Memories of the 'Iron Lady': Margaret Thatcher’s first visit to the UAE

Unpopular at home and struggling to turn around the economy, the British leader looked east in 1981

Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al-Nahayan with Margaret Thatcher, exchange hand signals at 10 Downing Street The President is on a four-day official visit to Britain.
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A country pressured by economic uncertainty, a people unsure of their leader and strife in Northern Ireland. But forget Brexit Britain, welcome to the UK in 1981.

Britain was then mired in an economic depression that had pervaded the country since the 1970s. Margaret Thatcher, Britain’s new prime minister, had taken office two years earlier vowing to lift the gloom. But by April 1981, she was deeply unpopular, battered by a slew of factory closures and job losses. An overseas mission to India and the Arabian Gulf to seal trade deals and bolster her credentials was the perfect antidote to these troubles.

Thatcher was the first sitting prime minister to visit the UAE and confidential details of the trip can be read online for the first time as part of the Arabian Gulf Digital Archive.

She arrived on April 21 — with her husband Denis — to a lavish reception at Abu Dhabi airport. “A full line up of shaikhs, ministers … the diplomatic corps, a fleet of Mercedes cars and an escort of police cars, motorcycle outriders and four open Range Rovers filled with machine guns [greeted her],” a note from the British embassy in the UAE reads.

Thatcher's entourage was put up in the best hotels and officials tried to organise nine holes on the local sand course for golf fanatic Dennis (there were no grass courses in the UAE then). The only gripe concerned the fact that Thatcher was abruptly moved from the luxurious Hilton on Abu Dhabi's Corniche to a private residence because of security concerns. "It was a building with unreliable plumbing and dubious catering facilities," British officials noted dryly.

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

Sheikh Rashid, Ruler of Dubai and even Sheikh Shakhbut, former Ruler of Abu Dhabi, put in an appearance. “[He] came down from Al Ain, frail but still sharp,” the notes say of Sheikh Shakhbut, aged about 76 at the time.

Thatcher was in the UAE to undo some of the damage done by Britain’s withdrawal from the Gulf in 1971 but also to sell military hardware. That evening she met the President, Sheikh Zayed, and Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Khalifa. Zaki Nusseibeh, advisor to Sheikh Zayed, later recalled they had been apprehensive about meeting the “iron maiden" — referring to Thatcher’s “iron lady” moniker — but noted her charm. Thatcher urged them to buy British-made Hawk training aircraft and the notes reveal much glee when Sheikh Khalifa told Thatcher the deal was done.

"Her last act before going on to Dubai was a lunch given by [Sheikh] Rashid at the Meridien. It was perhaps a fitting conclusion … that the sale of Hawk in the face of fierce competition from [French-made] Alpha Jet should have been celebrated in a French-run hotel!"

The following day Thatcher went to Dubai briefly, tried her hand playing a goatskin tambourine and even glided down Dubai Creek in the same white sambuk — a traditional Arabian sailing boat — which had carried Queen Elizabeth in 1979. She left for Oman later that day.

The trip lasted a mere 27 hours but foreign office mandarins compared it to the landmark visit by the Queen. “The local feeling, prevalent at one time, that after our withdrawal from the Gulf in 1971 we had lost interest in its peoples and problems must have been dispelled forever,” the embassy noted. Officials felt, perhaps rather smugly, that the reception was grander that that received a week later by West German chancellor, Helmut Schmidt. Thatcher would go on to forge a strong relationship with the UAE, welcoming Sheikh Zayed to London in 1989 and even visiting Ras Al Khaimah in 1998 when she had left office.

The former British prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, in Ras Al Khaimah in 1998. She had left office in 1990. Rabih Moghrabi / AFP

But the crowning part of the 1981 trip was the Hawk deal. Later reports suggested the numbers of aircraft were lower than originally agreed and concerns arose over Thatcher's swift announcement before any contracts were signed but the deal was rumoured to be worth tens of millions of pounds. And a report in the British newspaper The Times, written by future war correspondent Robert Fisk, could have appeared in the media today when British officials are seeking to build alliances outside the EU.

“The sale is not only a triumph for Britain — the Hawk is regarded worldwide as the finest training aircraft on the market,” he wrote. “But it is also a blow to the French.”