The country's 40th birthday was one to remember

Three moments stood out above all others at a once-in-a-decade celebration in Abu Dhabi when the UAE marked its 40th anniversary in 2011.

People joined in celebration at the 40th Anniversary of the United Arab Emirates as they gathered for a parade at the Zayed Sports City on Dec. 2, 2011. Silvia Razgova/The National
Powered by automated translation

ABU DHABI //Last year's National Day marked the UAE's 40th anniversary and was accordingly celebrated in style with a breathtaking spectacle.

Played out in front of an entranced audience at Zayed Sport City Stadium, the official 40th National Day celebrations began with the singing of the national anthem and the men and women of the country's Armed Forces parading before Sheikh Khalifa, the President, and other rulers and crown princes.

The festivities ended with a blaze of lasers, clouds of streamers and the burst of fireworks into the night sky of Abu Dhabi.

In between, the thousands in the stadium, and many more watching on television, were treated to a show that featured everything from a fly-past of fighter jets to a parade of life-sized camel puppets that, at first glance, looked exactly like the real thing.

Families begun filling the stands from mid-afternoon, directed by an army of volunteers from Takatof volunteer organisation, schools and universities.

"This is a day for every Emirati to enjoy," one volunteer said.

Umm Mohamed, with the UAE flag painted on her cheek, said she could not "even begin to describe to you the feeling" the celebrations provoked.

"We've already given our children background of the events and the union, and they are living the experience with us," she said.

As the afternoon faded into evening, soldiers, sailors and airmen circled the stadium in an impressive display of synchronised marching. They were followed by civilian units, some pushing others in wheelchairs, and all greeted with applause and cheers.

Watching the show, Somaiyah Badowah, a member of the National Day committee, said that preparations had begun before the previous year's Ramadan.

"It is great to see it all coming together. Everyone was dedicated to making sure that the show was perfection, and today, it was more than perfect," she said. "I feel like I want to cry today."

Next, senior officers from the Ministry of Interior took the oath to the country and to the President, their voices echoing in the stadium. In the skies, a squadron of military jets formed the number "40" and three military helicopters flew by, the first carrying the UAE flag, the second, the Armed Forces flag and the third carrying the Ministry of Interior seal.

Three moments, though, stood out above all others.

The first took place when the crowd broke into spontaneous applause and then fell silent as a film of the late Sheikh Zayed was projected on the tower at the centre of the stadium.

The next came as the show took us to Dubai on December 2, 1971, when the seven emirates became the United Arab Emirates, with a backdrop of footage of that historic day and the rulers standing before the newly raised flag outside Union House.

Finally, at the close, there was the sight of Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, wielding a sword in one hand and the flag in the other, as he joined other sheikhs dancing together in a shared moment of national unity and patriotic pride.

Earlier, the show had taken us to a time before oil, when the Bedu emerged from the desert and fishing communities that had sprung up along the coast.

A caravan of camels appeared, or rather brilliantly constructed costumes whose wearers perfectly captured every sway of the real beasts. Somehow, a sandstorm swept across the arena.

Palm trees rose out of the ground and dancers who were dressed in gazelle costumes cavorted among falaj irrigation streams.

As the Gulf tide ebbed and flowed across the stage, and people dressed as tropical fish darted past on rollerblades, fishing boats appeared and then gave way to massive oil derricks that rose suddenly into the air and spouted fire.

Then came the transformation of a desert land into an advanced nation. Scaffolding rose up the central tower as cranes darted behind dancers dressed as construction workers in an acknowledgement to the army of labourers who have built so much of the country.

It was hard to believe all this was taking place in a sports stadium in the middle of the city.

But just as there is more to the country than towers of concrete and steel, so this show was more than just lights and dazzle. Flags appeared near the end, not just of the UAE but of all the other nationalities who make up the eight million people who live in one of the most culturally cosmopolitan countries on the planet.