ABU DHABI // Mahmoud al Dalki stood beside the cream-coloured stone building and gestured towards its domed roof, saying that the uppermost portion of the new Palestinian Embassy is meant to invoke the iconic image of Jerusalem's Dome of the Rock, or Qubbat al Sakhra.
"I want anyone who sees this dome to know that this is the Palestinian Embassy," said Mr al Dalki, a veteran staff member of the embassy. It was on the very same site in 1989 that thousands of people, including Mr al Dalki, who was 28 years old at the time, looked on as Sheikh Zayed, the late President of the UAE, and the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat laid the compound's cornerstone. During the ceremony, Arafat also buried soil he brought from the Al Aqsa Mosque compound in Jerusalem, according to Mr al Dalki, 49, whose family is originally from Tiberius, in what is now northern Israel.
More than two decades after work on the compound began, the new Palestinian Embassy - a 4,000-square-metre plot in the central embassy district - finally opened its doors this month. It cost Dh16 million, and occupies land designated by the Government in the early 1980s. "We didn't have any land or anything, and we now want the people to know this is for Palestine," said Mr al Dalki. Before embassy staff moved into the building this month, they worked out of a rundown, one-storey building on Sudan Street in the centre of the capital. The new structure is composed mainly of light stone, imported from West Bank quarries around Bethlehem.
The site of the new embassy lay empty for many years, primarily because of a lack of funds for its construction. Work was also interrupted by the Gulf War. Then, four years ago, Dr Khairi al Oridi was named the Palestinian ambassador to the UAE, and he began to raise funds from the Palestinian community here and abroad to help finish the building. "I started this job four years ago, and directly when I arrived I decided we have to have this new embassy," he said. "It was not easy, but I am very happy to do something for my people and my country. The UAE is always supporting the Palestinians, all the time, so we had to have a good embassy in Abu Dhabi."
The project was also given a boost in 2008, when Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed, the President of the UAE and Ruler of Abu Dhabi, donated Dh8m towards construction costs. After working for nearly three decades in the old embassy compound, Tamam Bashir entered her new office for the first time one week ago. The 51-year-old was also among the thousands of people who gathered at the site more than two decades ago for the laying of the cornerstone.
"I remember that day, when Sheikh Zayed said 'Inshallah, we will make an embassy here'," she said. "That day was very happy, and now we have a very nice embassy. For us it represents Palestine." The embassy will provide a slate of services to the UAE's Palestinian community, which is estimated to be around 100,000 strong, according to Hamed Mutair, a counsellor at the embassy. "It is so important, because it is about Palestine," said Mr Mutair, seated in his airy office. "People from the community are sending us congratulations and everyone is happy. It's been a long time."
While the staff moved in earlier this month and the embassy is operational, the overall site is still not complete. Workers continued to buzz around the second floor of the building yesterday, which will eventually house the ambassador's office. The complex is expected to be complete in the next couple of months, said Lana Shayeb, 27, one of the newest members of staff. Born in the UAE, Ms Shayeb lived for several years in Jenin, in the West Bank, her family's home town, but has never been able to travel to Jerusalem, the site of the Dome of the Rock. Glancing up at the ornate ceiling of the embassy's Al Quds Hall, she said: "When I just look at the dome I feel like I am in Palestine. I feel like it's my country."