Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 July 2019

I never imagined I would get to meet my childhood heroes. Here in the UAE, it is becoming commonplace

From birdwatching with Prince Charles to crossing the Empty Quarter with Wilfred Thesiger, the great and the good have passed through the UAE and left lasting memories

Sir Wilfred Thesiger during the second crossing of the Empty Quarter in 1948
Sir Wilfred Thesiger during the second crossing of the Empty Quarter in 1948

Over the last few years, I have come to the conclusion that if I stay in the UAE long enough, many of the people I would most like to see, or even meet, will eventually make their way here. Not everyone, of course, but as the years go by, a considerable number have happily obliged.

Pope Francis is the latest person to tick off my UAE wishlist – and I mean that with the deepest respect. I was delighted to have been involved, albeit peripherally, in last week’s papal visit.

Looking back, there have been a whole host of other significant figures, from Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II to Prince Charles and Princess Diana, for example. I even took Prince Charles birdwatching, as well as on a visit to the ruins of a Christian monastery on Sir Bani Yas island. I was honoured to meet another world-famous figure, Nelson Mandela, in the UAE, as well as his successor as president of South Africa, my university classmate Thabo Mbeki, whom I hadn’t seen for more than 40 years.

It’s not just been royalty and politicians, of course. I never attended concerts by the likes of Cliff Richard, Rod Stewart and the Rolling Stones in the UK during the early years of their careers but I’ve seen them all here, and had the pleasure of introducing my daughters to the music of proper pop stars. Real highlights of my time in the Emirates, even if I have missed many of the other great performers who have passed through and continue to do so, in increasing numbers.

Then there have been childhood heroes such as Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl. Before I reached my teens, I had been enthralled by his books Aku Aku about Easter Island and Kon-Tiki, about his journey across the Pacific. It never occurred to me that I would ever get to meet him.

Then, many years later, in the late 1980s, I not only had the pleasure of introducing him as the speaker at a meeting of the Emirates Natural History Group (ENHG) but also later enjoyed swapping tales over a dinner of roast reindeer at a Norwegian Food Week at the (now sadly renamed) Abu Dhabi Hilton.

I was reminded of another childhood hero the other day when a more recently arrived colleague told me that Arabian Sands, by the late explorer Wilfred Thesiger, had provided her with invaluable insights into the UAE before the coming of oil.

Thesiger’s crossings of the Empty Quarter more than 70 years ago first came to public attention with the publication of Arabian Sands in 1959. That was another book that enthralled me and awoke my desire to see the deserts of the peninsula.

Nearly 30 years ago, I met him in Abu Dhabi at the opening of an exhibition of his magnificent photographs and then introduced him as a speaker of an ENHG meeting, chaired by our patron, Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak, now the UAE's Minister of Tolerance.

Later, I took my first-ever trip into the sands of the Empty Quarter, south of Liwa, in Thesiger's company. That remains an incredible memory. I recall him muttering, as our helicopter flew near the flares of an oilfield: "Desecration…. desecration". And there was more. South of Liwa, I had the almost unimaginable privilege of being able to show him two things in the deep desert that he had never previously seen, the gypsum crystals known popularly as "desert roses" and the nest of a golden eagle, one of our rarest breeding birds. As a child, how could I have ever imagined such good fortune?

On another occasion, a few years before his death, I attended the ceremony in which he was given a medal awarded to him by Sheikh Zayed. One of Sheikh Zayed’s sons presented it to him and I recall, with amusement, a conversation about Sheikh Zayed’s age.

“I am now nearly 90," said Thesiger. "Looking back to when we first met in 1947, he must have been around 30. So now he must be over 80.”

“Ha,” Sheikh Zayed’s son laughed, “none of us would dare to tell him he was that old!”

I have one regret of the occasions on which I was lucky enough to spend time with the explorer. I didn’t discover until after he died that one of his favourite authors as a child and a young man had been the great John Buchan, the author of The Thirty-Nine Steps, a Scottish MP and governor general of Canada. Buchan was one of my childhood favourites too and I still read his books today. How I wish that I had asked Thesiger about him. But I digress.

When I first came to the Emirates, the country was only a few years old. The idea that a steady array of world-famous figures – a Catholic Pope, royalty, politicians, musicians, writers, explorers and more, would visit these shores would have seemed, at best, somewhat far-fetched.

Today it is commonplace – except on very special occasions like last week’s papal visit, which was extraordinary in many ways. But the long entourage of high-profile visitors is evidence of the manner in which the UAE has established itself on the world stage. I look forward to seeing whom I can tick off next on my wishlist.

Peter Hellyer is a consultant specialising in the UAE’s history and culture

Updated: February 11, 2019 03:25 PM

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