Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 25 May 2019

UK cartoonist returns to Abu Dhabi after five decades

Kathryn Lamb, one of the first British schoolchildren in Abu Dhabi, reflects on a transformed capital after 50 years away

Kathryn Lamb returned for The British School Al Khubairat’s golden jubilee
Kathryn Lamb returned for The British School Al Khubairat’s golden jubilee

The first time Kathryn Lamb flew to Abu Dhabi it was aboard a twin-­engine de Havilland Dove, which touched down on the city’s bumpy on-island landing strip one sweltering summer evening. The year was 1965 and her father, Sir Archie Lamb, had been newly ­appointed as the British political agent for Abu Dhabi.

Last month, she came back to the city for the first time since the late 1960s aboard a four-engine Airbus A380, which landed on the smooth tarmac of the city’s modern international airport.

Where her 1965 flight was met by a guard of honour formed by 24 Abu Dhabi policemen as a mark of respect for an incoming diplomat and his family, her more recent voyage was a little more prosaic and a lot more ­comfortable. From de Havilland to double-decker Airbus, it’s one of ­several contrasts that help illustrate how much life has changed in Abu Dhabi since 1968, the year Lamb left when her father was transferred by the United Kingdom’s foreign office.

Lamb says returning to the city after such a long absence – she was here to attend an event marking the release of a book published to celebrate the golden jubilee of The British School Al Khubairat – is akin to encountering the “familiar and the unfamiliar”. The former, she says, are the smells and the “feel of the place”. The latter is the wholesale transformation of the city since the relatively sleepy days of the 1960s. The book launch was at the British Embassy, where she lived during her father’s tenure as political agent.

Early life in the UAE

Those three years she spent in the Gulf were punctuated by at least two moments of enormous diplomatic and political significance: first, power transferred from Sheikh Shakhbut, who was Ruler of Abu Dhabi until 1966, to Sheikh Zayed, the country’s Founding Father. Then, in January 1968, ­following the devaluation of sterling, Britain announced its intention to withdraw its interests from the Gulf. Sheikh Zayed’s nation-building efforts, begun in that period, would ultimately bear fruit in December 1971 with the formation of the UAE.

Lamb and a handful of other ­English-speaking children living in Abu Dhabi in the mid-1960s were taught in a small classroom set up by her mother in the embassy grounds. At the time, there were estimated to be not much more than 500 schoolchildren in education in the entire emirate. The population of Abu Dhabi city was recorded at about 8,000 people.

That single classroom provided the prologue to The British School Al Khubairat story. Teachers and pupils later relocated down the Corniche in 1968 to land donated by the Founding Father and moved again to the present-day Al Mushrif location in 1980, where the campus now serves more than 1,900 students.

They were fruitful years for Lamb. During her brief time in education here, she says she was encouraged to sketch by Liz Elliott, one of her teachers. She went on to become a cartoonist, contributing work to UK titles such as The Spectator, The Sunday Times and Private Eye, which she has submitted work to for more than 40 years.

She has many pocket memories of the Abu Dhabi years, some hinting at a typical upbringing, others suggesting a life less ordinary, such as making “dhow trips to deserted islands, where we would take picnics. In those days, most of the expat community could ­comfortably fit on one boat”. She remembers, too, being taken by her mother to meet Sheikha Fatima, the Mother of the ­Nation, and her father’s discussions with Sheikh Zayed.

A look at what's changed

Today, the embassy compound where she once lived is hemmed in by low and high-rise buildings. Back then, she says, “I could step out of my bedroom,” as it was on the ground floor of the embassy house, “and just walk down to the beach. There were no buildings around us”.

Plenty in the diplomatic world has also changed beyond recognition. Where the ambassadorial essentials these days are more often than not a smartphone and a social media account, standard 1960s issue for a political agent in a hot climate was a tropical uniform and a pith helmet.

Lamb also returned to the place colloquially known as the “British Club”, formally known as The Club, on her recent visit to Abu Dhabi.

The Club moved to its present-day site in June 1968 in the Mina Zayed area of Abu Dhabi island just after the Lamb family returned to the UK. Her father served as The Club’s first chairman before his departure and was, according to his daughter, instrumental in helping the institution find its permanent site.

Before The Club moved, the journey to the old site and Henderson’s Folly in Al Mina involved charging the family’s Land Rover at the dune that stood in the way. The car “always got stuck, always”, she says. The facilities at The Club were also a bit more basic back then. “It was really just a hut on the beach, upturned oil barrels. But we used to go there every Friday for curry.”

The Club now serves curry every day, although the oil barrel tables are a thing of the past.

Updated: February 15, 2019 05:52 PM