Why the clear blue waters of Lake Geneva are a home away from home for the leaders of the UAE
First visited by Sheikh Zayed, the spa town of Evian and nearby Geneva have proved a tonic for the country's Rulers
Sheikh Zayed would have had other things on his mind when he saw the city of Geneva and its lake for the first time in September 1955.
The Founding Father of the UAE, then the Ruler’s Representative in the Eastern Region, was leading an Abu Dhabi delegation at an international tribunal attempting to resolve a border dispute at the Buraimi Oasis.
But the surroundings must have caught his eye – the centuries-old stone buildings, the late summer skies mirrored in the clear blue of the lake, and beyond, the Alpine meadows of the Chablais mountains with perhaps the highest peaks already dusted with the first snow of the coming winter.
What is certain is that Sheikh Zayed returned again and again to one of the most spectacular regions of Europe, sharing its beauty with his family and eventually making a home there.
It is a family tradition that continues to this day, as the President, Sheikh Khalifa, returned this week from his latest visit to the lake, whose borders are shared between France and Switzerland.
Sheikh Khalifa has a property on the French side, at Maxilly-sur-Leman on the outskirts of Evian les Bain, a spa town known for the purity of its bottled water.
He may well have first travelled there with his father, who is also reported to have owned properties in the hills behind the lake, at Annemasse and near Le Petit Salève, a 1,379-metre peak that rises above Geneva.
Switzerland’s tough laws against foreign property owners may have been a factor as to why Sheikh Zayed chose the French side of the lake for his homes, but the President was a frequent visitor to the city of Geneva and other resorts on the Swiss side.
In 1979, his official photographer Noor Ali Rashid captured Sheikh Zayed on an early morning stroll through Lausanne, where an Emirati-Swiss Friendship Forum was launched in 2010.
Other images show Sheikh Zayed enjoying excursions on the lake with his children, and even taking the oars of a small rowing boat.
Those visits did not mean an escape from the responsibilities of state. The official records show that Sheikh Zayed held several important discussions on international affairs on his visits to the region.
In 1982, during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, he held talks in Geneva with Al Shadhili bin Jadid, then secretary of the Arab League. In 1993, there were meetings with the president of Romania in June. Two weeks later, Sheikh Zayed and the then UN Secretary General, Boutros Boutros Ghali, held talks in Geneva amid the rising threat of Serbian militias carrying out genocide on the Muslim population in Bosnia.
The following year, Sheikh Zayed received Palestinian president Yasser Arafat. And in 1995 there were separate talks in Geneva with Egypt’s president Hosni Mubarak and president Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen.
It was also in Geneva in 1996 that Sheikh Zayed uttered one his most memorable quotes.
Asked by a foreign reporter why he spent so much money on his people, the President replied: “If you have money, won't you spend it on your children? All my people are my children.“
Sheikh Khalifa has continued to receive guests during visits to his home at Evian. This summer, he met the Ruler of Ajman, Sheikh Humaid bin Rashid Al Nuaimi in July and received Eid greetings from Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces last month.
Geneva is home to international organisations like the United Nations, the World Health Organisation and the Red Cross, as well as an important financial hub with excellent health providers and shopping. At the same time, it is spared the frenetic bustle of cities like London, New York and Paris. Geneva is twinned with Abu Dhabi, with the city gifting a flower clock - newly restored - for the Corniche in 2002.
The city and the towns and villages around the lake, known as Leman in France, have long attracted visitors from the Middle East.
Higher oil prices from the 1970s brought the first wave from the Arabian Gulf as newly prosperous citizens followed to see for themselves what attracted the ruling families.
When Sheikh Zayed arrived early to spend six weeks in the Chablais in 2000, Geneva tourist authorities recorded a 57 per cent increase in visitors from the Middle East on the previous year – equivalent to 10,000 extra overnight stays.
Gulf visitors are also popular for other reasons. In 2013, the Swiss tourist board calculated that they spent an average of Dh1,600 a day, compared to Dh900 by Indian visitors and Dh528 by Germans.
Two years ago, local estate agents reported that one in 10 sales, mostly of the more expensive properties, were to Middle East buyers. Members of the ruling families from other emirates are also understood to keep summer homes near Evian.
At the same time, the arrival of the UAE elite does little to disrupt the quiet pace of life along the lakeside – something which seems to suit both locals and their visitors.
Their impact can be measured in other ways. The community of Maxilly-sur-Leman now benefits from a Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan Library, with the President reported to have quietly made other donations to help the community down the years.
The town of Excenevex, about 25 kilometres to the west of Evian, has a new children’s park and playground thanks to a donation from Sheikha Latifa bint Mohammed Al Maktoum, who stays at a family home in the community each summer.
The mayor of Maxilly told the French local newspaper Le Messenger that when Sheikh Khalifa arrives, he likes to send a bunch of flowers but does not expect further contact.
“He is a head of state,” he said.
“It would be presumptuous of me to want to meet him.”
Updated: September 2, 2018 10:37 AM