Queen's 1979 visit a glimpse of UAE for the world

A BBC correspondent remembers the last royal visit of a 'fascinated' Queen Elizabeth to the UAE in February 1979.

A BBC correspondent remembers the last royal visit of Queen Elizabeth II to the UAE in Februrary 1979.
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Queen Elizabeth's visit to the Gulf in a time of turmoil drew global attention. A veteran journalist remembers it also put to rest assumptions about how Arabs might treat a female dignitary. James Langton reports

The Queen's state visit to the Gulf in February 1979 attracted huge international attention. Iran's Islamic Revolution was barely a month old, and with the shah now replaced by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the royal yacht Britannia appeared to many to be sailing into the heart of a storm.

For some westerners, the region still seemed a mysterious place, where white-robed sheikhs of unfathomable wealth ruled desert kingdoms built on oil. How a woman, even if she were the Queen of England, might be welcomed in this world of men, was the subject of great interest and speculation in the press.

As a result, the accompanying media party was swollen by journalists not just from Britain and neighbouring Arab states but across the world. The New York Times sent one of its most senior correspondents, R W Apple.

Also on the trip was Keith Graves, a veteran Middle East correspondent for the BBC. Although based in the region, he first returned to London, where the Queen was to fly out on a Concorde, a decision made by the UK government to show off the latest in British technology. She would be reunited with Britannia in Kuwait, then set sail for Abu Dhabi, via Qatar, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia.

Now retired and living in Spain, Mr Graves vividly recalls the royal visit more than 30 years ago. "There was intense interest to see really how the rulers in the Gulf would welcome a woman monarch and to see how the public would react as well," he says.

"You had a queen, a woman, visiting a part of the world where women were not high profile.

"For the first time, Buckingham Palace and the British foreign office got together and they did a sort of American presidential type coverage; they chartered an aeroplane for the media to travel on."

In reality, the Queen was hardly among strangers.

"The Queen already knew the rulers in the emirates through horse racing because she, of course, is a very keen racegoer and breeder.

"So she already knew the leaders of Dubai and Abu Dhabi because they used to spend a lot of time in England at their stud farms, their racing stables and indeed at the race courses."

Still, for both the royal party and the accompanying media, the trip opened eyes, particularly because of the generosity of the welcome. The Queen and the Prince Philip, the duke of Edinburgh, were fascinated by almost everything they were shown, Mr Graves recalls.

"She travels all over the world and gets to go to interesting places," he says. "But it is not often she gets in a four-wheel drive and is driven literally through the sand dunes to a tent - admittedly a palatial tent - out in the desert where she can see whole sheep being roasted and stews in gigantic cauldrons.

"She never reacts much to these things, but I know the duke of Edinburgh was fascinated by it all because we had a little bit more access to him and we were talking to him. We had a farewell reception on board Britannia and the duke of Edinburgh was saying how fascinated he had been with things like camel racing.

"There were some displays laid on of the local men doing that wonderful dancing with the tambourines and the cane sticks and the swords and he thought this sort of thing was absolutely fascinating, he told us."

Even the media experienced almost overwhelming hospitality. "There were about 60 accompanying media travelling as part of the British royal court," the BBC correspondent recalls.

"I do remember we were leaving for Al Ain this particular morning, leaving Dubai, and an official came up and he said, 'You've been assigned your cars'. So we all walked outside and there were 60 odd limousines, one for each of us. It was a remarkable sight because a lot of these cars were the sort of cars that mere journalists don't normally get to travel in, especially with a chauffeur. I had a Rolls Royce and I had it to myself."

One of the highlights of the trip was a camel race. The Queen, Mr Graves suspects, may have thought this was something for the tourists: "She didn't realise until she got there that they are just as passionate about their camel racing as their horse racing. I know because it showed on her face and because of what her officials told us later.

"She clearly thought this was absolutely wonderful and quite spectacular and I must admit I enjoyed it as well. She thought the whole thing was really quite fascinating."

After a banquet on Britannia in Dubai, the Queen sailed to Oman for the final leg of the tour. By then, it was clear that the visit to the UAE had been a huge success.

"Some royal visits are very forced," Mr Graves recalls. "I did quite a few and you can tell when the Queen is going through the motions.

"But one thing I do remember about the visit to the emirates is that it was enormously successful. On the plane home, the foreign office and palace officials were very enthusiastic about how well it had gone. It was regarded as one that could have had all sorts of pitfalls - for very obvious reasons, with a woman head of state - but which actually went off very well."