Pope Francis's visit to the UAE is a historic moment that will live on in our memories
The pontiff's arrival represents the biggest international news event to have taken place in the nation's 47 years
This week’s visit by Pope Francis is breaking all sorts of records and is attracting a wide variety of superlatives. The first visit by a Catholic Pope to the Arabian peninsula; the largest open-air mass ever held in the region; the greatest gathering in the UAE of local and overseas journalists – nearly 700 of them, according to one estimate.
It’s the biggest international news event to have taken place here in the years since the UAE was established, both in terms of the size of the global audience following it and of its significance.
Even if they haven’t known much before about the UAE, most of the world’s estimated 1.2 billion Catholics will know something of it now.
For those with no direct involvement, the visit’s most obvious impact may simply be its effect on daily life, as thousands of buses and cars take to Abu Dhabi’s roads, ferrying worshippers to the Papal Mass on Tuesday.
However, during such painstakingly organised events, the public sees little of what goes on behind the scenes – not just the diplomatic discussions between both sides, but also the logistics, the security and much more besides. An array of ministries and departments are involved, quite apart from external bodies, such as, on this occasion, the local Catholic church.
Over the years, I have been involved with a number of other important visits to the UAE – none as enormous as this, of course, but I can still recognise the huge amount of work that has gone into it.
The main thing to consider when planning such an event is, quite simply, the timetable. During the visits to the UAE by Britain’s Queen Elizabeth, for example, one task for the advance team was to measure the route for her convoy of cars, to work out a schedule that was accurate, down to the minute.
Then there’s the need to work out the details of the programme. These formal occasions, such as attending meetings and visiting important sites, are simple enough, provided care is taken not to overburden the visitor with engagements.
What, though, about a visitor’s personal interests? On visits by Britain’s Prince Charles, he has been given time to paint the dunes of Liwa and to watch birds, while, on another visit, I accompanied him on a trip to see the early Christian monastery on Sir Bani Yas.
Given the short duration of the Pope’s visit, there’s no time for anything like that. However, there will have been much conversation between the planning teams to ensure that a comfortable compromise is reached between the wishes of both visitor and hosts.
While there’s always the hope that everything will run like clockwork, theirs is also the possibility of the occasional hiccup, and that must be taken into account as well.
Pope Francis is, in the very best sense, a humble and simple man, coming to the UAE on a mission to promote the values of tolerance, dialogue and human brotherhood. This will, I am sure, have helped the teams on both sides who have been working, for months, to take care of every tiny detail.
However finely tuned a programme is, however, there’s always the possibility of something unexpected happening.
During a visit by the South African president Nelson Mandela, for example, an early-morning walk along the Corniche was planned. The necessary security was in place and all began well until, suddenly, our guest insisted on stopping to chat with some municipality gardeners. Consternation ensued, but he wasn’t to be diverted.
Years ago, I accompanied the visiting Chief Minister of Jersey to a meeting with the Ruler of Sharjah. Following our conversation, we were just about to leave for our next appointment when the Ruler insisted that we go and see one of his prize projects, the Desert Wildlife Park on the road to Dhaid. It was a delightful diversion, but one that left the rest of the programme in tatters.
Still, it is often the spontaneous, unplanned moments that make such occasions truly extraordinary. This is a fact that will be understood by the many hundreds of men and women who have worked so tirelessly to ensure that this historic visit will live on in our memories for many years to come.
Peter Hellyer is a consultant specialising in the UAE’s history and culture
Updated: February 2, 2019 05:16 PM