Could it be true? Al Ittihad newspaper broke the news in typically flamboyant style: “A grand artistic dream is materialising these days. The Lady of Arabic song will share in the festivities of the people on Accession Day. The Star of the East will perform two evening concerts.”
Umm Kulthum — or “Kawkab Al Sharq” — was coming to Abu Dhabi to sing for Sheikh Zayed. Over the past 50 years there have been many major artists who have performed in the UAE, from Madonna to the Rolling Stones, but none with the star power of Umm Kulthum.
That she was coming to the far end of the Arabian Gulf was truly remarkable, all the more so because the singer, then in her 70s, had been unwell and cancelled all other concerts that year.
She was persuaded by a delegation from Abu Dhabi, who travelled to her home in Cairo, but as a strong supporter of Arab nationalism, she was also well aware of Sheikh Zayed and his plans for a new independent country.
A major issue was the lack of a performing venue in the city, so a concert hall was constructed at speed on land that is now the Al Nahyan Stadium, behind Al Wadha Mall.
Umm Kulthum arrived in Abu Dhabi in 1971 on the eve of the celebrations for the fifth anniversary of Sheikh Zayed’s accession as Ruler of Abu Dhabi.
She landed at what is now Al Bateen Airport accompanied by a large entourage that included her orchestra and family members, with an official welcome party including Sheikh Zayed and Sheikh Khalifa, then Crown Prince.
An offer was made of a private villa, but the singer, wearing her trademark sunglasses and scarf, refused, saying she would stay with her orchestra at the Al Ain Palace Hotel. “I will not leave my band”, she is reported as saying.
The first concert took place late in the evening on November 28, 1971, to a rapturous reception and a packed auditorium that included Sheikh Zayed. Every seat was filled, with many seated on the floor.
She performed many of her most well-known songs, including Aghadan Alqak (Would I Ever Find You Again) and Enta Omri (You Are My Life). A second concert followed on November 30, described as a charity event for Arab military efforts.
In between, Umm Kulthum was given a reception at Al Manhal Palace. It is possible this is where she was presented with a gift from Sheikh Zayed — a fabulous necklace of 2,000 Gulf pearls with gold and enamel pendants.
The necklace was sold at auction by her family in 2008 for more than $1 million to an anonymous buyer. It was displayed at Louvre Abu Dhabi during the exhibition 10,000 Years of Luxury in 2019-2020.
Her final appearance in the city was on December 2, watching from Al Manhal Palace as the flag of the UAE was raised for the first time. She is reported to have congratulated Sheikh Khalifa with the words: “May the flag of the greater pan-Arab Union come next.”