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John B. Kelly papers

Call Number



1955-2017, inclusive


Kelly, J.B. (John Barrett), 1925-2009
Kelly, Saul, 1957-


19.6 Linear Feet in 47 boxes and 2 map cases.

Language of Materials

English .


Manuscript drafts of texts, correspondence, notes, copied archival documents, maps, photographs, printed material, and other materials related to the research and writings of British historian J.B. (John Barrett) Kelly (1925-2009), who specialized in the study of historical boundaries in the Arabian peninsula. Includes material related to his work as an advisor to the British Foreign Office, and the rulers of the Emirate of Abu Dhabi (1969-1970) and the Sultanate of Oman (1984-1987).

Biographical note

John Barrett (J.B.) Kelly (1925-2009) was born and raised in Auckland, New Zealand, where he began his university studies at Sacred Heart College and University College, Auckland (now Auckland University). Moving to Britain, he completed his studies at the University of London (at the London School of Economics and Kings College London), from which he earned his doctorate in history, with a specialization in the role of Britain in the Gulf region during the 19th century. From 1955 to 1958 he was a research fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies at Oxford University, whose director was former British diplomat Sir Reader Bullard, who among others posts had served as British Ambassador to Iran during World War II, and prior to that, as a British Minister to Saudi Arabia during the 1930s. Bullard was an important mentor to Kelly, providing encouragement in his work and helping him make important contacts within the British diplomatic community.

While at Oxford, Kelly was asked by the British Foreign Office to author a historical paper that would further link his future to the Gulf region. In response to a frontier dispute at the oasis of Buraimi between the Emirate of Abu Dhabi, whose claims were supported by the British government, and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, an arbitration panel was established in Geneva in 1955 to assess the conflicting claims. Both sides presented detailed collections of documents to support their claims, known as "memorials," and Kelly was called upon to provide a detailed analysis and refutation of the Saudi memorial. By the time his work was completed, however, the arbitration process had been discontinued and Kelly's report was not utilized.

Kelly continued to work for the Foreign Office as an expert on Arabian boundaries, and in 1957, with the encouragement and support of Bullard, made his first trip to the Gulf region, traveling from Iraq to the Trucial States and Oman, a trip that included his first visit to Abu Dhabi and meetings with ruler Sheikh Shakhbout bin Sultan al Nahyan, and his brother, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan, who was administering the eastern region of the Emirate, which included the Buraimi oasis. Kelly's extensive knowledge of the history of boundaries and tribes in Eastern Arabia was noted by both men, marking the start of a working relationship with them, as well as with British diplomats he met in the region, which would continue in the decades to come.

In the early 1960s, Kelly moved to the United States, where he accepted posts as a professor of history at at several universities, including Ohio Wesleyan College, the University of Michigan, and the University of Wisconsin. During this time he also published several works about the history of Arabia and the Gulf, including "Eastern Arabian Frontiers" (Faber and Faber, 1964), which drew upon his previous research and work with the Foreign Office, including his analysis of the Saudi memorial during the Buraimi dispute; and "Britain and the Persian Gulf, 1795-1880" (Clarendon Press, Oxford,1968), an extensive work that was based largely on his doctoral dissertation on that topic.

After Britain announced plans to withdraw its military presence from the Gulf by 1971, and questions about Arabian boundaries once again became a topic of more than historical concern, Kelly took leave from academia to become an advisor to Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al Nahyan of Abu Dhabi, who had replaced his brother as leader of the emirate in 1966. In particular, Kelly sought to marshal historical resources to buttress Abu Dhabi's claims regarding its frontiers with Qatar and Saudi Arabia, and shuttled between the U.S., the Gulf, and Britain, where he also worked with a cartographer to produce maps that illustrated these claims. After finishing his work in Abu Dhabi in 1970, he returned to research and writing, producing the volume "Arabia, the Gulf and the West" (Weidenfeld and Nicolson,1980, and Basic Books, 1981), which analyzed the current status of the various regions of Arabia and the Gulf in light of Britain's withdrawal from the region, and the geopolitical challenges these states faced. In the 1980s, Kelly returned to the United States, working as a scholar with a number of public policy centers in Washington, DC, including the Woodrow Wilson Center and the Heritage Foundation; and he provided advice to officials within the administration of President Ronald Reagan, to members of both houses of Congress, and to the media, about questions pertaining to U.S. policy in the region.

In 1984, Kelly became an advisor to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Sultanate of Oman, which at that time was seeking to resolve its own boundaries with Saudi Arabia. Kelly traveled to the region, meeting with the ruler, Sultan Qaboos, and the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Yusuf ibn Alawi ibn Abdullah, and eventually compiling detailed reports analyzing Oman's historic boundary claims.

In 1988, Kelly retired and left Washington, settling in southwestern France. He died in Albi on 29 August 2009.

[Source: obituary written by Saul Kelly, November 2009]


The collection is arranged into four series: I. General, II. Publications and writings, III. Research materials, IV. Maps. Materials are usually arranged in alphabetic order by folder title, or in chronological order.

Content Description

The J.B. Kelly papers consist of manuscript drafts of texts, correspondence, notes, copied archival documents, maps, photographs, printed material, and other materials related to the research and writings of British historian J.B. (John Barrett) Kelly (1925-2009), who specialized in the study of historical boundaries in the Arabian peninsula.

Documentation of his activities as a historical consultant to rulers in the Gulf region, as well as the British Foreign Office, can largely be found in Series I: "General: Correspondence, Projects, and Collected Materials, 1950-1987." Included here are extensive files regarding his research and travel to the Emirate of Abu Dhabi in 1968-1970, including minutes of meetings, limited correspondence with Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan, and drafts of reports he compiled. While there are some maps contained within this series, there are many more that were compiled by a British cartography firm for this project that are included in the "Maps" series below, and stored in oversize map cases. His consultancy with the Sultanate of Oman is also documented in this series, and includes his notes of meetings with Sultan Qaboos bin Said and with Yusuf bin Alawi, the Omani Foreign Minister, draft and final texts of reports that he compiled, correspondence, and extensive files of research materials, including copied archival documents arranged in alphabetic and chronological order by topic.

Photographs within this series include color slides and prints from his travels to the Trucial States and Oman in 1957, 1964, and 1970, with noteworthy images including those of the town of Abu Dhabi, meetings with Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan, British officials, and scenery in and around locations throughout the Trucial States, including Al Ain, Ajman, and Ras al Khaimah, as well as images from Oman (Musandam Peninsula, Muscat). Also included with images from his first visit to the region are color slides and photographic prints from Iraq, Qatar, and Bahrain. Later photographs include color prints of aerial images of the boundary regions between Oman, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, taken in the 1980s, as well as images from the corridor between Nizwa, Ibri, and Buraimi.

In addition, this series includes correspondence, including an extensive series of letters from Sir Reader Bullard; documents and texts related to his work with the British Foreign Office during the Buraimi Crisis, including text of Kelly's report on the Saudi Memorial; and collected materials, including first-hand accounts of the Buraimi crisis from Major William O. Little, and documents obtained from Saudi sources, including ARAMCO, by Edward Henderson.

Series II: "Publications," is divided into two subseries, with the first containing typescript drafts and published versions of articles that he published in scholarly journals and popular magazines, related to the geopolitics of the Arabian Peninsula and the Gulf region from the 1960s through the 1990s, while the second consists of draft typescript texts of his books. Both of these subseries are arranged largely in chronological order, by date of publication. The subseries on books also includes handwritten notes and in some cases photocopies of archival documents, when directly connected with the research and writing of a given book. Note cards for "Britain and the Persian Gulf" are undated, but may have originated from the period of his doctoral research in the 1950s, and are included here since that book was largely based on his dissertation. Later photocopied documents from the British National Archives, chiefly those from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, were obtained by Kelly's son, Saul B. Kelly, when the latter was researching, editing, and completing work on the book "Desert Dispute" in the years following Kelly's death. Many such copied documents that were included in "Desert Dispute" are of materials that had been declassified by the British government since the time when Kelly began his initial research in the 1960s.

Series III, "Research Materials," is largely comprised of photocopies of archival documents, often with note cards written by Kelly attached. Most of these documents were copied from record groups in the National Archives (formerly Public Records Office) of the United Kingdom, or India Office Records from the British Library, with a smaller number of documents from the National Archives and Records Administration (United States) and other sources. Most of these relate to British policy in Arabia and the Gulf region, and were the basis for much of his research and writing. This series of copied documents was arranged separately from those in the "Publications" series above, since they appeared to be kept in a single series by Kelly, not attached to one specific research or consulting project. Files are largely arranged in alphabetical order using the folder titles provided by Kelly.

Series IV, "Maps," is currently being processed, and chiefly consists of large format maps created by a cartographer in the United Kingdom, commissioned by Kelly to work with him on the Abu Dhabi frontier project in 1969-1970. Several of these maps, which contain detailed, handwritten notations about settlements in the Al Gharbia region of Abu Dhabi Emirate, were created specifically for presentation to Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan. Including are draft and final versions of maps, English and Arabic versions, and plastic tracings meant to be superimposed on these maps.

Conditions governing access

The collection is open for use in the Reading Room of the Archives and Special Collections department of the NYU Abu Dhabi Library.

Conditions governing use

This collection is protected by copyright and/or related rights. You are free to use materials in the collection in any way that is permitted by the copyright and related rights legislation that applies to your use. For other uses you need to obtain permission from the rights-holder(s).

Preferred Citation

Identification of item, date; John B. Kelly papers; MC.058; box number; folder number or item identifier; Archives and Special Collections, New York University Abu Dhabi Library.

Immediate source of acquisition

Acquired from Saul B. Kelly, August 2019.

Preservica Internal URL

Preservica Public URL|a1159057-24dc-450f-8bb3-5811256a7b73/

Collection processed by

Brad Bauer

About this Guide

This finding aid was produced using ArchivesSpace on 2023-08-21 18:17:10 +0400.
Using Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language: Description is written in: English, Code for undetermined script script.

Processing information

Processed by Brad Bauer and Muhammad Shehryar Hamid, January - March 2020.


NYU Abu Dhabi, Archives and Special Collections
NYU Abu Dhabi
New York University Abu Dhabi, C-2
P.O. 129188
Abu Dhabi