Sixty years ago this month, the former Ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum, travelled to London. It was not his first visit. The Dubai Ruler had previously visited the English capital in 1959, accompanied by his sons Sheikh Maktoum, Sheikh Hamdan and Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, who is now the Vice President and Ruler of Dubai.
Their visit was met with considerable splendour and caught the attention of the British press.
Upon his return in 1963, Sheikh Rashid had a chance to experience the River Thames on the revolutionary new Denny 02 hoverbus. A photograph immortalised that moment and shows the ruler in a kandura and a formal blazer aboard the hoverbus with his entourage.
The boat was unveiled that same year by Denny Hovercraft Ltd. With a top speed of 25 nautical knots, it could carry up to 70 passengers. Whether the Scottish company had hoped to impress Sheikh Rashid with the Denny 02, in hopes he would order a fleet for his burgeoning city, we’ll never know. The Denny 02 did not meet evaluation standards, and its failure eventually led to the company’s liquidation.
Sheikh Rashid’s visits to the UK were often spurred by his ambitions for Dubai. Around the time of his first visit, dredgers were clearing Dubai Creek of the sand build-up that made it dangerous for boats to navigate. The aim was to allow larger ships to come in for trade.
Meanwhile, new businesses, hotels and banks were opening, but if Dubai truly wanted to be a global destination, it needed an airport. Sheikh Rashid knew this well and, with his visit in 1959, he wanted to secure permission to build one. Dubai was a British protectorate at that time.
Some of the places Sheikh Rashid visited on his 1959 tour of the UK included the wax museum Madame Tussauds on Marylebone Road; the Land Rover factory in Solihull, Birmingham; and the Tower of London, where he looked upon the precious Crown Jewels. He even boarded the London Underground and visited the famous Garrard jewellers, then located on Regent Street.
Sheikh Mohammed recalled the 1959 visit in 2016. It had been his first trip to London, and he was nine years old at the time.
“I was a young boy and my father, Sheikh Rashid, took me with him ... my father wanted to build an airstrip in Dubai in the sabkha [salt flat] where the airport is now,” he wrote.
“The British had denied the request for an airstrip, saying that there was a landing strip in Sharjah, where the British base was, so Dubai did not need an airport.
“My father was determined, arguing that he knew what Dubai needed best and he insisted on it. We won permission to build the airstrip on that trip.”
The airport that the British were reluctant to permit is Dubai International Airport, now one of the world’s busiest, handling tens of millions of passengers and millions of tonnes of cargo every year.
Sheikh Rashid, who died in 1990, would visit the UK several times during his reign. In 1969, he was photographed alongside Queen Elizabeth II at Buckingham Palace. The late Dubai Ruler's diplomatic charm and persistence was instrumental in developing the Dubai we know today.