x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

As nation hits 40, the party has just begun

The UAE’s first National Day was marked by more formal parades than today’s festivities of horns, crazy string and cars draped in flags.

Today’s celebrations have more of a party atmosphere.
Today’s celebrations have more of a party atmosphere.

The first National Day, 40 years ago, was a serious affair. Flags were flown and members of the armed forces and young men from across all seven emirates marched past Sheikh Zayed as he received their salutes.

Flags were flown from houses and public buildings and a number of foreign dignitaries travelled to the newest Arab nation, including the Egyptian prime minister and the foreign minister of Algeria. For entertainment that evening there was a concert by the great Egyptian diva, Najat Al Saghira.

Otherwise, there was work to be done. A new currency, the dirham, was several months away. The youthful nation needed ambassadors, roads, passports, hospitals, teachers - everything, in fact, that is taken almost for granted today.

Only 24 hours before National Day, December 2, 1971, the first phase of 70 kilometres of new roads in Al Ain was opened by Sheikh Tahnoun bin Mohammad Al Nahyan.

In the days after National Day, talks would conclude for a new US$500 million (Dh1.8 billion) natural gas plant on Das Island in Abu Dhabi, new postal fees were announced, the first police cadets completed their training and the world's largest steam turbine arrived at Port Zayed en route to a new power-generating plant.

Forty years later, National Day in 2011, will be a more relaxed affair, celebrating a nation whose reach has stretched around the world. Unofficially it is the day when the nation's citizens let their hair down, in a honking cavalcade of dazzlingly decorated cars, air horns and crazy string along the Corniche of Abu Dhabi and the other major cities of the seven emirates, as fireworks burst overhead.

There will be fireworks this December 2, of course, and given that this is the 40th anniversary, they may well be the biggest and best ever. The official ceremonies will be held at the Sheikh Zayed Stadium, but afterwards the party will inevitably move down to the Corniche.

Afterwards there will be memories, and National Day is one occasion that leaves everyone with a story to tell. On these pages, a selection of young and old, recall the past 39 national days.