Diana's Gulf visits concealed heartbreak beneath the happiness

On the anniversary of the princess's death, James Langton looks back on her visit to Abu Dhabi and Dubai

ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - MARCH 15:  The Prince And Princess Of Wales In Abu Dhabi.  (Photo by Tim Graham/Getty Images)
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Twenty-two years on from her tragic death, Diana, Princess of Wales, is still remembered with affection in the UAE.

She was the undoubted star of two royal visits to the region, even though one took place at a time of great unhappiness in her personal life.

Diana was just 25 when she visited the Gulf for the first time. Accompanying her husband, Prince Charles, she left behind her two young sons, William and Harry, who was only two.

It was one of six overseas visits she made that year, with the princess already an established international fashion icon and when it seemed all the world was gripped by Diana-mania.

The first visit included Bahrain, Oman and Saudi Arabia. There was a certain amount of nervousness among palace officials about how the princess would be received in what was perceived to be a region with very conservative view of how women should be seen in public.

It was revealed two years ago that one of the outfits designed for the tour would be a burqa, entirely concealing Diana’s face except for her eyes.

A request was sent to Elizabeth Emmanuel, who was working on outfits for the tour and who also designed her wedding dress, from Diana’s Lady in Waiting, Anne Beckwith-Smith.

Certain special requirements concerning dress need to be observed, she explained, in a region where: “In all cases modesty is the order of the day.”

In the end, the garment, which featured a large bow, was apparently taken on the trip but never used, and the princess’s outfits did not spark a diplomatic incident. In Saudi Arabia, she dined at the palace of King Fahd, although only with the women.

In Oman, she was taken to see the gorge at Jebel Akhdar, posing for photographers at a spot still known today as “Diana’s Point” and now a popular tourist spot.

Three years later, the royal couple were back in the Gulf, this time a much more high profile visit in March, 1986 that included Kuwait and, of course, the UAE.

Again it was Diana that held centre stage, even though her husband, the Prince of Wales was the heir to the British throne.

The six-day trip to the region was intended as a boost to British trade, and for the country’s fashion industry there could be no better ambassador.

Diana, Princess of Wales and Prince Charles, Prince of Wales watch camel racing during a visit to Abu Dhabi, UAE in March 1989. On left is Sheikh Nahayan & on right (back to camera) is Sheikh Tahnoun.
Photo:  Anwar Hussein

For a camel race in Al Ain, Diana twinned a peach suit with pearls and an oversized pair of sunglasses. To meet Sheikh Zayed, the founding president, it was white trousers and a blue and white floral salwar kameez that provided a perfect match with the majlis cushions. The Abu Dhabi visit took the couple to Sheikh Zayed’s private majlis in Al Ain, and a picnic at Ghabat Raqnah Oasis.

There were official receptions at the British Embassy in Abu Dhabi and Dubai where the couple arrived by plane, with the princess again grabbing the attention as she stepped down the aircraft stairs in a high waisted blue skirt and white jacket with contrasting blue lapels. On her head was a turban hat with an oversized white brim. The impact was instantaneous and seen worldwide.

Mandatory Credit: Photo by Rex Features ( 606026a )
Diana, Princess of Wales and Prince Charles in the desert near Abu Dhabi - 1989
Princess Diana

This time there was no talk of a burqa. For an Embassy reception with Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, she concealed the plunging neckline of a Zandra Rhodes floor length evening gown with a simple cream pashmina.

For most of the trip, Diana seemed relaxed and thoroughly at ease, enjoying and fascinated by the culture of the Middle East. The only point where the princess appears visibly nervous, indeed apprehensive, is at her first meeting with Sheikh Zayed.

The Founding Father immediately puts Diana at ease, reaching out and grasping her hand in welcome and bringing an immediate smile to her face. Though his translator, Zaki Nusseibeh, he then reveals to her his plans for Sir Bani Yas Island as a wildlife reserve.

Two decades after her death in car crash in Paris on August 31, 1997, we know now that the outwardly confident and smiling princess had entered a deeply unhappy period of her life.

The relationship with Prince Charles, 13 years her senior, was already showing cracks. The marriage irrevocably broke down when it became clear to her that Prince Charles had begun an extra marital relationship with Camilla Parker Bowles, now his second wife.

Diana, meanwhile, was conducting an affair with James Hewitt, a British army cavalry officer that had already begun by the time of the UAE trip.

The couple officially separated in December 1992, and divorced, with the advice of Queen Elizabeth, on August 29, 1996. The fairy tale was over.