Then he exploded into a rumbling laugh. ‘He certainly lost his golden touch before he founded Ankara,’ he chortled, lifting a corner of his head cloth to wipe his eyes.

Craig thought it better not to add that Midas, according to the myth, died wearing a pair of ass’s ears. The most fun-loving Arab ruler might have thought that a bit close to the bone.

The chamberlain’s radio bleeped, and he listened, then spoke to the Emir. The big man’s eyebrows were lowered in a worried frown. ‘There seems to be no sign of my nephew anywhere,’ he said. ‘Nor of his car and attendants. The Commissioner of Police has been informed, and I’m sure Mr Grant will find what has happened. In the meantime, we will resume the majlis.’

Later, as Craig walked out into the furnace heat of midday, between the great mud walls of the Palace fortifications, he continued to think of what Sheikh Akhbar had said. It was a problem common to many of the Arab states, from Kuwait to Oman. In Abu Dhabi, on the other side of the peninsula, the Ruler had an oil revenue of—what could it be? A thousand million a year, perhaps—and a hundred thousand subjects: ten thousand pounds a year for every man, woman and child. In nearby states, with no oil, the average income might work out at less than two hundred pounds a family. So the oil-rich states excited the bitter enmity of their poorer neighbours and above all of the secret agents of PFLOAG, who would like to bring every princely throne tottering down and divide up the spoils.

Craig’s earlier career had been spent as a Colonial Police officer in West Africa, and he did not mind the heat. He climbed a stair built against the wall of the old Portuguese fortress and stood on the platform of an outwork, between two ancient bronze cannon, looking down at the city.

Most people had gone home to eat and sleep, and the shop shutters were closed. The buildings had a changeless air. The whitewashed fronts of the houses, with their balconies shielded from bold eyes by latticed wooden screens; the blue-white crenellations on the roofs, like icing decorations on a wedding cake, were as they had been for hundreds of years. To his left, sloping down to the harbour, was a cobbled hard on which two large dhows had been drawn up, with high square sterns like mediaeval galleys. The dark-skinned men who were singing as they worked on the bleached timbers were the descendants of slaves. They looked happy enough. Everywhere Craig looked was the same air of unquestioning conformity.

But down in the covered soukhs and the shady narrow alleys, among the Baluch artisans, the Khoja merchants whose ancestors had come from Hyderabad, the Palestinian exiles turning their hands to any job that would earn a bare living for their teeming families—surely there must be a fertile ground for the seeds of subversion.

He strolled slowly down to the gates of the old town and found, parked outside, the chauffeur-driven car put at his disposal by George Grant, the Police Commissioner. As they drove back along the winding corniche road to the spanking new Al Falaj hotel, he looked across the flat expanse of Indian Ocean to the spidery shapes shimmering above the northern horizon, the well-heads and exploration rig of the oil company, not realising that over there, deep under the sea, a long train of events was being sparked off. Events that would remind him of the Emir’s unhappy reference to his Midas touch.

Kindle button for The Midas Touch
bottom of page