ABU DHABI // The UAE was in party mood yesterday as the nation celebrated its 37th birthday. Across the country, thousands of people gathered in parks and beaches to commemorate the anniversary, while cars, houses and shopping centres were decorated with balloons and green, white, red and black flags. Traditional boat races, parades of cars emblazoned with images of the country's leaders and a record-breaking fireworks display were among the highlights.
Ahmed Shareef, undersecretary of the Department of Municipal Affairs, summed up the mood when he paid tribute to the country's founder. "On the 37th anniversary of the UAE National Day we can all be inspired by the values and the remarkable efforts and accomplishments of the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan, the architect of the nation," he said. "His contribution and enlightened vision that shaped the nation have been instilled in our current leaders."
There were concerts, plays and other events across the emirates. At Abu Dhabi's Heritage Village, Emiratis and expatriates gathered on the breakwater in the afternoon for a taste of Emirati culture. "Here people can feel the UAE heritage and experience the way people lived in the days before oil," said Rashed al Romaithi, head of media for the village. On the waterfront, lines of men dressed in white khandouras faced each other waving wooden canes in a traditional Bedouin dance, as women dressed in multicoloured embroidered robes flung their hair back and forth to the beat of large wooden drums.
Haithem al Balushi, 19, a college student, was among a group of more than 50 who had travelled to the capital from Al Ain to perform the dances. "On National Day it is important to remember the old times," he said. In front of the Corniche, hundreds of young Emiratis competed in a traditional boat race organised by the Emirates Heritage Club. More than 50 wooden boats with crews of 15 oarsmen took part in the four kilometre race, finishing outside the Heritage Village.
The race is a National Day tradition. This was the first year that a group from the Abu Dhabi Club for Special Needs competed in the whole race; previously, the group joined for only the final kilometre. "It's really special for us as we've been able to properly share in this tradition," said Ayman Bachi, who works with the club. Mohammed al Mihairbi, who helped organise the boat race, stood with his 11-year-old son. "It's amazing to think what we have done in 37 years because our rulers are smart and wise we have achieved so much," he said.
"In only 37 years we have built up from the desert to the sky. "I'm not just celebrating for myself but for my children because I know everything is all right and peaceful for their future." The city's Corniche had a carnival atmosphere. Traffic travelling towards the Emirates Palace hotel slowed to a walking pace, and drivers sounded their horns and revved their engines. Abdul Rahman, an Indian selling souvenirs, said he sold more than 1,000 flags in 10 hours. "Business is good. I think I will sell 5,000 flags in four days."
Many people said they had arrived early to find parking spaces and a good vantage point for the fireworks display. Some had set up tents in parks along the Corniche. "I've never seen the celebrations go to this extent," said Marie Roberts, an Australian who has lived in the UAE for 18 years. "It's certainly a lot louder than it used to be." By the evening, the Corniche crowd had grown to around a million people, awaiting the largest fireworks display ever in the capital.
Abu Dhabi hoped to enter Guinness World Records "for the largest and most artistically detailed fireworks display in the history of the world". In Dubai, there were theatre productions and opera at Zabeel Park. Competitions, children's activities and cultural events took place at Jumeirah Park and Mamzar Park. At Dubai Creek, several thousand people gathered in the afternoon for a boat show, which included a parade of about 75 fishing boats painted in the colours of the national flag.
Saeed Hareb, the director of the Dubai International Marine Club, said, "The reason we are putting this parade on is because it means a lot to be part of the Emirates. The UAE gives a lot to its people." Arif al Zafin, a member of the Victory 1 powerboat racing team who attended the event, said, "I am proud to be Emirati. Dubai is a very safe place. The Government has done so much for my country and everyone works hard to make it a better place."
Saqar Ahmed al Kassimi, aged 10, from Sharjah, who had travelled with his parents to watch the parade, said, "In 37 years, our country has done a lot for its people and this is where we live and die." In Al Ain the municipality constructed a 500,000 sq m heritage village with a souq and mud huts to mark the day. The village, opened yesterday, will be a permanent feature in the city. The general manager of the municipality, Awad Khalifa bin Hasoum al Darmaki, said, "We were trying to imitate the old Al Ain which was an oasis surrounded by villages. We were trying to offer something to the new generation to see what Al Ain used to be and for old people to remember."
The best thing about National Day, he said, was "to see a smile on a kid's lips. It's nice to see everyone uniting." In Ras al Khaimah, Emiratis spent the day decorating their 4x4s for a parade along the Corniche that lasted well into the night. Al Ain celebrated with a light and sound show. In Madinat Zayed, in Al Gharbia, a "cultural tent" featured local crafts, a "fire eater", traditional Emirati dancing and a photo exhibition.
Khalifa al Mansoori, the executive director of area services for the Western Region Municipality, said, "It is important to show what we have accomplished over the last 37 years. "In going back to our roots we have to admire the wisdom of the rulers. It is also important to show the new generation how our parents lived." * The National