x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

The Queen's visit strengthens a lasting friendship

If the Queen's first visit acknowledged the UAE's foundation, then her second surely celebrates its success.

When Queen Elizabeth II was last driven down Abu Dhabi's corniche, a mere eight years after the UAE's independence, she would have been flanked by a sandy beach on one side and a modest skyline of low-rise buildings on the other.

This week, 31 years from that historic visit, the British Queen is back in the nation's capital. The transformation of the landscape that she will see today is a testament to the political, economic and institutional changes that have taken place in the UAE since her last visit.

It is often forgotten that as the British government marked the UAE's independence in December 1971 with a treaty of friendship, foreign diplomats and media were sceptical about the long-term viability of the newly-formed union. The Middle East was enduring a politically turbulent period, and the UAE was believed to be one of the more fragile nations in the Gulf. But survive it did. By the time the Queen touched down in Abu Dhabi in 1979, the UAE was well on the way to becoming one of the Middle East's success stories.

In the late 1960s, the British government was heavily involved in the then trucial state's oil industry. Today, the commercial relationship is a two-way street, with the UAE involved in many high-profile investments in the UK. But the links between the two countries have always transcended purely economic interests. The hundreds of enthusiastic students waving flags at the British School Al Khubairat to greet the monarch in 1979 helped to make that clear.

Zaki Nusseibeh, the official translator to Sheikh Zayed at that time - and translator to UAE President Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan now - remembers the visit as a celebration of the country's formation, and revealed how both Royals struck an instant rapport.

"They were a contrast in some ways. Sheikh Zayed was always very outgoing and the Queen was more reserved, but it worked," Mr Nusseibeh said. "There were never any awkward moments, which is always the concern of a translator. They always found it easy to talk to each other, and not only about politics but family, horses and agriculture."

Today, those long established ties will be reinforced as the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh meet Sheikh Khalifa and attend several functions in the city, as well as meeting with Sheikh Mohammad bin Rashid, Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai.

The new corniche may be unrecognisable from that of 1979, and the skyline is now dominated by a sprawling metropolis of high-rise buildings. And many of those smiling children with their Union Jacks probably have children of their own, who now consider the UAE to be their second home.

If the Queen's first visit acknowledged the UAE's foundation, then her second surely celebrates its success. One thing is unchanged: the leadership and residents of the UAE cherish their relationship with the Queen and the nation she leads. Long may that remain.