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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 19 February 2019

Sheikh Mohammed on embracing English manners and mashed potatoes

In his autobiography, the Ruler of Dubai reflects on his time in a humble house in Cambridge, the UK, in the 1960s

He may have been Dubai's most famous son, but when a young Mohammed Al Maktoum arrived in the leafy university town of Cambridge in the UK he was just another foreign student.

The Ruler of Dubai's boy had been sent to learn English by his father Sheikh Rashid, who expressed frustration at his own lack of fluency.

The year was 1966 and that August the 17-year-old enrolled at Bell Language School.

In his new autobiography, My Story, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President and Ruler of Dubai, fondly recalls the modest family he stayed with at No 15 Brookside, near Cambridge Botanic Garden, and his landlady, Mrs Summers, who he described as "gentle and kind".

He writes of how he would save the two pounds per week pocket money he was given — worth about 35 pounds (Dh165) in today's money — and buy a train ticket to watch horse racing.

Sheikh Rashid first decided to send his son to England when Dubai's economy began to boom and English largely became the language of business.

"My father faced no difficulty in his relations with military men and traders who came down to his court. His eyes beamed with a genuine smile when he greeted them," Sheikh Mohammed writes.

"It was likewise with the American diplomats and investors, to whom he used to tell anecdotes or stories. Despite that, a translator was at hand during the long court conferences and my father sporadically spoke a few words in English.

"His guests would leave the court happy and amused by the nature of the meetings but my father would show anger on his face, light up his little pipe, take a deep breath then stare at my mother and say: 'Our children have to go [to learn English] as soon as possible'.

CAMBRIDGE, UNITED KINGDOM - APRIL 19: Members of the public punt along the river Cam in front of the colleges of Cambridge University on April 19, 2011 in Cambridge, England. The UK is currently basking in fine weather with the Met Office predicting temperatures up to 25C this week. The fine weather comes as many people are taking advantage of the combination of a late Easter and additional Bank Holiday for the Royal Wedding to take extended breaks and holidays. (Photo by Oli Scarff/Getty Images)
Sheikh Mohammed studied English at Bell language school in Cambridge. Oli Scarff / Getty Images

The young Sheikh Mohammed felt under pressure to learn quickly, aware that he would soon be expected to fulfil senior positions at home.

"I would not waste a minute of my time upon arrival," he writes.

His first experience of the house in Brookside was being welcomed in by Mrs Summers.

She "summoned me to follow her to see my room, swamping me with words that I didn’t understand at all," he writes.

Kohima brigade in Mons Officer Cadet School in 1968
After Cambridge he would train at Mons Officer Cadet School in 1968

"But I could tell from her tone of voice that her words were illustrative, descriptive and welcoming."

"I spent most of my afternoon time praying until Mrs Summers knocked at the door then opened it to say: 'Maktoum, Dinner’s ready'".

He tells of 'strange smells' from the local food (mashed potatoes and peas) and of getting used to the culture.

"I was happy that our first meal was made of lamb leg shank and I thought that they are like us Arabs; they offer up meat to greet their guest.

"I tried to do something good, so I took the leftover meat and went off to discard it, but my hostess shrieked.

"I thought to myself: there must be other people who will eat this food. How thoughtless my behaviour was; she probably wanted to send it over to the neighbours.

"I later noticed that she stowed the meat away in the fridge."

Mrs. Summers house in Cambridge in 1966
The language school building that Sheikh Mohammed attended.

On local customs, he said he was surprised to find that "no one stands up when one enters a room and they would even be surprised if anyone did".

And the reserved nature of his British neighbours took him by surprise.

"I tried on many occasions to greet people who lived around us, but they would look at me in surprise when I hollered: 'Good morning! Do you have any news?'.

And Sheikh Mohammed reflects on his modest budget of just £2 or about Dh9.

"It wasn’t always enough for the weekly expenses. I used to eat chicken only once a week and skip lunches at times to buy coffee for my friends or, most importantly, purchase a train ticket so I could go to watch the horse races that I love."

He later left Cambridge and went on to officer training school in Aldershot.

But his time in the UK came to an end when he was summoned home for what was to be the most important meeting in the country's history — when Sheikh Rashid met Sheikh Zayed in 1968 and agreed to form the UAE.

"My father said: 'A very important meeting. Now.' That’s when I returned home — on the first flight out, the very next day."

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Updated: January 16, 2019 10:54 AM

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