Britain's 'majlis moment' was a powerful exercise in solidarity

The presence of Dubai's Ruler and Crown Prince on the London Underground speaks volumes, says Martin Newland.

Sheikh Mohamed bin Rashid Al Maktoum and Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohamed Al Maktoum on the London Underground. Courtesy Hamdan bin Mohamed Al Maktoum
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Last week two assailants tried to kidnap a serviceman jogging outside an RAF base in Norfolk in the UK.

Police are not yet officially linking the event to terrorism but unless two grown men were trying to bundle a jogger into their van so that they could steal his running shoes, it looks as though the episode had a lot to do with targeting a base that sends war planes to attack ISIL.

The botched kidnap attempt happened around the same time as a string of violent incidents in Germany. All this has followed terror attacks in France and Belgium by ISIL and Al Qaeda.

No Trump-like wall can be thrown up around continental Europe to secure its borders. Europe has neither the inclination nor the legal entitlement to exclude people on the basis of their religion, as the Republican nominee has promised. EU member states are militarily active in a region that has exported terrorism by return.

The political and social dissolution of large parts of the Middle East has combined with economic migration from South Asia and Africa to make mass migration, mostly of people who also happen to be Muslim, the new normal.

In the UK, newspapers and media outlets are on the look out for stories about violation of local women, usually by “men of Middle Eastern appearance”. Channel 4 News was criticised in one of the UK’s most popular newspapers for allowing Fatima Manji, a Muslim, to present coverage of the Nice attacks. Offences classified as hate crimes have soared after a Brexit vote in which immigration was wrongly bundled with concerns about freedom of movement for individuals from EU member states.

But despite the paranoia, more people are scared of encountering extremist violence as they follow their ordinary lives, whether it be at a fireworks display, on a train or at a concert or a football match. The deaths of 52 commuters at the hands of home-grown radicalised killers on the Tube and elsewhere in London in 2005 showed that the UK is not safe from terrible acts of violence.

Which is why it was, for me at least, significant to read about the commute of both the Ruler and the Crown Prince of Dubai on the London Underground last week.

Wearing T-shirts and enduring the stultifying heat with other Central Line passengers were Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President and Ruler of Dubai, and his son, Sheikh Hamdan.

Apparently passengers who recognised their distinguished co-commuters petitioned them to buy their favourite local football teams, in the hope this would bring good fortune of the kind demonstrated by Abu Dhabi’s purchase of Manchester City.

Those with a cynical view might label the brief commute as a publicity stunt, or as a means of promoting Dubai in the run up to Expo 2020. But some of us saw it differently. Here was a leading figure of a sovereign Arab state, a state that makes no apologies in its efforts to safeguard and promote moderate Islam and local Arab culture, showing solidarity with grass roots westerners in the context of their routine daily lives on an underground system which only 11 years ago was the scene of a terrorist attack.

Whether wittingly or unwittingly, the spectacle said far more about cross-cultural affinity and political common purpose than protocol photocalls at Ascot or in Downing Street.

An under-siege Europe, increasingly divided by social breakdown and political, religious and cultural polarisation, is losing its powers of cultural discernment. The nuances of religion and ethnicity in particular have fallen prey to this trend.

Sheikh Mohammed’s and Sheikh Hamdan’s trip on the Tube, whether deliberate or spontaneous, was a challenge to all who in their fear and mistrust are predisposed to generalising about Arabs in particular and Muslims in general.

Dubai and the UAE are modelled on the prospect of a non-oil economy through diversification, trade and multilateralism. Geographical hub status and hundreds of years of exposure through trade and alliance with other religions and cultures has lent the country an ability and desire to participate in the global cultural and economic story.

In the UAE, despite population pressures and the increasing demands of big-state government, political leaders have worked hard to preserve moments of solidarity and exchange with the local population through the maj­lis system. My first meeting with a major royal was in a coffee shop in an Abu Dhabi mall, where passing shoppers frequently interrupted proceedings to say hello.

Whatever their intentions, or those of the highly effective communications team working for them, the spectacle of Dubai’s Ruler and his Crown Prince strap hanging with London commuters served as a “majlis moment” for Brits.

Martin Newland is a former editor in chief of The National