x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Abu Dhabi boy who cannot fly misses the boat home

Joe Thompson, 11, who has been unable to leave the UAE after developing an acute fear of flying remains stranded after the Saudi embassy denied him a visa to reach the boat that offered him a lift back to the UK.

Al Ain, United Arab Emirates, July 30, 2012: Joe Thompson,11, who recently came down with a debilitating fear of flying and has been unable to leave the country to return to his home in the UK.
Al Ain, United Arab Emirates, July 30, 2012: Joe Thompson,11, who recently came down with a debilitating fear of flying and has been unable to leave the country to return to his home in the UK.

AL AIN // But for a Saudi visa, 11-year-old Joe Thompson would have been aboard a ship on his way home today.

The British schoolboy has been stuck in the UAE for more than a month after suddenly developing an acute fear of flying.

"I've no idea what brought it on, it came out of nowhere," said Joe, whose family is attempting to return home to the UK after living in in Al Ain for several years.

"I used to love flying. As soon as I hit the ground I wanted to go on another flight. I wanted to live on a plane."

Last week, Joe and his father Tony tried to obtain Saudi Arabia visas that would have enabled them to drive to the Red Sea port city of Jeddah in time to board the Strauss, which was due to depart on a voyage to Southampton in the UK yesterday.

A global insurance broker had arranged for them to travel on one of its client's vessels.

Their hopes were dashed when the Saudi Embassy in Abu Dhabi refused to issue the visas.

Joe's phobia has mystified experts. Before it appeared in March he had flown long-haul all his life. Repeated attempts to board a plane since have failed despite help from therapists and the administration of sedatives.

"There's a point when I'm outside the terminal where I can't move," Joe explained. "The last time, I got stuck in one place: I couldn't take a step forward, it was really frightening.

"It just switches on as soon as I see that check-in desk. I find somewhere to sit and I go into lockdown. My breathing goes wrong and I start getting anxious.

"I feel terrified. I don't know what to do, I just can't do it."

Mr Thompson said: "He is calm in the car but then suddenly it is like the flick of a switch. Once he gets into that terminal he changes from the way he normally is to, 'I can't do it'."

He made it as far as his seat on the plane for one flight, but as soon as they announced the doors were closing, Joe panicked.

"He was clambering over the seats to get out," his father said. "But as soon as he got back on the ground he was fine."

Joe insists that it is not the fear of crashing that stops him. "I don't really like the height and I think I might be claustrophobic when I'm up in the air."

Mr Thompson said the Saudi embassy had indicated it will consider providing transit visas that would enable them to drive through the Kingdom to Jordan, from where they could make their way home.

They are hoping that the insurance broker, Willis, will come up with other shipping options for them: either leaving from a UAE port or Muscat in Oman and travelling past Yemen, north through the Red Sea and on to Europe.

Mr Thompson, a crisis management expert, said he was not worried about the prospect of sailing through the pirate-infested waters off Yemen as the area was patrolled by warships. He remains confident that he and Joe will be able to set off on one or other of the routes this week.

Joe's mother Pauline and sister Chloé, 16, are already back at the family home in Weston-super-Mare, Somerset, and Joe said that he is missing them and his dog, Rebel.

Due to start at a new school in the UK in September, Joe said he is keen to pick up his interest in rugby.

For now, he is resigned to having to wait for a suitable means of transport to become available before he can begin a new life in the UK.

"I'm OK with it because I've got my friends here to play with, but I want to go home and see my family," he said.

csimpson@thenational.ae