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In the Heart of the Desert

The Story of an Exploration Geologist
and the Search for Oil in the Middle East

by Michael Quentin Morton
Hardback: 282 pages, 83 b+w photographs and illustrations,
23 colour
photographs, maps ISBN-10: 095522120X

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The decision of the British Government in 1912 to convert its naval ships from coal to oil set in motion one of the greatest periods of exploration of the twentieth century, the search for oil in the Middle East. In 1945, after a lull caused by the Second World War, exploration was set to expand again and twenty-one year old Douglas Michael ("Mike") Morton embarked on an empty troop ship bound for Palestine to begin his career as a geologist with the Iraq Petroleum Company.


Arriving in Jerusalem, Mike soon found himself surrounded by the Arab-Jewish conflict which led to the bombing of the King David Hotel. Then moving to Iraq, Mike and his colleague René Wetzel unravelled the geology of many parts of nothern Iraq. Their field work in the 1940s and 1950s has never been repeated and is the foundation of our knowledge of Mesozoic outcrops. The results, incorporated in the Stratigraphic Lexicon of Iraq (Centre Nationale de Recherches Scientifique: 1959), continue to be used by geologists, geophysicists and students to this day.

During a series of ground-breaking expeditions in southern Arabia between 1947 and 1954, Mike travelled where the famous Arabian explorer, Wilfred Thesiger, had feared to tread: the mysterious Mahra country. Expedition leader Major Tony Altounyan was advised by "one very old and expert resident of Aden...to carry, hidden on my person, a small weapon or a phial of poison for use on myself to end the final agonies of torture!" Mike also visited other parts of the Aden Protectorates such as Shabwa, Beihan and the Bedouin well at Thamud.

The story moves to Oman, where Mike took part in the first expedition to open up the interior of the country to oil exploration. It was a venture that was filled with excitement and danger, as well as valuable scientific work: in 1959, he presented a paper entitled The Geology of Oman  to the 5th World Petroleum Congress in New York.  In the 1960s, he worked in Qatar, Bahrain and Abu Dhabi and was in charge of geological operations when the massive Bu Hasa oilfield was discovered. In 1971, he was appointed deputy leader of a Royal Geographical Society expedition to one of the remotest parts of Arabia, the Musandam Peninsula. Finally, in 1984, working for the Hunt Oil Company, he helped to find the first commercial oil in Yemen.

In the Heart of the Desert describes an extraordinary world and a rich parade of characters: autonomous sheikhs and their fiercely independent tribes, nomadic bedouins, colourful expatriates and a group of intrepid geologists driven by an oil company’s search for oil. The author presents a detailed and thoroughly researched account of his father’s life which culminates in the story of his own journey to southern Arabia and a poignant meeting of the present with the past.



In the Heart of the Desert

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