x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Diana's desert charm offensive

Feature On the 13th anniversary of the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, Tahira Yaqoob looks back through archive photographs to the 1989 royal visit to the UAE.

Diana looks pensive as she and Prince Charles are greeted by Sheikh Zayed.
Diana looks pensive as she and Prince Charles are greeted by Sheikh Zayed.

In the few days she was here, her fashion sense and warm smile won many hearts. As the doors to the plane flew open, one blue court shoe reached tentatively for the steps. Slowly a figure emerged from the shadowy interior of the plane: sheathed in a high-waisted, electric-blue skirt, and a cropped white jacket with blue lapels and topped with a matching blue disc, surrounded by a broad white brim pulled so low as she concentrated on each careful step that the face beneath it was hidden from view. Those on the ground waited for the wearer to reveal herself. When she finally reached the bottom step, the rakishly-angled brim tipped up to reveal a stylish blue turban beneath it, framing a peaches-and-cream complexion, the wearer peered up coyly through thick, sweeping eyelashes and there was no mistaking that shy smile. It was a moment that was to go down in fashion history as Princess Diana once again showed her innate ability to spot up-and-coming designers and start trends.

As the princess arrived in the UAE for her first and only visit, she showed what she was best at: pleasing people. Not only did she manage to demonstrate her respect for cultural sensibilities with the Philip Somerville turban hat that subtly covered her hair and a demure Catherine Walker suit, she did it in the most stylish way possible and entranced her hosts, male and female alike. Diana and her husband Prince Charles were on a whirlwind tour of the Middle East in 1989. Realising the growing importance of Abu Dhabi and Dubai in global trade, the royal couple went on a charm offensive, visiting their royal counterparts in the UAE, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Oman and Bahrain, eating in their homes, learning about their culture and meeting the women of the household. And as these pictures unearthed from the archives of royal photographers on the 13th anniversary of the princess's death show, she was uniquely adept at melding into any environment and instantly setting people at ease - even when her own life was in turmoil. They also provide a fascinating insight into Princess Diana's status as a fashion icon, her fragile state of mind in a troubled marriage, glimpsed in moments when she is caught unawares, and her power to charm all those who came into contact with her.

"Whenever there was a photo opportunity, everyone from the UAE royal family wanted to sit next to her and be photographed with her," recalls Anwar Hussein, an acclaimed photographer who has followed the British royal family on tour for the past four decades. He accompanied the prince and princess on their Gulf visit and remembers the welcome they received. "Her hosts were absolutely charming to her, and charmed by her," he says.

"She seemed amazed by everything she saw. Charles has always admired Islamic culture and art and she was fascinated by the Middle East so it was a real experience for them both. "At certain moments, though, you could see her unhappiness starting to show. It was really obvious at times."

It must have been a bewildering experience for the princess, whose sheltered upbringing left her ill-prepared for what was to come: marriage to the heir to the British throne at the age of 20, two children by 25, eight years into a relationship with a philandering husband, which was already lurching towards divorce, and through it all, having to maintain a cheerful facade on tours across the world.

Ostensibly the 27-year-old princess was a consummate performer, able to mask her private distress with the compassionate public face which led her to become known as the Queen of Hearts. But the cracks were already starting to show. Here she is in Kuwait at the start of her Middle Eastern tour, her bright polka dot dress, which now seems hopelessly dated, at odds with the plaintive expression on her face, those enormous eyes rimmed with blue eyeliner gazing mournfully at her husband. Or on a visit to the engineering faculty at Emirates University hosted by Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak, the current Minister of Higher Education, where she lingers behind her husband, her arms crossed defensively, her head bowed and a doleful air about her.

Let us not forget this was a crucial period in their marriage: as it emerged later, a rift had started between the couple as early as 1985, and Prince Charles was later to admit, during a now infamous television interview in 1994, that he had embarked on an affair with Camilla Parker Bowles, now his second wife, in 1986 after his marriage had "irretrievably broken down".

Nine months after the UAE visit, the couple were about to become embroiled in the biggest scandal of their ill-fated union: the illicit recording of intimate tapes which would expose their sham marriage to the rest of the world. In December 1989, Princes Charles made an embarrassingly frank and graphic phone call to his lover, recorded by a scanner which picked up their confidences. Three years later the tape was made public, it was dubbed the "Camillagate" tape. The same month, the princess was making her own furtively intimate phone calls to her admirer James Gilbey and she too was recorded admitting: "I can't stand the confines of this marriage." Her admissions, which were also exposed by British tabloids in 1992, were named "Squidgygate" after Gilbey's nickname for her.

The royal marriage eventually ended in divorce in 1996. Back to March 1989, though, and a public display of togetherness was still the order of the day. At times, Princess Diana cannot help but revel in her love of attention and finery. She seems thoroughly delighted as she poses in a stunningly ornate rich burgundy jelabiya in Kuwait, heavily embroidered with gold sequins and impressing her hosts as she carries off the look. Even when adopting a demure look, such as the turban hat she wore when arriving in Dubai, she does it with such aplomb that she starts trends with the ease of one who understands what suits her. Long gone are the high-necked, frilly, ruffled blouses and frumpy country tweeds she favoured before her marriage. Soon after her engagement, Diana realised that what she wore would be commented on even more than what she said.

At her wedding in 1981, 750 million people around the world watched as she stepped from a carriage wearing a lavish ivory silk taffeta gown, with a 25ft train and a bodice encrusted with 10,000 pearls and sequins - and a fashion icon was born. She sought the help of staff from the magazine Vogue to find her own style and started to support up-and-coming British designers, such as Bruce Oldfield, Amanda Wakeley, and, of course, the ubiquitous Catherine Walker. Their union, which outlasted her marriage, began a few months after the wedding and continued until she died at the age of 36 in 1997. It was Walker who designed the outfit she was buried in. And it is Walker's touch that is seen throughout the princess's tour of the Emirates. A hot-pink and red dress worn for her arrival in Abu Dhabi, its clashing colours and large gold buttons very much style signposts of the Eighties. A peach suit with a flowing calf-length skirt and huge shoulder pads, paired with a single string of pearls and pearl earrings is the outfit of choice for a trip to Emirates University, flanked by Sheikh Nahayan bin Mubarak and Sheikh Tahnoun bin Mohammed, who accompanied the couple throughout their stay. The suit might seem outdated now but this was the 1980s, when the emphasis was on power-dressing, boxy suits and shoulder pads inspired by the TV soaps Dallas and Dynasty; Madonna was topping the charts, capitalism had yet to become a dirty word, and Margaret Thatcher, then prime minister and queen of the power-suit-and-pearls look, was in charge in Britain.

If Thatcher was the stern face of the power suit, Princess Diana gave it a softer touch. At the camel races near Al Ain, she tops her peach suit with a pair of huge white-framed sunglasses and seems to relish the spectacle, giggling like a schoolgirl and chatting animatedly with the sheikhs, while her husband adopts the air of an awkward Brit abroad, sunglasses perched precariously on his nose as he looks hot and bothered in a suit. As the trip progresses, her garb becomes more lavish: a navy blue and white silk striped dress for an event at the British embassy in Abu Dhabi, a light blue chiffon Zandra Rhodes floor-length gown for a reception at the British consulate in Dubai, the plunging neckline thoughtfully covered with a cream pashmina for her meeting with Sheikh Mohammed. The two seem completely at ease with one another, laughing as they chat. One of the most charming pictures shows the welcome she receives in Sheikh Zayed's private majlis in Al Ain. Sitting cross-legged on the low cushions with their distinctive blue and white embroidery wearing a floral shalwar kameez, her hair slightly tousled, Diana looks completely relaxed. Most endearing is the expression on her face: even the smiling public persona she normally has to adopt for the cameras gives way as she gawps at the astonishing spread laid before her, complete with mounds of rice, an entire sheep and platters of fruit. But perhaps the most poignant moment of their trip was when royalty met royalty. In rare footage, a smiling Sheikh Zayed greets the princess - who suddenly looks serious and unsure of herself - with a warm grasp of the hand. They exchange pleasantries with the help of a translator: Prince Charles jokes about the weather in Britain and Sheikh Zayed asks after the health of his mother, Queen Elizabeth. Then the late UAE president turns to the princess to tell her of his plans to develop an island with many gazelles. The island was, of course, Sir Bani Yas. Neither Sheikh Zayed nor Princess Diana survived to see his dream finally come to fruition. But there is little doubt the legacy of both lives on.