In the UAE’s Year of Giving and the British Council’s Year of UK-UAE Creative Collaboration, the Arab British Centre is celebrating four decades dedicated to a cultural diplomacy that was championed by the UAE’s Founding Father, Sheikh Zayed
The Arab British Centre at 40
On July 13, 1977, the Secretary-General of the League of Arab States, Mahmoud Riad, and David Owen, the youngest British foreign secretary since Anthony Eden, met at a smart address in London’s South Kensington to launch an organisation with the unveiling of a very traditional wooden plaque.
Established thanks to a major donation from the Founding President of the UAE, Sheikh Zayed, the Arab British Centre was established with the aim of fostering understanding and improving relations between Britain and the Arab world.
An early example of the kind of bridge-building we now understand as cultural diplomacy, the charity celebrates its 40th anniversary on July 13 years in which it has transformed itself from a lobbying organisation into an outreach-focused
patron of the arts.
“I think that cultural diplomacy has, over the decades, been seen as a more successful tool for reaching people,” explains the centre’s half-British, half-Syrian executive director, Nadia El-Sebai.
“When the Arab British Centre was founded, it sought to influence people at a very top level – reaching out to journalists, politicians and high-level visitors – whereas now we try to reach out at a much broader level.”
The centre acted as a London home for resident organisations such as the Council for Arab-British Understanding, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, the online publishing and research platform Ibraaz, and Shubbak – the UK’s largest festival of contemporary art and culture from across the Arab world.
It also provides support to associate members such as Banipal, the independent Arabic literary magazine, and the Friends of Birzeit University, an education-focused development charity that operates
“They use the centre for meetings and events, and we help them to do their work by providing a central London office and a meeting point,” El-Sebai explains. “But we now also have our own branded programmes – film festivals, exhibitions, and literature events.”
Recently, these have included the Omar Kholeif curated Safar: a Journey through Popular Arabic Cinema, a contemporary and classic Arab film festival that was launched at London’s Institute of Contemporary Art in 2012, and the biannual Arab British Centre Award for Culture, the latest winners of which will be announced on the centre’s anniversary.
A joint venture with the British Council, the award recognises individuals and organisations who have contributed to the understanding of the Arab world in the UK. Past winners have included the Liverpool Arabic Arts Festival and the Iraqi playwright, Hassan Abdulrazzak.
In 2012, the centre’s work was recognised when it won an award of its own, the Unesco-Sharjah prize for Arab culture.
“There are other institutions in London and the UK now which reflect different aspects of art and culture from the Middle East, but we try to speak to the totality of the Arab world,” says Sir Derek Plumbly KCMG, an Arabist and veteran diplomat who served as the UN Special Coordinator for Lebanon before joining the centre as its chairman and a trustee.
“We try to reflect the whole of the region, from Morocco to the Gulf, because that was the inspiration for the centre, which was a product of a time when the Arab world was perhaps more united than it is today.”
As Plumbly explains, the political climate in which the centre was planned and established was a best-of-times, worst-of-times episode in Anglo-Arab relations.
“After the ’67 war, the mood in the UK was negative, to put it mildly, about Arabs and the Arab world and, if you look back further to Suez, there was a lot of stereotyping, mutual misunderstanding and negativity on both sides.”
By the time the centre opened, Anglo-Arab relations were largely framed by a series of crises such as the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, a response to the conflict of 1967, and an Arab oil embargo that triggered a global economic crisis that not only affected the UK, but changed the ground rules of international relations.
Ever the diplomat, Owen remembers the period as one of political opportunities as well as challenges.
“It was a very exciting time. I had visited Jeddah and Riyadh that May and we were beginning to believe that a new mood was building up in the Middle East,” he says. “[There was also] a feeling that under [US] president [Jimmy] Carter it was possible to restart a real dialogue between Arab countries and Israel.”
Despite the difficulties, Plumbly also recognises the potential of the 1970s and the many discussions that led to the centre’s establishment.
“If you look back to the start of the discussions, the idea for an organisation started to develop even before the formation of the UAE,” the former UK ambassador says, looking back to Sheikh Zayed’s state visit to the UK in 1969, and early discussions with pro-Arab British politicians such as the MP Christopher Mayhew, whose diaries from the time are now part of the centre’s archive.
“They engaged and there was some to-ing and fro-ing between London and Abu Dhabi, but it was really Sheikh Zayed who was the key donor who allowed the purchase of our first building,” Plumbly says.
If the history of the centre sounds like the stuff of high culture and Whitehall mandarins, one of the most telling witnesses of the charity’s development is Mary Pyves, the single mother who worked as its live-in housekeeper for 25 years, until her retirement in 2002.
“It was a very optimistic time, we had a brand new building, we had fantastic people working with us and for us and everybody was really on a high but there were also a lot of people who didn’t want the Arab British Centre to be in existence,” Pyves says in a short film that celebrates the centre’s anniversary.
“We were an organisation that people didn’t want to know about because they didn’t agree with us,” she says. “Maybe the men in 1977 were naive and optimistic to think that they could talk their way out of situations and they didn’t, but the world the world situation was different.”
On Thursday, the announcement of the winner of the 2017 Arab British Centre Award for Culture will form a key part of the centre’s anniversary celebrations, but as Plumbly insists, the event also represents an opportunity to remember Sheikh Zayed’s charitable role in its beginnings. “Sheikh Zayed’s role was real and the sense that his giving has created this legacy that’s still continuing sustainably, 40 years later speaks to the power of philanthropy.”