Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 July 2019

It's 40 years since the Queen made her first visit to the UAE but the memories are still vivid

Greeted at the dockside by Sheikh Zayed, Her Majesty hosted a grand reception on board the royal yacht Britannia

A photograph of Queen Elizabeth with Sheikh Zayed, the UAE's Founding Father during a state visit to the country in 1979. Courtesy: Zaki Anwar Nusseibeh
A photograph of Queen Elizabeth with Sheikh Zayed, the UAE's Founding Father during a state visit to the country in 1979. Courtesy: Zaki Anwar Nusseibeh

It was the workers on Das Island who saw her first, emerging out of the sea mist in stately procession towards Abu Dhabi. The royal yacht Britannia carrying Queen Elizabeth of Great Britain on her first state visit to the UAE.

The date was February 24, 1979, and waiting on the quayside at Mina Zayed was Sheikh Zayed, founding President of a country that was then only eight years old.

As well as dignitaries, who included Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed, then Ruler of Dubai and the other five Rulers of the UAE Supreme Council, a large crowd had gathered, anxious to witness this historic event.

“Disembarking from the Britannia, the Queen was presented with flowers by two small girls,” the New York Times wrote in its edition of 40 years ago, noting the "warm welcome from Government officials and thousands of cheering citizens”.

The fact that the Times was covering the visit is an indication of its global importance. The region was in turmoil, with the Arabian Gulf kingdoms an oasis of stability.

Even as Britannia passed down the Arabian Gulf it took her perilously close to the waters of Iran, where a violent revolution had seen the Shah overthrown, and the creation of an Islamic republic under Ayatollah Khomeini less than two weeks before.

International public interest in the visit was high. "There was intense interest to see really how the rulers in the Gulf would welcome a woman monarch and to see how the public would react as well," Keith Graves, the former BBC Middle East correspondent, told The National in an interview in 2010.

"You had a queen, a woman, visiting a part of the world where women were not high profile.”

For the British government, the royal visit was also of great importance, taking the Queen to a region whose long ties with Britain had been both transformed and loosened by the formation of the UAE in 1971.

London also eyed the possibility of lucrative trade deals with the oil rich Gulf states. For the first time it chartered an aircraft to bring along 60 members of the press.

Her Majesty, meanwhile, departed from Heathrow on Concorde, the shiny new supersonic passenger aircraft serving as a sale pitch for British technology. But after landing in Kuwait, it was the then 25-year-old Britannia that would continue the tour.

The visit would last three days, beginning with a tour of the new city, including the Corniche Hospital and a stop at the British School Al Khubairat where the Queen, in a mint green outfit with matching hat, was presented with a bouquet by four-year-old Victoria Evans, the youngest girl pupil.

There was a holiday atmosphere, as crowds lined the street to watch the Queen and Sheikh Zayed pass in a Mercedes limousine flying the Royal Standard and the flag of the UAE. On the beach, a British Airways hot air balloon was launched.

Away from the media, the Queen enjoyed a private meeting at Mushrif Palace with Sheikha Fatima, the wife of Sheikh Zayed.

The day ended with a State Banquet at 10pm on board the Royal Yacht in honour of Sheikh Zayed, to thank the President and the other Rulers for their hospitality.

The following day saw a visit to Al Ain University, with a spot of camel racing in the Garden City, of which Mr Graves said ”she clearly thought this was absolutely wonderful and quite spectacular”.

Members of the media found the hospitality also extended to them. All 60 were allocated an individual car and driver.

For the BBC’s man it was a Rolls Royce all to himself. Lunch was a desert barbecue, with roast lamb, tents and traditional music and dancing.

The next day was Sunday, with the Queen flying from Al Ain to Dubai. Met at the airport by Sheikh Rashid, the royal party unveiled a plaque at the new Municipality building, with the Queen and her husband, Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, attending a service at Holy Trinity Church in Bur Dubai.

Overnight, the Royal Yacht sailed from Abu Dhabi to the new port at Jebel Ali which was formally opened by the Queen on the Monday, along with a desalination plant.

"It is one of man's ancient dreams to turn the desert green and seawater fit for drinking," she was quoted as saying by the newspaper Al Ittihad. "Here in Dubai, this dream will become reality."

Next the Queen was taken to the top of the Trade Centre - to inaugurate what was then the tallest building in the Middle East - and for dhow trip along the Creek.

There was a visit to the British Embassy in Dubai on the waterside, and finally an evening reception, again on Britannia, before the Royal party finally departed the UAE for Oman and the final leg of their Arabian tour.

The Queen returned to the UAE in 2010. Sheikh Zayed paid a state visit to Britain in 1989, with the current President, Sheikh Khalifa afforded the same honour in 2013. Less formally, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, the Vice President and Ruler of Dubai is frequently seen with the Queen at the horse racing meetings they both love.

After 67 years on the throne, the Queen is now the world’s longest living monarch. The UAE, meanwhile, is approaching its 50th birthday in 2021. While much else has changed in the 40 years since that first Royal visit, the relationship between the two nations remains one of great warmth and purpose.

Updated: February 23, 2019 03:22 PM

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