Emiratis living in the UK hope Sheikh Khalifa's visit will boost close ties
LONDON // Squinting in early afternoon sun outside a coffee shop on London's Edgware Road, Ahmed Salem said he still couldn't decide whether he should have brought his jacket.
"It's the worst thing about London, the weather," says the 37-year-old IT professional from Abu Dhabi. "How can it be warm when you leave but by the time you come home you need winter clothes?"
On the eve of President Sheikh Khalifa's visit to Britain this week, Emiratis in London are reflecting on a trip they hope will make close ties closer, as well as on their time in a country increasingly aware of the UAE.
Many, including Mr Salem, are drawn to Edgware Road by its familiar comforts. Shops sell labneh, books, newspapers and sweets from home. Restaurants offer cuisine from Morocco to Oman. Shisha cafes compete with high-end retail shops on the expensive strip that runs from Marble Arch and heads north up to fashionable Maida Vale and beyond.
It is a natural collection point for Emiratis in Britain to work, study, holiday or, like Mr Salem, seek medical attention, in his case for a daughter with glaucoma.
The British, he says, as well as always being "very nice", have surprised him with their knowledge of his country.
This is in part thanks to high-profile projects that have inserted the country into the British popular imagination. The UAE and UAE companies and personalities have greater visibility in the UK, with the profile raised through ownership of Manchester City, the premier league football club and last year's champions, and sponsorship agreements. This includes Arsenal's Emirates stadium and the London Transport cable car that connects north and south London at Greenwich, which is also sponsored by the airline.
There is broad exposure to the UAE in the shape of tourism and through people-to-people contacts, says Khalid Al Mezaini, assistant professor of Gulf Studies at Qatar University and visiting fellow at the London School of Economics.
Mr Al Mezaini, from Al Ain, lived in the UK for 12 years until he took up his position in Qatar earlier this year.
Describing Britain as a "second home", he says Britons are better informed about the UAE than many but still believe the "usual" stereotypes that Gulf Arabs have "too much money".
Headline-grabbing investments in football clubs or major infrastructure projects, he says, while raising the profile of the UAE also feed that stereotype. Sometimes, he concedes, he pretends to be from elsewhere, simply to avoid the expectation that he will foot a restaurant bill.
But perceptions are also changing as the community grows. By the last count - the 2001 UK census - there were more than 5,400 Emiratis in Britain. Data for Emiratis in the UK from the 2011 census has not yet been collated but the number is likely higher. Certainly, there are more Emirati students in Britain, with numbers steadily increasing since the September 11 attacks in the US, which made it harder for Arabs to study there.
In the 2009-2010 academic year, more than 2,800 Emiratis were enrolled at British universities and other higher education institutions, up by more than 800 from the 2005-2006 academic year, according to British Council figures.
Tariq Al Gargawi, 21, is finishing the final year of his law degree at London's School of Oriental and African Studies and is busy with exams.
He says had he not been sequestered away to concentrate he would have made the trip to Windsor Castle tomorrow.
"I would have been there for the welcoming procession," Mr Al Gargawi says. "I would have loved to see our President."
Sheikh Khalifa's visit, he says, is very important, not least because the UK is such an important destination for students. He holds out hope that agreement might be reached to ensure easier access for Emiratis.
The issue of reciprocal visa treatment is raised again and again.
Certainly it is one that would greatly boost the business of Fayz Al Meshal, 41, whose Morelands Estate, a property agency off Edgware Road, caters mainly to Emiratis and other Gulf nationals. "It's a good business," he says.
But with a large chunk of his business concentrated on providing temporary accommodation in London, it is also seasonal. It might be less so, he says, if Emiratis did not need special visas to visit, encouraging more to open up businesses here as he has.
Mr Al Meshal, 41, has lived in London for five years. In that time, the Morelands office - its offices a converted shop - has become something of a meeting point for Emiratis.
An assembly numbering nearly a dozen gathered on Thursday afternoon, and Mr Al Meshal was not shy of opening up the conversation to the floor, contradicting a previously stated desire not to discuss politics.
The UAE needs strong allies in the West such as the UK, he says, another reason why Sheikh Khalifa's visit is important.
"We are situated in the Gulf, right across from Iran. We need support," he says.
Nodding in agreement, Shehab Al Hammadi, a 31-year-old policeman from Dubai, says he owes his own special debt to Sheikh Khalifa.
Like Mr Salem, Mr Al Hammadi went to Britain seek medical care for one of his two children. But unlike Mr Salem's daughter, Mr Al Hammadi's boy, Mohammad, 3, suffers a rare nerve condition that claimed another son.
"There was no treatment at home," Mr Al Hammadi says. And when Mohammad's illness was also diagnosed, the desperate father sought help from the Royal court.
The office of the President, he says, came through. Mohammad is now receiving some of the best care available at the exclusive Portland Hospital for Women and Children, a private hospital in central London.