The Doomed Oasis
by Hammond Innes

Knopf: New York, 1960

Review by
Robert Wilfred Franson
341 pages September 2010

Where the sands meet the mountains

The Doomed Oasis has some strikingly good features, but overall it's rather a disappointment. Hammond Innes' thriller novels often are unusual structurally, and therein lies the problem with this one.

The story begins with a framing courtroom scene — just a fraction — and longer scenes in a port town in Cardiff in Britain, and aboard a freighter to the Persian Gulf. Then we have the bulk of the story in the northeast corner of the Arabian Peninsula: Bahrain and Dubai, the open desert, and especially in a couple of small fictional sheikhdoms or emirates. It is among these tiny principalities inland of Oman that we have the Ruritania-like geography to tempt individuals, even outsiders, to build a satisfying larger-than-life persona and forge the destiny of pocket sovereignties. The main action revolves around the search for oil with vast potential rewards, the disputed desert borders, and the easy hostilities of the rival sheikhdoms. The novel concludes with a brief courtroom scene for the wrapup.

Off-stage motivators

The structural difficulty is that the narrator is only a facilitator and go-between for most of the novel. Too much of his effort consists in trying to discover what the major players have been doing off-stage. So the plot's balance between desert thriller and investigative mystery is uncomfortable, with the narrator too often ignorant, or in the wrong place, or even marooned in the wrong place as regards the real motivators and the real action. As a Ruritania story it does rather well, although we may regret that the narrative viewpoint is more bystander than participant.

That said, there are plenty of vivid scenes, particularly in the desert and sheikhdoms, which may linger in the mind. When we do have drama in front of us, we get it firmly. The characters are strong, including the narrator as and when the plot allows him to be.

Off-stage oil

What The Doomed Oasis is not about is oil, except as it provides the necessary background aspects of the oil business in the Middle East, with its related international politics, desert surveying, and small-scale warfare. We pass quickly near some oil-surveying, but there is no real hands-on oil-drilling, pipe-laying, construction, or any other of oil's engineering requirements beyond some sand-capable vehicles. The book provides a capsule view of British interests in Arabia in the late 1950s; but for all its vivid scenes related to oil, the oil itself remains elusively offstage.

For an overview of British-Arab interests and interaction, see Lawrence's Legacy - Arabia 1948-59; and more specifically the Trucial Oman Scouts at Green Mountain (Jebel Akhdar) - Muscat and Oman 1957-59.

A memoir of Arabia

If you haven't read much on this part of the world, I want to point you to Wilfred Thesiger's classic memoir, Arabian Sands. Thesiger crossed the Empty Quarter on camel-back, a legendary true adventure, and knew the desert well. He has a chapter on the general area of this novel, not many years previously:

The castle gates [at Abu Dhabi] were shut and barred and no one was about. We unloaded our camels and lay down to sleep in the shadow of the wall. Near us some small cannon were half buried in the sand. The ground around was dirty, covered with the refuse of sedentary humanity. The Arabs who had watched us watering had disappeared. Kites wheeled against a yellow sky above a clump of tattered palms, and two dogs copulated near the well.

In the evening a young Arab came out from a postern gate, walked a little way across the sand, squatted down and urinated. When he had finished, Muhammad called to him and asked if the Sheikhs were 'sitting' — an Arab expression for giving audience. The boy answered, 'No, not yet', and Muhammad told him to tell them that an Englishman had arrived from the Hadhramaut and was waiting to see them. The boy asked, 'Where is the Englishman?' and Muhammad pointed to me and said, 'That's him.'

Wilfred Thesiger
"The Trucial Coast"
Arabian Sands  (1959)

Notice that Thesiger lives the Bedouin life so thoroughly that the Arab boy cannot see that he is English: a useful quality in such parts of the world, and almost essential to immersion in a Ruritania pocket-kingdom plot, true or fictional.

I can only give The Doomed Oasis a qualified recommendation: Hammond Innes does what he sets out to do, but the sum of the parts is not wholly satisfactory. Before reading this or other Arabian-setting novels, I strongly recommend the true adventures in Wilfred Thesiger's Arabian Sands.


© 2010 Robert Wilfred Franson

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