In the second of a two-part series to mark the 30-year anniversary of the liberation of Kuwait, a retired Emirati major general reflects on his role in the Gulf War.
As Emirati commander Helal Al Shehhi advanced into Kuwait, the devastation of war was all around.
Oil wells blazed, droplets of crude oil fell from the inky skies, shops were looted and buildings lay in ruins. Iraqi troops were surrendering en masse.
“When we arrived, we were close to a burning oilfield. Most of the wells were ablaze ... our skin and bodies were affected.
“There was a lot of destruction in the streets, buildings and shops. Most were looted. We felt sorrow when we saw all the destruction.”
At the time a lieutenant colonel in the UAE army, Maj Gen Al Shehhi was leading a contingent of Emirati ground forces that advanced into Kuwait as part of Desert Storm, with the Emirari Air Force flying missions in support. Friday marks 30 years since the liberation of Kuwait and, from his majlis in Abu Dhabi, he reflected on the Emirates' role in the battle.
Born in 1953, Al Shehhi speaks proudly about the mission, scanning archive photographs showing him in the field in Kuwait and meeting Founding President Sheikh Zayed after the Iraqi regime forces were driven from Kuwait.
The Gulf War brought together the largest military alliance since the Second World War with more than 30 countries participating, including Britain, the US, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the UAE. Operation Desert Shield, which was the build-up of troops and defence of Saudi Arabia, ran from August 2, 1990 to January 17 1991, while Operation Desert Storm ran from January 17 to February 28.
Several hundred UAE troops were involved in the conflict as part of the GCC Peninsula Shield force that advanced into the city of Kuwait.
“On August 2, 1990. I was on holiday with my family in Abu Dhabi when I heard [about the invasion]. Kuwait is a brotherly country and it was painful to hear that.
"Sheikh Zayed said that if anything befalls Kuwait, then we will stand by Kuwait no matter what happens."
He first joined the army with the Abu Dhabi Defence Forces in 1970 and rose to become a major general on his retirement in 2005. He was based in Saudi Arabia for five months and then went to the Kuwaiti border in advance of the ground war that started on February 24. The advance lasted for about four days and the horrors he saw remain with him to this day. The images of overwhelmed Iraqi conscripts are particularly etched in his memory.
“Their troops were broken down and did not want to fight. They lost their energy. They lost their commanders. Hundreds were surrendering and needed transport. We provided them with shelter, food and water. We also treated their patients.
“During our advance, we saw the aftermath of war, such as destroyed power cables and destroyed oilfields.”
In one particularly moving episode, he made his way to the UAE embassy in Kuwait, searched for a flag and raised it high over the embassy.
“I came down to the UAE embassy at dawn. I knew the place since I had previously visited Kuwait many times before.
“I got hold of two huge flags and raised the UAE flag on the pole of the UAE embassy in Kuwait and used the other to celebrate the liberation of Kuwait. Then we went [into] Kuwait, where we officially raised the Kuwaiti flag.”
As part of the mission, the Emirati troops were also able to help repatriate citizens stuck in the city. “We were able to reach them with the help of their parents in the UAE, who told us about their location. We dispatched patrols and a specialised force to look for them. We were able to reach them and send them back to the UAE in military planes.”
He said eight Emirati soldiers died in the campaign and, three decades on, he still remembers the pain of losing a colleague in war.
“It was painful to see a friend who fought alongside me for six months [only to] lose him in such a short period of time. But this is not important because we are ready to sacrifice for the sake of Kuwait with our blood and money.
“Kuwaiti people are our brothers. Kuwait offered us education when we desperately needed it. It offered us health care when we desperately needed it.
“The UAE’s leadership, government, army and people demonstrated the most wonderful loyalty, support and love for Kuwait and its citizens.”
After the Iraqi forces were routed, the job was still not done. UAE troops stayed to help in the rebuilding effort. They removed mines, distributed aid, restored buildings, secured the borders and helped some of the Kuwaiti families who had fled. Kuwait celebrates its liberation every year on February 26.
“I saw children, women and men holding flags celebrating the liberation, roaming the streets with joy, and thanking the forces they saw, the UAE, Saudi and other armed forces. Military troops were not allowed to join the celebration, but we shared their joy from a distance.”