A cherished memory of Muhammad Ali

Page three The family who hosted the former heavyweight champion remembers his visit to Abu Dhabi over 40 years ago.

Ali Kaddas al Rumaithi holds a 1969 photograph of Muhammad Ali touring his father's greenhouses on Saadiyat Island during the boxer's visit to Abu Dhabi. Among those accompanying Ali is Mr al Rumaithi's father, Abdullah Kaddas al Rumaithi, in checkered shorts and white hat.
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Ali Kaddas al Rumaithi leads the way into his den on the first floor of the large family home in Muroor, Abu Dhabi. The room, to which he retreats from the pressures of work and, occasionally, the demands of his three children, is a gallery of eclectic treasures, reflecting his many and diverse interests. But among the ice-hockey memorabilia, the film posters and a splendid native American headdress, it is a familiar figure in a black-and-white photograph hanging on the wall that catches the eye.

With a soft drink clutched in his lethal left fist and a pen in his right, Muhammad Ali, heavyweight champion of the world, is lost in concentration, seemingly immersed in trying to write his name in Arabic. To his right, guiding his studies, is Mr al Rumaithi's father.

It is a snapshot of a little-known moment, an historic footnote the al Rumaithi family will never forget, when Ali, one of the world's greatest sporting heroes, came to the UAE as part of his pilgrimage to Mecca. There isn't much that isn't known about the life of Muhammad Ali, one of the most recognisable sportsmen, let alone boxers, in the world - the Louisville Lip, The Greatest, the serial heavyweight champion of the world; yet details of an extraordinary visit he paid to Abu Dhabi in the late 1960s remain tantalisingly elusive.

Mr al Rumaithi's family knows more about it than most, not least because his father, Abdullah Kaddas al Rumaithi, hosted Ali while he was here and tried to show him something of the life of a traditional Muslim family. The story all began with the vision of Sheikh Zayed, the late founder of the nation. He realised what an advantage it would be to be able to grow crops in Abu Dhabi's arid conditions and in 1966 three young men were sent on a mission from one desert to another. Abdullah Kaddas al Rumaithi, Mohammed al Rumaithi and Hamad al Mazrouie spent three years studying at the University of Arizona in the US, graduating together as agricultural engineers in 1969. The three men headed back home to begin a ground-breaking experiment to develop agriculture in a saline desert environment. The $3.6 million (Dh13.2m) project, financed by the Abu Dhabi Government, was supervised from Phoenix, Arizona, and, in some now forgotten way, came to the attention of Muhammad Ali.

Ali was born Cassius Marcellus Clay in Louisville, Kentucky, in 1942 and started boxing at the age of 12. By 1960 he had won a place on the US team for the Rome Olympics and, according to an anecdote on the boxer's official website, his glittering career very nearly failed to get off the ground there and then; scared of flying, he at first refused to go, and made the trip only after buying an army-surplus parachute and wearing it throughout the flight. In Rome, Clay took the light heavyweight gold medal, and after that the sky really was the limit. Within four years he had notched up an unbeaten run of 19 wins as a professional fighter and, in 1964, aged just 22, took the heavyweight championship from Sonny Liston. "The man needs talking lessons," Clay bragged before the fight. "The man needs boxing lessons. And since he's gonna fight me, he needs falling lessons."

The very next day, Feb 26 1964, Clay announced he had joined the Nation of Islam, a largely African-American movement, and changed his name to Muhammad Ali. Controversy followed, with Ali refusing to be conscripted into the US army, claiming conscientious-objector status on religious grounds and announcing: "I ain't got no quarrel with them Viet Cong." As a result, in 1967 he was stripped of his title and banned from boxing. Ali did not return to the ring until 1970 and it was during his three-and-a-half-year exile from the sport that, in the summer of 1969, he came to Abu Dhabi on his way to visit the holy places of Islam.

"It was a convenient stop for him and he really wanted to see the vegetables growing in the middle of the desert," says Mr al Rumaithi, whose father died in 2001. News of Ali's imminent visit spread quickly around Abu Dhabi's local and expatriate communities. "In those days the population was small, so news of the visit spread quickly. The American expats were excited to have a celebrity visiting them, far away from the US." The visit, says Mr al Rumaithi, "was exclusive to Abu Dhabi, because this was before the formation of the UAE". While he was studying in the US, Mr al Rumaithi's father "had followed Muhammad Ali with interest. He was very excited about the visit".

In his own way, his father was something of a curiosity in the US: "During his time in America my dad was asked a lot about his religion. There weren't as many Muslims there as there are now. At that time Islam was seen as being somewhat revolutionary. Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali were big news. "He was often asked about the 'revolution' of Islam in his home country. He explained that in his country, people were born into the religion and that people of different religions existed peacefully with one another. If Christians or others wanted to convert they were welcomed, but there were no boundaries and no revolution." His family treasures the memory of the boxer's visit, and the few surviving photographs that document it.

"People still talk about it," says Mr al Rumaithi. "I love it. People ask me if it is true and I show them the pictures. Even though I wasn't born at the time, I am excited and happy about it. It's a great legacy for me. I feel honoured that my dad met the sportsman of the century and he showed interest in what my dad was working so hard on."

One man who remembers the visit is David Heard, who was one of the first foreign oil workers to come to the UAE in 1963 and still lives here. "In those days Abu Dhabi was very new and developments were very recent," he says. "This was before you had people - such famous, well-known people - coming from overseas. Having politicians visit was more understandable. However, we were seeing all sorts of strange and wonderful things going on during this country's early years."

What Muhammad Ali made of his trip to Abu Dhabi and Arabia is not known, but something of the impact his conversion to Islam had on his life came across in an interview published in a Saudi newspaper in July 1989. "I have had many nice moments in my life," he told Al Madinah, "but the feelings I had while standing on Mount Arafat on the day of the Haj was the most unique. I felt exalted by the indescribable spiritual atmosphere there as over one and a half million pilgrims invoked God to forgive them for their sins and bestow on them His choicest blessings."

It was, he continued, "an exhilarating experience to see people belonging to different colours, races and nationalities, kings, heads of state and ordinary men from very poor countries all clad in two simple white sheets, praying to God without any sense of either pride or inferiority. It was a practical manifestation of the concept of equality in Islam."