x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Queen Elizabeth's royal yacht among first to visit Jebel Ali Port

40 years of the UAE: The royal yacht was one of the first vessels to dock at the Jebel Ali Port and the visit of Her Majesty provoked interest around the world.

Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed is appointed a Knight Grand Cross of the Order of Saint Michael and Saint George by Queen Elizabeth in Abu Dhabi in February 1979 during her tour of the Gulf States.
Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed is appointed a Knight Grand Cross of the Order of Saint Michael and Saint George by Queen Elizabeth in Abu Dhabi in February 1979 during her tour of the Gulf States.

As the British royal yacht, HMY Britannia, made its way into Jebel Ali Port on February 26, 1979, it was greeted by a cacophony of ship horns.

The ship, carrying Queen Elizabeth II, was one of the first to enter the newly built port. The British monarch had arrived to officially inaugurate the port with the Ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed.

She said the port, the largest man-made harbour in the world, coupled with a huge desalination plant in the neighbouring industrial area, represented a significant achievement for the UAE.

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

The port's foundation stone was laid in August 1971, the year of the country's founding, by Sheikh Zayed, the President, and Sheikh Rashid, the Vice-President.

"Since then, work on the port has gone uninterrupted night and day until this miraculous achievement came into being," Al Ittihad reported in 1979.

A BBC documentary-maker, Mike Davies, made a film about its construction in the mid-70s. He described the scale of the effort as massive.

"They were digging out the sand and dumping these huge concrete blocks in the water," said Mr Davies, now 72. "It was a huge operation."

He returned to Dubai a few years later as part of the contingent of foreign journalists covering Queen Elizabeth's visit. By that time, "the port was more or less shiny", he said. "There weren't too many ships there. She was taken around the port and we followed her."

Her visit was part of an 18-day tour of the region, which included Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Oman.

It provoked intense interest around the world, with much curiosity among foreign reporters about how a female head of state would be treated by the all-male leaders of Arab countries.

"Nowadays it might not raise quite as many eyebrows, but then it did," said Keith Graves, who covered the visit for the BBC. "There were questions about how she would be welcomed and what she would wear.

"Of course she knew most of the leaders quite well already through horse racing."

Mr Graves said the Queen's courtiers were extremely sensitive on the first day of the tour, but by the end were more relaxed. "They were over the moon that it had gone so well," he said.

The Queen arrived in Abu Dhabi on her yacht on February 24 and was taken by Sheikh Zayed on a tour of the city, including the old site of the British School Al Khubairat, where hundreds of children had gathered to wave flags.

Mary Corrado's daughter, Marisa, was a five-year-old pupil of the school at the time. "She went to different classrooms and spoke to the kids," said Mrs Corrado, who still lives in Abu Dhabi. "They had been making flags for her visit and were all tremendously excited."

Mrs Corrado also took pictures of the Queen meeting the rulers in Abu Dhabi. That sense of proximity was absent from the Queen's later visit in November last year.

"The second visit was much grander, with tighter security," she said. "When she came the first time you could just be right there and just watch her walk by within two feet of you. It was a great feeling, to be that close to the Queen and Sheikh Zayed. There was a degree of informality that's not present any more."

mcroucher@thenational.ae