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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 8 March 2021

'We were not going to leave Dubai': remembering Desert Storm in the UAE

Thirty years on, residents have been reflecting on a tumultuous time

In the first of a two-part series to mark the 30-year anniversary of the liberation of Kuwait, we speak to residents who lived in the UAE during the time. The second part will focus on the UAE's role in the battle.

In the early hours of January 17, 1991, the phone rang at Christine Rendel’s Abu Dhabi home.

“Ms Rendel,” a grave voice said. “The war has begun.”

The call came from her manager at the city’s Al Jazirah hospital where Ms Rendel was director of nursing. Things would never be the same again.

Thirty years on from Desert Storm - the US-led airwar to drive Iraqi regime forces out of Kuwait – UAE residents have been reflecting on the uncertainty, fear and resilience that pervaded the country then. Some left, others kept the car full of petrol with a supply of water in the back should events turn serious but many stayed.

Military pick-ups with heavy machine guns were parked at most road junctions

Harry Bonning

“The build-up was very intense,” says Michelle Brown, a UK resident who was a singer at the now demolished Hilton Hotel beside the Dubai World Trade Centre. “The big fear was that the trade centre could be targeted.” The punishing aerial campaign quickly put Saddam Hussein’s forces on the back foot. Within a week, regime forces began dumping Kuwaiti oil into the Gulf and torching hundreds of oil wells as they retreated.

“Shamal winds blew the smoke in a haze down to the Gulf,” says Harry Bonning, a British resident who lived here then. “The sky had a thin, dirty brown appearance and you could smell the smoke. What made it worse was when it rained, your car ended up with oily spots all over it.”

Abu Dhabi TV and Dubai TV began relaying CNN, which was covering the war 24 hours a day. CNN’s coverage was fronted by Bobbie Battista and the news anchor became a household name in the UAE. “We all bought short-wave radios and listened to the BBC with its advice to UK citizens in the Gulf region,” says David Sutton, a British resident who lived in Abu Dhabi from 1984 to 2019. “Short-wave radios disappeared from the market because everyone was buying them.”

The end of this month marks the 25th anniversary of the cease fire that ended the first Gulf War. By February 28, 1991, an international coalition of armed forces had defeated Saddam Hussein and liberated Kuwait. The scale and scope of the multi-national operation was unprecedented in modern military history, involving combat forces from the United States, Saudi Arabia, Great Britain, France, Egypt and nine other nations, with non-combat forces from 18 others. Among those on the battlefield were the armed forces of the UAE, reported by the US State Department at the first Arabian Gulf state to propose military action when Iraq first threatened Kuwait in the summer of 1990. This photograph shows a review of the UAE troops who took part in what was also known as Operation Desert Storm by Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan, President of the UAE. It is reported that six members of the armed forces lost their lives in the liberation of Kuwait. As well as this image, the specially converted camouflaged vehicle, with a platform for Sheikh Zayed survives as a record of that time. It now forms part of the permanent collection at the Sheikh Zayed Centre in Abu Dhabi’s Al Bateen. Courtesy Al Ittihad *** Local Caption *** rv20fe-time frame-p10.jpg
The end of this month marks the 25th anniversary of the cease fire that ended the first Gulf War. By February 28, 1991, an international coalition of armed forces had defeated Saddam Hussein and liberated Kuwait. The scale and scope of the multi-national operation was unprecedented in modern military history, involving combat forces from the United States, Saudi Arabia, Great Britain, France, Egypt and nine other nations, with non-combat forces from 18 others. Among those on the battlefield were the armed forces of the UAE, reported by the US State Department at the first Arabian Gulf state to propose military action when Iraq first threatened Kuwait in the summer of 1990. This photograph shows a review of the UAE troops who took part in what was also known as Operation Desert Storm by Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan, President of the UAE. It is reported that six members of the armed forces lost their lives in the liberation of Kuwait. As well as this image, the specially converted camouflaged vehicle, with a platform for Sheikh Zayed survives as a record of that time. It now forms part of the permanent collection at the Sheikh Zayed Centre in Abu Dhabi’s Al Bateen. Courtesy Al Ittihad *** Local Caption *** rv20fe-time frame-p10.jpg

As Saddam Hussein lashed out, Scud missiles rained down on Saudi Arabia and Israel and Ms Rendel recalls attending a Ministry of Health briefing on how to deal with the alarming scenario of chemical attacks. “I remember US officials meeting with the medical chief and myself in the hospital grounds [now Sheikh Khalifa Medical City] to explain how a decontamination unit would be set up outside.” The threat was taken seriously by authorities and this reassured many residents.

“Sandbag emplacements appeared at many locations and around government buildings,” Mr Bonning says. “Security guards we had known were now wearing blue camouflage uniforms and carrying rifles. Military pick-ups with heavy machine guns were parked at most road junctions.

A huge military build up in the region saw thousands of troops pass through the UAE. Ms Brown performed a unique two-hour gig in January, 1991, on the helicopter deck of the USS Portland that was berthed in Dubai. Images of the concert show men in military fatigues relaxing on the deck of the ship, with Ms Brown serenading the contingent set against the backdrop of Port Rashid and Dubai Drydock. Pizza Hut and ice-cream from Baskin and Robbins was laid on.

“I posed for pictures with each of the crew who asked for a photo with me; the queue stretched as far as I could see.”

Tens of thousands of Kuwaiti refugees streamed into the UAE. Sheikh Zayed offered financial support, accommodation and refuge. Abu Dhabi’s Sheraton Hotel housed hundreds of Kuwaitis and Kuwaiti number plates became a common fixture on the roads. The UAE lost six soldiers in the battle to liberate Kuwait and also sent urgent medical aid in the aftermath.

Ms Rendel was among the first on the ground, leaving Abu Dhabi for Kuwait on March 18 as part of a UAE medical team. Aboard the military transport plane were four doctors, nurses, medical supplies, gas masks and dozens of Kuwaiti families who wanted to return.

“The skies were dark and grey with plumes of orange from burning oil wells all around,” Ms Rendel says. “Coming out of the plane, the air was thick and noxious with the smell of burning oil. I could see the fires all around me in the distance – uncapped wells set on fire and just burning continuously. Everyone was directed to a burnt-out building that was, apparently, the airport arrivals hall. It was black as night and entirely destroyed.”

Ms Rendel was assigned to the burns unit at Ibn Sina Hospital. The work was hard and unrelenting. Water and electricity supplies were intermittent. Staffing was minimal and the sole provision of care for patients was by remaining Palestinian nurses.

Back in the UAE, Ms Brown and many others were determined not to leave. Concerned families back in the UK urged them to return but Ms Brown says she felt strongly she could not leave Dubai when they were needed to keep morale high.

“We didn’t get passports but most who lived there in the 80s or 90s left their hearts there. You don’t turn your back on that.”

Thirty years on, Iraq has yet to recover. More invasions, civil war and violence have followed. Iraq’s people have suffered the most and are still trying to rebuild their shattered country. For the UAE, the war marked the start of a new era.

Rory Keelan, who worked for National Bank of Abu Dhabi at the time, points to the war as a moment when the world intruded. “It was the beginning of the end of a sort of ’age of innocence’ during which international affairs were something that happened to someone else far, far way,” he says. “Security became more of a concern.”

Updated: January 18, 2021 05:54 PM

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