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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 23 June 2018

Rowing to work and casual visits with Sheikh Zayed: former diplomat tells of 1950s UAE

The former British ambassador first lived in the UAE in the 1950s and witnessed the country's formation from the Trucial States

Sir Harold Walker, former ambassador to the UAE, Ethiopia and Iraq at his home in London, where an old image of Qasr Al Hosn hangs. Pete Maclaine for The National
Sir Harold Walker, former ambassador to the UAE, Ethiopia and Iraq at his home in London, where an old image of Qasr Al Hosn hangs. Pete Maclaine for The National

At the door of his handsome townhouse in the London borough of Richmond, Sir Harold “Hooky” Walker exclaims: “I’ve downsized.”

Home was once the British embassy in Abu Dhabi in the 1980s, when the landmark compound looked directly on to the sea. Decades before that it was late 1950s Dubai when he worked as the assistant in the political agency. “I used to row to work across Dubai Creek in a boat commanded by a splendid oarsman and it was so humid it was a real challenge to stop sweat running down the arm and blotting the pen and ink writing.”

Memories remain vivid of Sheikh Zayed and the role of the founding president in forging a nation. The British-protected states gave way to the federation of the UAE, which was established in 1971.

“Sheikh Zayed was a very impressive man, he was a calm authorative figure with a deep and fairly-slow speaking voice,” he said. “He had a presence and made a big impression on every one who met him.”

Sir Harold Walker at his home in London. Pete Maclaine for The National
Sir Harold Walker at his home in London. Pete Maclaine for The National

As a British political agent, Sir Harold would cross the sabkha flats in a Land Rover to Abu Dhabi, where an appointment at Qasr Al Hosn, the Rulers Fort, was not necessary. The agent had a standing invitation to drop in amid he constant process of meetings between sheikhs and people in majlis where all could get their views across. It was in these meetings the genesis of Abu Dhabi’s future rapid development came to the fore.

“Sheikh Shakhbout, his older brother, who was a great man in his own way, didn’t want modern development, he preferred the older way of the desert and the life of the desert towns,” recalled Sir Harold.

“Sheikh Zayed wasn’t like that even when he was the ruler’s representative in Al Ain, he developed it. In particular paying attention to the Falaj irrigation system,” he said. “I have happy memories of sitting in the newly refurbished Falaj system with the fish tickling my toes when he was in charge. He was a developer from the start and wanted to develop the agricultural system.”

From the outset as ruler, Sheikh Zayed pioneered a new development board and oversaw the challenges of the British withdrawal from the Trucial State treaties in the late 1960s.

“He was a ruler; his instincts were not those of a bureaucrat. In founding the UAE, the people who had the ultimate say and the political responsibility were Sheikh Zayed and Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed of Dubai,” he said. “Those two men deserve their place in history.”

Pressure to include Bahrain and Qatar in the federation emanated from the British political offices across the littoral states. “The British tried it for a while but it was never going to work. It was always going to be what the local people wanted and we owe a debt to Sheikh Zayed and Sheikh Rashid for being statesmen that pulled the UAE together,” he said.

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Read more:

Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid remembers the day the dream of the UAE was born

Qasr Al Hosn: a fortress of memories for old soldiers

Early days of the UAE: Honor Cowell recalls her life as one of the first female expats in Abu Dhabi

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Sir Harold sees the UAE founder as ahead of his time in the range of interests that he promoted. “What happened to the UAE and Abu Dhabi under him and his relations with the Arab world and the rest of the world makes him a visionary because here is this man who lives very simply in Al Ain and becomes a world figure that people listen to. He achieved a place for his country of birth on the world stage which a visionary would aspire to.

The connection to his religion, Islam, and the desert surrounding of his birth were deeply grounded in Sheikh Zayed. “He was a believer and one who believed that a good Muslim looks after everyone in world and has duties to one’s fellow human beings. The kind of Islam that the UAE pursues now is one that Sheikh Zayed had.

“He never lost a love of hunting, horse riding camel racing,” he said. “He was a son of the desert as well as world figure.

“His great strength was in talking, in using the wonderful language to resolve disputes. Sheikh Zayed’s skill was in endlessly talking with any leader with whom he might have a dispute. He was a great peace maker.”

From education to social affairs, the founding president oversaw that, with the riches that came with oil, development became a priority.

“He was an early environmentalist and his upbringing made him very keen on greenery – from the earliest days, once Abu Dhabi had the money, it went in for recycling the resource so that it provided irrigation. Sheikh Zayed was as green a ruler as you can get.

“He had advanced views on the role of women in society, for example, believing that women should be in the workplace,” he said.

Later in the 1980s, Sir Harold returned to Abu Dhabi as the British ambassador, living in the building that had been the political office and is now the embassy. “That was a very curious building. When it became the residence, the dining room was on the first floor and the only access from the bedrooms on the ground floor was via an external staircase,” he recalled.

The links changed over time. “Once the UAE was established, it was necessary and right we had to go through channels to see the president,” he said.

The 85-year retired diplomat hopes to travel back to Abu Dhabi for a Year of Zayed event later this year. He remembers his postings as rewarding highlights of a career that often saw him embroiled in great controversies. The most famous of his three forced departures from Arab countries came when he had to quit Iraq, where he served as ambassador after his Abu Dhabi stint, in 1991 after Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait.

“My time as ambassador in the 1980s relations were very good and very deep,” he said. “Everything from defence, politics, commerce and consular were pillars of a very strong relationship. The life of a diplomat is very varied and I could have hardly had a more varied experience as that between Abu Dhabi and Iraq at that time.”