It was between 1969 and 1971 that the reality of a United Arab Emirates truly took shape. At the time, the region was undergoing a seismic shift – the British presence in the Gulf was on its way out and calls to unify the emirates intensified.
The reshaping of relations between the two countries in this period is the focus of an exhibition titled Photographs in Dialogue UAE – 1971 – UK. The show, told chronologically through rare images, objects and archival material, opens at Dubai’s Etihad Museum on Wednesday, September 9.
Photographs in Dialogue is the result of a partnership between the museum and the National Portrait Gallery in London, and it is the latter’s first collaborative project in the Middle East.
In 1968, the British government announced that it would withdraw from the Gulf by the end of 1971, compelling the region's leaders to prepare for a new reality. The exhibition's scope is narrow, following the leaders from the UK and the Emirates as they navigated the path towards unification.
The show chronicles some of the important meetings of the 1960s, including visits to Downing Street by Sheikh Zayed, the Founding Father, and Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed, then Vice President and Ruler of Dubai, as they handled negotiations with British prime ministers Harold Wilson and Edward Heath. There are also photographs from the sheikhs' royal visit to Buckingham Palace, where they met Queen Elizabeth II, in 1969.
In another section of the exhibition, a number of portraits capture the political representatives from the UK who lived in what would become the UAE throughout the 1950s and 1960s, working as explorers, oil tycoons and mediators between local rulers and the British government.
This is where the dialogue, as the title suggests, is best attempted, with contrasting photographs from Emirati and UK archives on display. One side showcases a traditional portrait of a British politician or representative, gleaned from the National Portrait Gallery's collection. The other side contains images from the National Archives in the capital and the Department of Culture and Tourism – Abu Dhabi's collection, showing the same people in the Gulf, in action, so to speak – attending inaugurations of oil fields and meeting sheikhs. Here, however, the perspective remains largely British, with little visual representation of local populations or rulers, and sparse information on the nature of their relationship with them.
Other parts of the show highlight gestures of cultural exchange, including a commissioned painting of Sheikh Zayed in his 30s, created by British artist Michael Scott. In a photo, we see a young Sheikh Zayed posing with the portrait.
In another display, we see portraits of Sheikh Zayed, Sheikh Rashid and Queen Elizabeth presented as a comparative study of portraiture styles and depictions of power. The 1953 monochrome image of Sheikh Zayed, taken by Ronald Codrai, an amateur photographer who worked in oil exploration, shows the leader in a pensive pose as he looks into the distance.
By contrast, a series of rare portraits of Sheikh Rashid reveals a more relaxed image of the Dubai ruler, taken during his visit to London in 1961. Shot by Rex Coleman for the official photography studio of the British royal family, the photos are on view to the public for the first time.
The rest of the exhibition focuses on the documentation of the UAE’s development by photographers such as Codrai, Ramesh Shukla and Noor Ali Rashid, presented through an interactive screen display. A collection of objects and images from key figures in UAE history, such as Zaki Nusseibeh, then cultural adviser and translator to Sheikh Zayed, and David Heard and Frauke-Heard Bey, known for their books on UAE history, are also on view.
Personal items owned by Col Edward “Tug” Wilson, founder of the Abu Dhabi Defence Force, who became director of the Royal Stables, are a highlight. Wilson was deemed so vital by Sheikh Zayed that when the former tried to resign from his post in 1993, the Abu Dhabi leader refused it. The official letter detailing this incident, as well as Wilson’s camera and photographs with Sheikh Zayed, are part of the display.
From a historical perspective, Photographs in Dialogue emphasises the deep diplomatic ties between the UK and the UAE, a relationship that dates back to the 19th century with the General Maritime Treaty, which helped Britain secure its trade routes and maintain its colonial grip on India. It also highlights the efforts of UAE leaders to secure statehood for their people as the British Empire was waning.
However, the exhibition does have a gap in its narrative, which is the perspective of local populations during this period of transition and the impact of these political decisions on life in the UAE.
It does attempt to resolve this with an installation featuring personal photographs from Emiratis living in the UK and British people living in the UAE in the 1970s. The images are projected on to opposite sides of a wall, and visitors can flip through them by controlling the projector's switch. Collected from a network of former residents, the pictures offer a glimpse into everyday life that is missing from the more diplomatic and official images of previous sections.
Photographs in Dialogue ends in a similar way to how it began – with a fascinating image from another official visit. This time, from Queen Elizabeth's first trip to the UAE in February 1979. It shows the British monarch sitting with Sheikh Zayed and Sheikh Rashid, as well as rulers of the other emirates. During this visit, the queen toured various cultural sites across the country, including Al Ain, Dubai Creek and Dubai World Trade Centre.
The exhibition was originally scheduled to take place in mid-March but was postponed because of the pandemic. Photographs in Dialogue will now run until March 25, and the museum is currently developing additional programming for the show. It is also working with the National Portrait Gallery to produce a catalogue in time for National Day.
Photographs in Dialogue UAE – 1971 – UK runs until March 25. More information is at www.etihadmuseum.ae