Rare photos reveal how Abu Dhabi celebrated Sheikh Zayed on the cusp of unification

Unique images from 1971 were shot by Bruno Barbey, a Moroccan-born French photographer, on assignment in the emirate at the time

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It was the summer of 1971 and plans were being made to celebrate the fifth anniversary of Sheikh Zayed’s accession as Ruler of Abu Dhabi.

The Founding Father, though, had other ideas. As the messages of congratulations flooded in from, among others, Queen Elizabeth II and the government of Japan, he announced a postponement of celebrations until later in the year.

There were more pressing matters in hand with a deadline by the end of December to bring together the seven emirates as one independent country.

There is a decisive matter that relates to our very existence and our political future ... and that is the establishment of a union
Sheikh Zayed, the Founding Father

“There is something more important,” Sheikh Zayed explained on August 6, the anniversary date. “There is a decisive matter that relates to our very existence and our political future.

“And that is the establishment of a union, which compels us all to give it all the effort and hard work we can to fulfil the will of the people in this region.”

By Ramadan, which began in late September that year, negotiations to create the UAE were almost complete. A meeting that ended on November 25 fixed the date of union for December 2.

At the same time, newspapers were able to announce that fifth anniversary celebrations would take place the following week. The equivalent of Dh434,000 had been set aside for the three-day event.

The remarkable colour photographs here that record the fifth anniversary were taken by Bruno Barbey, a Moroccan-born French photographer on assignment in Abu Dhabi for the formation of the UAE.

Barbey, who died last year aged 79, gained remarkable access to events like a celebration banquet for Sheikh Zayed, but also everyday scenes as ordinary people celebrated the anniversary.

They show a parade along the Corniche, horse and camel races and the happiness of the occasion, expressed in one photograph of a smiling young boy with a huge Abu Dhabi flag attached to his bicycle.


The details of the anniversary were also recorded by Al Ittihad, the country’s Arabic-language newspaper, then barely a year old. Celebrations included two concerts by Umm Kulthum, the most famous singer in the Arab world.

First came a parade along the Corniche beginning at 10am on Sunday, November 28, watched by Sheikh Zayed, described by Al Ittihad in the convention of the time as “His Greatness the State Ruler,” and accompanied by members of his family, including the current President Sheikh Khalifa, then Crown Prince.

The procession featured soldiers and equipment from the Abu Dhabi Defence Force and a marching band with bagpipes led by Col Bart Bartholomew, a British officer formerly of the Trucial Oman Scouts.

Sheikh Zayed next went to Al Manhal Palace, the Ruler’s official residence, in which, according to Al Ittihad, he would “receive guests, delegations and UAE citizens, and will attend a ceremony where songs will be performed and poems will be chanted in his honour”.

A Barbey photograph shows one of those poets reading a Nabiti verse, a Gulf Arab Bedouin style of vernacular poetry that goes back at least 800 years.

A lunch banquet followed, after which Sheikh Zayed, accompanied by Sheikh Rashid, the Ruler of Dubai, went for an afternoon of horse racing, with a firework display and music from an army band outside Al Manhal Palace.

The evening ended late, with Sheikh Zayed attending the first Umm Kulthum concert which began at 10.30pm.

The second day began early, with Sheikh Zayed heading out at 8am for a series of ceremonies for projects central to transforming Abu Dhabi into modern Arab city.

First was the inauguration of the breakwater, designed to protect the city from flooding, and which today has been expanded to include Marina Mall and Lulu Island.

By early afternoon, Sheikh Zayed had held ceremonies for an inner road, the new Hilton Hotel (today the Radisson Blu), laid foundation stones for Abu Dhabi Media TV studios and a police college, and inaugurated a training centre.

Later that day, he was able to take a break for camel racing before hosting an evening banquet and briefly attending another music concert before visiting an art festival organised by the Ministry of Information and Tourism.

In between, he also inaugurated what would become the first motorway between Abu Dhabi and Dubai, now the E11. He also visited schools and public housing projects, and dropped in at the Indian Social and Cultural Centre.

The celebrations finished on December 30, with the second Umm Kulthum concert and an official reception for the singer at Al Manhal Palace.

Late that evening, Iranian forces would invade and take control of Abu Musa Island and the Greater and Lesser Tunbs. After three days of celebrations, it was a reminder of the challenges to come.

Updated: December 01, 2021, 10:48 AM