x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Shamrock that grew in the desert

His father Emirati, his mother Irish: Khalid Saeed, Etihad flier reflects on his deep roots in both countries on St Patrick's Day

An Irish mother and an Emirati father have given 26-year-old Khalid Saeed a special perspective on St. Patrick’s Day in the UAE. “I’ve always seen two sides,” he says.
An Irish mother and an Emirati father have given 26-year-old Khalid Saeed a special perspective on St. Patrick’s Day in the UAE. “I’ve always seen two sides,” he says.

ABU DHABI // As millions around the world scramble to find anything green to wear on St Patrick's Day today, Khalid Saeed's perspective is a little different.

As one of the few who can claim both Emirati and Irish heritage, he will be thinking of the green grass of Ireland as he walks on desert sand in the sunshine here.

"I would never say I am just Emirati or just Irish," said the 26-year-old, whose mother is Irish and whose late father was Emirati.

His roots have given him a diplomatic role in life, explaining both sides of his heritage to visitors and locals.

He grew up in the UAE but has travelled the world with his mother, Noeleen, and has visited Ireland more times than he can remember.

"I would always like to teach people," Khalid said. "Emiratis may not dress the way you dress, or maybe don't act the way you act, but they are not different from you. They still have their everyday lives."

Mrs Saeed said her son's first St Patrick's Day was in Ireland when he was four years old. She dressed him in a green jumper and placed him next to the route of the parade, which featured brass bands and football teams marching by.

Khalid said he vividly remembered the parade and other experiences on the day, like his first visit to the Irish bogs, marshlands typical of the nation's landscape. From then on, he said, he appreciated the national day.

In December, Mr Saeed turned tradition on its head, braving Dublin's harsh, snowy winter in his khandoura to celebrate the UAE's National Day.

The Irish national day has always been recognised in his home in Abu Dhabi. Today, his mother said, she would make a special dinner with a traditional Irish dish, colcannon: mashed potatoes and cabbage.

"We always did something on March 17. I would always make sure he'd have something green on him like a badge or a shamrock," she said.

Khalid must go to work today - he is a first officer with Etihad Airways- but expects to be back in the UAE to start the celebrations this afternoon. After visiting his mother, he plans to attend the St Patrick's Day Ball in the Crowne Plaza hotel in Abu Dhabi.

The similarities between the UAE and Ireland were plentiful, he said. Irish people have a good sense of humour, and storytelling is one of the shared traditions he can relate to the most.

But in many other regards, the two countries are polar opposites.

"It's always green and raining in Ireland," he said. "When you'd think of the UAE, you think desert and sunshine."

Fluent in Arabic and English, he said people were more comfortable around him because of his dual identity.

"I try and give them a basic understanding on how things are in the UAE. It's about trying to find a different approach. That's what helps me about being Irish. I've always seen two sides and I don't choose my sides," he said.

His mother, who has lived in the UAE for 34 years, said the house he grew up in Abu Dhabi was an open-minded one. His father, who died four years ago, was with his family instrumental in shaping Khalid's identity, she said.

"Instead of looking for differences, we always said we should look for the similarities. We always sat and ate together and talked, and it's the same in Ireland," she said.

The cultures, Khalid said, were always similar and it helped him any time he went to Ireland.

"Now that I am getting older, I really see what Ireland is really known for: its storytelling and strong culture, history, art and music," he said.

And his attitude as an unofficial diplomat between the two countries extends even to sport. If the UAE were ever to play Ireland at football, he said, "I would just want to see the game".

eharnan@thenational.ae