Why Margaret Thatcher preferred Dubai airport to 'frustratingly dour' Heathrow

A note made public from the Iron Lady’s visit in 1981 reveals how unhappy she was with the condition of Britain’s top airport

It’s an unfavourable comparison still sometimes made to this day. The overcrowded and sometimes shabby experience of London’s Heathrow set against the gleaming Dubai International Airport.

What gave this particular grumble more clout was that it came from a British prime minister, who found Heathrow “frustratingly dour” in contrast to “well-organised, bright and aesthetically pleasing” Dubai.

The complainant was Margaret Thatcher, fresh from an overseas trade trip to the UAE.

A note now made public from the Iron Lady’s visit in April 1981 reveals just how unhappy she was with the condition of Britain’s top airport.

Sent on Thatcher’s orders by her diplomatic private secretary Michael Alexander, the letter pulls no punches in the assessment of Heathrow’s faults and who should take credit for Dubai’s achievements.

“Dubai Airport is overseen by a son of the Ruler of Dubai who is in his early 30s,” wrote Alexander, who was more used to briefing the prime minister on nuclear weapons and the threat from the Soviet Union.

Visit by Margaret Thatcher, UK Prime Minister, to Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates (UAE), Oman and Qatar, April 1981, page 2. Copyright: © Crown Copyright Images reproduced by courtesy of The National Archives, UK

“She poses the question of how Sheikh Mohammed can achieve this when the combined experience of HMG [Her Majesty’s Government] and Heathrow are unable to deliver the same or better?”

At the time, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President and Ruler of Dubai, was responsible for developing Dubai’s infrastructure, of which the airport was a vital part.

“An airport provides the first impression that visitors have of a nation. The prime minister remains frustrated that the Heathrow experience is so irredeemably poor and suggests we learn some lessons from Dubai,” Alexander writes to George Walden, then private secretary to the foreign secretary Lord Carrington, but with a copy to Douglas Hurd, now Lord Hurd, as minister for Europe.

For good measure, the letter – marked “confidential” – also reveals that Norman Fowler, now Lord Fowler, was to be drawn into the debate as minister of transport.

In the early 1980s Heathrow was at a particularly low ebb. Matters improved considerably with the opening of the £200 million ($271m) Terminal 4 in 1986 and the £2.8 billion Terminal 5 in 2008, exclusively for the use of British Airways.

Dubai, though, has pulled even further ahead. In 2008 it opened Terminal 3, the largest airport terminal in the world. In 2014 it overtook Heathrow to become the world’s busiest airport for international passengers, a title it has held ever since.

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Updated: January 24, 2022, 10:03 AM