x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

On why Arabs love London

On why London has a special place in Arab families' hearts.

It is the custom when we Emiratis travel abroad to take not only the entire household with us, but also our customs, our traditions, even our food. It might seem strange to transport a whole way of life from one continent to another, but it works surprisingly well. What's more, it's fun. During the summer, coffee shops and hotel lobbies in certain parts of London are turned into majlises for men from the Gulf.

Women transform hotel suites with everything needed to give a warm welcome to their fellow Arabs - plates of fruit, dishes of dates and cups of fragrant Arabic coffee made just the way they like it. Room service is asked to heat the chalk for medkhans and the scent wafts down the corridors. Children beg to be allowed to go out on their own and are told repeatedly to meet at a certain point and not to be late. Older ladies enjoy meeting Arabs from all over the region, in Hyde Park. London becomes a home from home.

I get a call from a friend, who has been in London for three weeks with her parents, two grandmothers and her father's aunts' three brothers with their wives and children, maids and cousins. "Mother has taken Abu Dhabi Co-op with her," she says. "You name it, we've got it: cans of Rainbow milk, all the spices to cook with." Finding halal restaurants is easier now, because of the demand, but those who have houses or rented apartments cook their own food. The father finds the timings of prayers in the papers, and the grandmother ensures she has her compass to work out the direction of Mecca.

Many Arabs know their way around London. The younger generation hangs out in the parks. The women know the best places to shop: Knightsbridge, Bond Street and the new Westfield shopping centre at Shepherd's Bush, or Oxford Street and the weekend markets. The older generation visit doctors in Harley Street. Grandmothers enjoy buying their sewing materials from John Lewis's haberdashery department. And even though the rest of the world raves about Dover sole, some families have been known to bring fish from the UAE markets stored in refrigerated boxes. "How can fish in London be fresh when it's not even on the sea?" the elderly ladies would say.

It is a fact that the UK's capital has always loomed large in the Arabic memory; many of our fathers and brothers studied in or just outside London. It's a convenient and friendly destination as a stopover for a day or two, or as a base for travelling further afield. And the UAE has "shared history and common interests and values" with Britain since the treaty made between the two countries 40 years ago. When we heard about Queen Elizabeth's forthcoming visit to the UAE, we were reminded of Her Majesty's last visit in 1979, when the papers published a picture of her being welcomed to the country by Sheikh Zayed.

And we also saw pictures of the London mayor Boris Johnson and Sheikh Sultan bin Tahnoon, the chairman of ADNEC, at the opening of the ExCeL exhibitions and conference centre in Docklands, London. In a few years' time Abu Dhabi will see the opening of the Sheikh Zayed National Museum, in partnership with the British Museum. This bond strengthens and establishes friendships between the two nations. As David Cameron, the British prime minister, said on his recent visit here: "More than one million Britons visit the UAE every year and around 100,000 live here." Maybe Londoners will also make "a home" here in Abu Dhabi.

Fatima al Shamsi is away