Links between the UAE and the UK tell the story of both countries

A friendship forged over many decades of state visits and shared interests

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It was July 1969 when Sheikh Zayed, the Founding Father, first visited London in his official capacity as Ruler of Abu Dhabi.

On his mind were two pressing issues. Fears that communist agents backed by the Soviet Union were seeking to destabilise the Gulf region and how best to fast-track negotiations for creating a new nation from the seven Emirates.

In London, though, there were other concerns. Was it “Zaid” or “Zayed”. Should the invitations read “Al Nihyan”or “Al Nayyahan”. Indeed, was it “Sheikh” or “Shaikh”?

“These differences in spelling in a sense epitomise the diversity which gives the Arab world so much of its charm,” was the judgement of the British Cabinet Office to Lt Colonel, the Lord Burnham, who had raised the issue in the first place.

There is no such confusion when senior UAE officials visit London these days.

Protocol aside, the long connection between the two countries has only matured and strengthened in what is now almost half a century.

A long history of friendship

History Project 2010, "The First Day". The signing and speech at Union House, Dubai. December 2, 1971. Sheikh Zayed reads the treaty of friendship watched by (from left) James Treadwell and Sir Geoffrey Arthur of Britain. On his other side are Shiekh Rashid of Dubai and Sheikh Khalid of Sharjah. Behind him are Ahmed al Suwaidi, Mahdi al Tajir and Shiekh Maktoum bin Rashid.  Credit Ittihad Newspaper **EDS NOTE ***IMPORTANT** SEEK ADVISE FROM KAREN BEFORE USE

December 2, 1971 saw the newly created United Arab Emirates redefine its relationship with Britain with a Treaty of Friendship and the joint aim of “strengthening the bonds of friendship between the two countries on the basis of mutual respect for sovereignty and mutual interest.”

In many ways, it is London that has learned to respect Abu Dhabi. In the century before 1971, the emirates were considered a protectorate rather than a colony of the British Empire, but far from independent as a sovereign state.

It was best defined by Lord Curzon, Viceroy of India, who visited the Arabian Gulf in 1903 accompanied by a small fleet of British warships.

Moored off the coast of Sharjah, he summoned the Rulers of the Emirates to the deck of HMS Argonaut for a lecture under its guns on the dangers of listening to rival European states who were attempting to gain a foothold in the region.

While they might be far away from civilisation, His Lordship told them, they should “adhere to the policy of guardianship and protection which has given you peace and guaranteed your rights for the best part of a century”.

A long-overdue diplomatic reset came with the discovery of oil in the 1950s, and the realisation that the Gulf was now a strategic energy source for the West and post-Imperial Britain.

The Rulers of the Gulf states were now to be courted rather than cajoled. The summer of 1961 saw Sheikh Shakhbut make the first official visit of a Ruler of Abu Dhabi to the United Kingdom, including a private audience with Queen Elizabeth.

There was some alarm in London when it was realised Sheikh Shakhbut would be presenting Her Majesty with a gift of two strings of Arabian Gulf pearls.

An official from the Arabian Department of the Foreign Office was immediately dispatched to Garrard & Co, the royal jewellers, to buy a present for the Ruler of three silver dishes, busting the government budget of £150 (around Dh5,000 today) by another £50.

With the Ruler’s party accommodated at the exclusive Grosvenor House Hotel, receptions at the Savoy and Dorchester were arranged, with a hastily assembled guest list that included the well-known character actor James Robertson Justice after it was discovered he was also a keen falconer.

Meetings with members of the government were also held, including the UK foreign secretary, Lord Home, who presented the Ruler with photograph of himself in a silver frame.

Beyond the diplomatic pleasantries, though, there was little strategic thinking about Britain’s long term relationship with their guest, beyond the hope that Abu Dhabi would look favourably on British companies when spending its growing wealth.

A commanding presence

Sheik Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, President of the United Arab Emirates in Arab dress being escorted to his seat in Horse Guards Parade, London during the Trooping of the Colour Ceremony on June 14, 1969. (AP Photo/Str)

The confusion over the English-language spelling of his name aside, the first official visit of Sheikh Zayed as Ruler of Abu Dhabi in 1969 took place at a much higher level, with discussions about the future of what was then provisionally called the Union of Arab Emirates and a lunch with Queen Elizabeth - their first meeting.

Sheikh Zayed was also invited to the ceremony of the Trooping of the Colour, cutting a striking figure for photographers in his bisht cloak. “He has a commanding presence, which is tempered by a friendly and informal approach” noted the briefing notes on Sheikh Zayed drawn up by British government officials.

Talks were also held with the Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, of the Labour Party, and included the formation of a union army with British support for the new union.

Two years later, Sheikh Zayed was no longer the Ruler of a British protectorate but the President of a sovereign state with a seat at the United Nations.

The relationship had changed irrevocably. The UAE was now a valuable trading partner and an ally with many common interests in an unstable world.

The old ties were gone, but not forgotten. Sheikh Zayed would return to the UK for a full state visit in 1989, as did his son, President Sheikh Khalifa in 2013.

The monarch and Sheikh Khalifa had already met during her state visit to the UAE in 2010, one of a handful of countries the Queen has visited twice, with her first trip at the invitation of Sheikh Zayed in 1979.

Members of the British royal family are regular visitors to the UAE, with one of the most notable trips taking place in 1989, when Prince Charles and the late Diana, Princess of Wales spent several days in the Emirates.

Nearly 50 years after the formation of the UAE, ministers from both countries regularly travel for meetings. Britain may be now just one of many to enjoy good relations with the UAE, but is the only nation bonded by such a long and shared story.

As Sheikh Mohamed arrives in London, the expectations surrounding his visit might be best expressed by a telegram sent by Sheikh Zayed to the British foreign secretary, Michael Stewart, from the Ruler’s departing flight in 1969.

“We wish to thank you for the kind invitation and the friendship we have always valued, and assure you our close friendship will prosper, as it has done over the past centuries.”

Updated: September 16, 2021, 2:41 PM