x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

For Britons in UAE, Sheikh Khalifa's state visit another milestone in deep ties

Of the tens of thousands of Britons living in the UAE, only a handful can remember a time when even a few of their compatriots had heard of Abu Dhabi or Dubai.

Author David Heard has lived in Abu Dhabi since 1963 and has witnessed the decades of deepening ties between his native country and the one they call home. Christopher Pike / The National
Author David Heard has lived in Abu Dhabi since 1963 and has witnessed the decades of deepening ties between his native country and the one they call home. Christopher Pike / The National

Of the tens of thousands of Britons living in the UAE, only a handful can remember a time when even a few of their compatriots had heard of Abu Dhabi or Dubai.

Among them are David Heard and David Spearing, both witnesses to decades of deepening ties between their native country and the one they call home.

For both, the milestone in the two nations' relations was Sheikh Zayed's first state visit to the UK in 1989.

Mr Heard, 74, a petroleum engineer from the first years of Abu Dhabi's oil production, recalls the flourish that heralded the arrival of Sheikh Zayed at a state banquet in London.

"There were trumpets from the balconies above a long passageway, and then Sheikh Zayed was brought in a procession with the lord mayor," says Mr Heard, one of a select group of British businessmen from the UAE invited to the banquet at the Guildhall.

"It was very formal. It was done in the remarkable traditional ways of long ago and that still sticks in my mind. Before the dinner we went to a large waiting area for a ceremony of handing over of formal papers in a silver casket between both sides."

Mr Heard arrived in Abu Dhabi in 1963 as part of a team searching for oil with the Abu Dhabi Petroleum Company. He recently published From Pearls to Oil, an account of the early days of exploration.

While friendship underlined the first UAE state visit, Mr Heard believes strengthening trade links will be the cornerstone of the visit by the President, Sheikh Khalifa.

"Both Britain and the UAE have a long history," Mr Heard says."The late Sheikh Zayed had been to London many, many times even before he was Ruler. But the first state visit was exciting to us all.

"It was like friends meeting with the pomp reserved for state occasions. This relationship has changed over the years, with a greater emphasis on business and trade. Britain, like other countries in the world, sees the UAE as a good market for business."

This combination of business and camaraderie is also the reason that Mr Spearing, 77, continues to live in Abu Dhabi.

When he moved there in 1968 to work as a consultant in the building industry, friends thought he meant Aberdovey, a Welsh seaside town.

"It's just amazing how things have changed," says Mr Spearing, also a founding member of the capital's British Business Group.

"When I told friends I would be working in Abu Dhabi, they said they had been there a couple of years ago. They got Abu Dhabi mixed up with Aberdovey in Wales. Now very few in the UK will not know the UAE and so many want to work here."

He also recalls the excitement after the 1989 state visit and poring over newspapers filled with pictures of Sheikh Zayed with Prince Charles and Princess Anne.

"The hope is that ties between the two countries will grow deeper," says Mr Spearing, who was this year made a Member of the Order of the British Empire for services to business and to the British community in Abu Dhabi.

"There were dramatic changes between the queen's visit in 1979 and Sheikh Zayed's visit in 1989. People realised it had changed from the early hardship posting days, when road networks were still being set up, and it grew to be recognised as a very young country that was well-developed and continually evolving.

"State visits always help to grow people's understanding of a country and past visits have brought the UAE and Abu Dhabi to the fore."

rtalwar@thenational.ae