The UAE at 50 and my 45 years of memories and pride

I recall an early National Day, in 1977, when there was a modest parade along Abu Dhabi’s Corniche

UAE Founding Father Sheikh Zayed attends a meeting with the citizens during one of his tours in Ghayathi on May 15, 1976. Courtesy Al Etihad

This week, like many others, I have been casting my mind back, reflecting on the Emirates and its origins. I do that every year, but this time it’s rather special: the 50th anniversary of the foundation of the United Arab Emirates and its emergence on to the world stage.

I was in London on that auspicious 2nd December in 1971 when the UAE flag was raised for the first time. Not until 1975 did I first engage directly with the country, and with the UAE's Founding Father Sheikh Zayed. So I have over 45 years, if not a full half-century, of memories and impressions.

Over recent days, talking to school students, I’ve tried to recall some of those memories and to explain how, looking back, they help to shed light on the nature of the country, its progress and the spirit that has inspired it all.

Many, of course, relate to Sheikh Zayed himself. I recall an early National Day, in 1977, I think, when there was a modest parade along Abu Dhabi’s Corniche, much less grand than it is today. Sheikh Zayed, accompanied by other senior officials, sat on a small dais by the roadside, smiling broadly, chatting happily, as professional photographers and excited bystanders drew close to take their pictures. No barriers, little in the way of visible security – it was something rather like a town carnival or a friendly family event. I miss those informal days.

A few years later, I was driving home late one night along empty roads. As I stopped at a traffic light, a large Mercedes drew up next to me. The driver was Sheikh Zayed, accompanied by Sheikh Tahnoun bin Mohammed, wandering around unobtrusively, without fuss, to see how his city was going. A vignette of a leader who never forgot his desire to keep a close eye on the drive for progress.

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I never imagined then that the UAE's national anthem would become my anthem, too

Another early memory, of driving to Dubai, not long after the Dubai World Trade Centre had been opened by then Vice President Sheikh Rashid and Britain’s visiting Queen Elizabeth. Past the old border checkpoint, past the recently built Jebel Ali Port and then along a lengthy stretch with little but desert on either side, until, there, in the distance, the Trade Centre came into view. It seemed enormous then, marking the outskirts of the city. Today, it is dwarfed by the skyscrapers of Sheikh Zayed Road which stretch for tens of kilometres towards Jebel Ali and JBR. How time flies!

Participants at the Dubai Run on Sheikh Zayed Road. Ruel Pableo for The National

In 1978, my father, a horticultural journalist of some note, came to visit, writing an article about a remarkable experiment on the desert island of Saadiyat, growing vegetables in the sand under plastic greenhouses. Today, I think the remarkable campus of Cranleigh School occupies the spot and the desert island is no more.

The same year, I accompanied a BBC journalist to Fujairah. He remarked to the Ruler of Fujairah, Sheikh Hamad bin Mohammed Al Sharqi, that, although there was clear evidence of development, Fujairah was obviously lagging behind the big cities of Abu Dhabi and Dubai.

“Come back in 20 years and see us,” Sheikh Hamad said.

The journalist never did, but I have continued to be a regular visitor to Fujairah. A few years ago, I commented to Sheikh Hamad about how much Fujairah had changed, how much progress had been made.

“What do you think I have been doing for the last 45 years?” he said.

On the east coast of the UAE, as well as along the Arabian Gulf coast, progress has been steady, often without fanfare, as the country develops.

There have been major events, of course, that have attracted global attention, from the Opec conference in Abu Dhabi in 1978 to the opening of Expo 2020 Dubai a couple of months ago. Impressive structures have been built that have drawn attention, too, like the world’s largest man-made port, visible from space, and the world’s tallest building. In some ways, the Emirates has become a land of superlatives.

For some of us, though, who have witnessed most or all of the past 50 years, our most cherished memories are less dramatic, more personal.

I remember my feeling of pride as I saw pictures of the first graduation ceremony at the country’s first higher educational institution, the UAE University.

I remember when and where I first saw the UAE national anthem being played, as Sheikh Zayed landed from an overseas state visit that I had been privileged to join. I never imagined then that it would become my anthem, too.

And I look back at the changes that have taken place, at the progress that has been made, at the dramatic transformation that has been achieved, calmly, peacefully and steadily.

Fifty years ago, few outside the Emirates believed that this collection of seven disparate, largely undeveloped sheikhdoms would survive, let alone thrive. That it has done so is due to the commitment and determination of Sheikh Zayed and his fellows and to the efforts of those he inspired and who have followed his leadership and in his footsteps.

On the UAE’s 50th anniversary, I am proud, in my own very small way, to have played a part.

Published: December 1st 2021, 9:00 AM
Peter Hellyer

Peter Hellyer

Peter Hellyer is a UAE cultural historian and columnist for The National