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Four decades of friendship built on affection and respect

President Sheikh Khalifa's state visit to the UK will lay the foundations for further growth in relations between the two countries in the years ahead.

President Sheikh Khalifa commences his two-day state visit to the United Kingdom today at the invitation of Queen Elizabeth. He's familiar with the country, of course, having made many private visits over the years, during which he has met the Queen, other members of the British royal family and senior politicians, many of whom he has also met on their visits to the UAE.

This time, though, it's different. Few nations can stage ceremonial events as well as the British. Since the occasion is a formal state visit rather than a private or an official one, the full panoply of British ceremony will be on display.

Elite units of the armed forces will turn out in resplendent uniforms, some mounted on fine horses to escort the Queen and the President as they ride in a horse-drawn carriage. Guards of honour will be mounted, a royal salute will be fired from cannons at the historic Tower of London by the Honourable Artillery Company and a bevy of officials holding ancient and arcane titles will be presented to the President, including the Master of the Horse, the Master of the Household, the Captain of the Yeomen of the Guard and the Captain of the Honourable Corps of Gentlemen-at-Arms (who happens to be a woman).

This will all be followed by a luncheon (a mere "lunch" is scarcely an appropriate term) at Windsor Castle, which has been a royal residence for nearly 1,000 years. History and ceremony is an essential part of the British way of life.

The state visit, though, includes much more than the ceremonial. President Khalifa will be meeting the British prime minister, David Cameron, and the heir to the British throne, the Prince of Wales, Prince Charles. Senior officials accompanying the UAE President will also meet other British ministers and are expected to sign a number of agreements between the two countries.

The intention, on both sides, is that the outcome of the visit should underline the long-standing and friendly relations that exist between the ruling families, the governments and peoples while, at the same time, making a commitment to future collaboration and partnership.

Nearly a quarter century ago, in 1989, Sheikh Khalifa's father, the late Sheikh Zayed, paid a state visit to Britain in which, like this week's visit, I also took part. Then, too, the desire to emphasise collaboration and partnership was a central theme. Looking back, it's instructive to examine the way in which the relationship has developed.

At that time, the UAE was still a relatively young country, with less to bring to the partnership. But in the last two and half decades the UAE has vastly more experience - not just in terms of its own internal development but in the international arena, with a voice that carries a significant amount of weight, and with a record of having made important contributions on issues such as humanitarian aid, help for the needy and the international fight against terrorism.

In many of these areas, the UAE and Britain work closely together. British investment in the UAE, dating back to well before the federation was established in 1971, is now paralleled by major UAE investment in Britain - in industry, in renewable energy and in many other areas. The partnership that Sheikh Zayed sought to build so many years ago is something that has now become a reality, to which both countries can - and do - contribute in concrete ways.

Anchored in a shared history that stretches back for over 200 years, characterised by amity rather than by enmity, the relationship between the UAE and Britain is, at the same time, one which looks to the future. Amity, I should note, means a little bit more than friendship: it's defined, in part, as a "relationship which involves mutual knowledge, esteem, affection and respect". All of those are present, on both sides.

There are, of course, fundamental differences between the two countries: from geography to culture and heritage, to the structures of their economies and systems of governance. All of these, at times, can, and do, lead to divergences of opinion.

That's natural. The best of friends never agree on absolutely everything. The warmth and duration of the relationship, however, coupled with common aspirations and objectives across a wide range of fields, has ensured that the partnership built over many years has prospered, and will continue to do so.

This week's state visit will lay the foundations for its further growth in the years ahead.


Peter Hellyer is a consultant specialising in the UAE's history and culture

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