x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

The nation's birthplace restored

The UAE was born in Union House, Dubai, now best known as the site of a gigantic flagpole; a historian wants to restore its true value.

From left to right, the late Sheikh Khalid bin Mohammed, the Ruler of Sharjah; the late Sheikh Zayed, the President of the UAE and Ruler of Abu Dhabi; the late Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed, the Ruler of Dubai; the late Sheikh Rashid bin Humayd, the Ruler of Ajman; the late Sheikh Mohammed bin Hamad, the Ruler of Fujairah; and the late Sheikh Rashid bin Ahmad, the Crown Prince of Umm Al Qaiwain; in front of the guest palace - now known as Union House, left - in 1971.
From left to right, the late Sheikh Khalid bin Mohammed, the Ruler of Sharjah; the late Sheikh Zayed, the President of the UAE and Ruler of Abu Dhabi; the late Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed, the Ruler of Dubai; the late Sheikh Rashid bin Humayd, the Ruler of Ajman; the late Sheikh Mohammed bin Hamad, the Ruler of Fujairah; and the late Sheikh Rashid bin Ahmad, the Crown Prince of Umm Al Qaiwain; in front of the guest palace - now known as Union House, left - in 1971.

DUBAI // As flags and flagpoles go, there is no missing them. Atop a 120m golden pole on the Jumeirah Beach Road, the massive UAE flag flutters in the wind, visible for miles. Yet few are aware of the monumental role in the country's history that was played by the humble round building below.

"People just look up at the flag, and forget to look down at what the flagpole is actually marking," said Dherar Humaid Belhoul, the manager of heritage projects at the Dubai Culture and Arts Authority. Mr Belhoul has taken over the task of bringing back to life what he views as "a forgotten national treasure". At the base of the flagpole, upon which the world's largest UAE flag was raised on National Day in 2001 to mark the 30th anniversary of the union of the emirates, stands Union House.

"It all began here," Mr Belhoul said, pointing to the building, which is just a few steps from the sea, and in the centre of a lush garden. "This is the birthplace of the UAE." In the early afternoon of Thursday, December 2 1971, the rulers of Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Sharjah, Ajman, Umm al Qaiwain and Fujairah met inside this house, known then as the guest palace. There, they signed the declaration that brought into effect a temporary constitution and established the independent state of the United Arab Emirates. The meeting was attended by 21 people, including Sir Geoffrey Arthur, who signed the declaration on behalf of the UK.

They sat at a round, leather-panelled, French-made renaissance table. Long, velvet floral curtains hung from the windows. Nowadays black-and-white photos help transport the visitor back in time to that historic meeting, to the moment when the emirates were united with signatures and stirring words. The meeting continued as a Supreme Council of Federation. It elected the late Sheikh Zayed, Ruler of Abu Dhabi, as President of the UAE for five years, and the late Sheikh Rashid, Ruler of Dubai, as Vice President for the same period.

The Ruler of Ras al Khaimah, Sheikh Saqr, signed later; RAK joined the UAE in February 1972. Soon, Union House will display all the details of that day, from copies of the documents to the Bohemian-style chandelier that once hung there, to the table and chairs on which the rulers and their delegates sat. "I get goosebumps just standing here where once our founding fathers stood, sat and swore in the birth of our nation," Mr Belhoul said, standing in the middle of the 12.5m-wide and six-metre high circular hall.

The building was recently repainted and its corroding pillars were reinforced. A temporary display wall was set up, with old photos documenting the moment of union, from the arrival of the delegations to the first public unveiling of the UAE flag. There is a rare photo bearing his signature of the late Sheikh Zayed talking to the media, and one of all the Rulers posing in front of the first UAE flag, which was raised that day to a 21-shot salute on a much shorter flagpole than the one that stands there now.

Union House was built in 1965 in preparation for its role in the country's formation. But it was almost demolished in the 1990s, during a construction boom. The reception hall leading to the house is already gone, and the rest of the building survived, believes Mr Belhoul, only through sheer luck. "People just forgot about it," he said. Since he took over the project to revive it last year, with a budget of more than Dh1 million (US$272,000), Mr Belhoul has been busy returning the house to the way it was on that historic day in 1971.

The restoration of Union House will not be completed in time for this year's National Day, but visitors will be able to see the display of photos and enjoy a walk in the surrounding garden, which will be decorated in national colours. "Anyone who comes here will appreciate the value of this house and will understand our history and how the UAE was formed," Mr Belhoul said. rghazal@thenational.ae