ABU DHABI // In 1989 Sheikh Zayed, the founder of the nation, and Yasser Arafat laid a cornerstone on a plot of land designated by the Government as the site for the Embassy of the State of Palestine. But work did not get far. Now, almost 20 years later, the new embassy is finally taking shape thanks to an Dh8 million (US$2.2m) donation from Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed, President of the UAE and Ruler of Abu Dhabi.
Construction, delayed primarily by a lack of funds, is on schedule to be completed by January. Several campaigns have been organised over the years to collect money for the project, but it was Dr Khairi al Oridi, the present Palestinian Ambassador, who made its completion a priority. "The problem was to do with financing the project and Dr Oridi made it his goal to build the embassy while he is here and he started an intensive campaign," said Mohannad Aklouk, the first secretary at the embassy.
When Dr Oridi took up his post he began collecting donations towards the Dh16m needed to build the embassy. The UAE's Palestinian community donated Dh2m and Palestinians outside the country gave Dh2m. Another Dh4m has been pledged in the form of building materials and Sheikh Khalifa has given the rest. "My ambition is for the new embassy to be like a real reflection of the relationship between the UAE and Palestine," said Dr Oridi. "The shape of the [current] embassy does not express this."
The new compound in Al Safarat neighbourhood will include the embassy building and the ambassador's residence. An imposing feature will be Al Quds Hall topped by a golden dome in homage to the Dome of the Rock, or Kubat al Sakhra, in Jerusalem, and to the memory of Sheikh Zayed. "Al Quds was always in his heart so that's why we are doing this," Dr Oridi said. Jerusalem's Old City is the inspiration for several design elements, including the compound walls which will resemble the city's distinctive walls. The three main entrances will be replicas of three of the city gates.
"Jerusalem is not just for Palestinians, but for all Arabs and those here in the UAE, because Sheikh Zayed was always caring about Jerusalem and Palestinians," said Dr Oridi. "Sheikh Zayed was a wise man who knew that Jerusalem should be the capital of peace for the future." The modest building which currently serves as the embassy was the office of the representative of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) in the 1970s. It became the embassy in 1988 when the PLO adopted the declaration of independence recognised by more than 20 countries, although the Palestinian Territories have not yet achieved statehood.
The embassy on Sudan Street in the heart of the capital is a white, one-storey building known as a "beit shaabi", or a house in a residential area. The only things that identify it as an embassy are a large sign and a tall flagpole with the Palestinian flag. Next door is a primary school run by the embassy and subsidised by the community, which will remain after embassy staff relocate next year. The wooden guard's room at the entrance of the old building bears a weather-beaten imprint of the Palestinian flag. Inside, pictures of key Palestinian figures, including one showing Arafat, the late Palestinian leader, and Khalil Ibrahim al Wazir, the founder of the Fatah party, adorn the walls. Another shows an elderly woman clinging to an olive tree as an Israeli soldier looms over her.
A poster proclaiming Jerusalem the capital of Arab culture for 2009 bears the famous phrase "next year in Jerusalem" that reflects Palestinian yearnings. The ambassador's office is adorned with gilded portraits of Arafat, Sheikh Zayed, Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, and Dr Oridi greeting Sheikh Khalifa. A blown-up image of the Dome of the Rock seen through the trees of the Mount of Olives covers the facing wall.
Five ambassadors have occupied this office, including Dr Oridi, who has held the post for two years. The embassy has a consular department and branches which liaise with the UAE's Palestinian community, estimated at between 180,000 and 200,000. The total includes those holding Palestinian travel documents, Jordanian passports and documents issued by countries such as Lebanon and Egypt. "This kind of unequipped building cannot serve our community well," said Hamed Mutair, a counsellor. "That's what we want, to be able to serve our people."
Although run-down, the embassy has a rich and colourful past. Leading Palestinian figures have visited the modest building, from Mr Wazir to the late poet Mahmoud Darwish, who died last month. It has often served as a gathering point for the community during pivotal moments in the Palestinians' recent history. Mr Mutair recalled the time in 2002 when Arafat was trapped in the Palestinian Authority's Ramallah headquarters during an Israeli siege.
"People arrived at the embassy to express their anger. They just wanted to talk together and to show how they felt," he said. When Arafat died in 2005 people from the community and beyond flocked to the embassy, where an azaa, or mourning tent, was erected to receive the mourners. Similar scenes occurred this year when George Habash, founder of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, died in Jordan. When Mr Darwish died the embassy received ambassadors and government officials and members of the public grieving for the man whose poetry gave a voice to the Palestinian people.
But when Arafat visited Abu Dhabi in the late 1980s he addressed crowds of Palestinians at a theatre. Maysa Diab Harb, the ambassador's office manager, who was then an eight-year-old girl, remembers reciting a poem for Arafat at the event. "My father wrote the poem for me to recite and I remember that he [Arafat] gave me a hug after that in front of everyone," she said. Standing on the stage, Arafat clasped her hand and opened her fingers to make the V for victory sign.
"The most emotional memory I have of this place is when Abu Amar [Arafat] declared independence and Palestinians from all over the UAE turned up at the embassy, dancing dabke [a traditional dance] and singing in the street," said Mr Mutair. "Everyone was holding flags and pictures of Abu Amar and shouting 'kulna Filisteen' - We are all Palestine." firstname.lastname@example.org