Sheikh Khalifa in the UK: crowning glory of a visit to remember

It was two days of pomp and ceremony, but also a meeting of old friends and an opportunity to strengthen ties between two peoples with a shared history. Colin Randall relives the highlights of Sheikh Khalifa's State Visit to the UK.

Queen Elizabeth II speaks to the President of the United Arab Emirates, His Highness Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, during a ceremonial welcome at Windsor Castle. Toby Melville / WPA Pool / Getty Images
Beta V.1.0 - Powered by automated translation

It was two days of pomp and ceremony, but also a meeting of old friends and an opportunity to strengthen ties between two peoples with a shared history. Colin Randall relives the highlights of Sheikh Khalifa's State Visit to the UK

Beneath bright skies, with spring sunshine offsetting a mild chill, the gentle rise towards the world's oldest and biggest inhabited palace presented a picture of grace and serenity.

Windsor, a small, prosperous English town to the west of London with a population of fewer than 30,000 people, was dressed in style for the President, Sheikh Khalifa.

Large red, green, white and black flags of the UAE flew proudly alongside the red, white and blue of Britain's Union flag.

With roads closed to everyday traffic, a multitude of immaculate uniforms on view and thousands of sightseers lining the processional route three and four deep, Windsor was well prepared for the first state visit from the UAE to the UK in 24 years.

As the ceremonies began at noon on Tuesday with the President's arrival at the royal dais outside Windsor and Eton railway station, gun salutes sounded from Home Park, the lush private estate of Windsor Castle, and 40 kilometres away at the Tower of London.

In 1989, the President's late father, Sheikh Zayed, founding father of the nation, embarked on a four-day visit that was widely recognised as heralding a positive turning point in UAE-UK relations. The Times was among the loudest of approving voices, welcoming a new "era of peace" following the end of the Iran-Iraq war and the visiting head of state's "remarkable achievement" in marshalling the seven emirates into a single nation.

In 2013, as in 1989, there has been business as well as ceremony to attend to. Such are the areas of joint interest to the UAE and the UK, stretching from health and education to major investment and military cooperation, that the mayor of London, Boris Johnson, recently described the capital as the "eighth emirate".

Nearly a quarter of a century ago, Sheikh Zayed had met another woman of substance, Margaret Thatcher, then nearing the end of 11 years as Britain's first and, so far, only female prime minister. One day after his lavish reception at Windsor Castle, Sheikh Khalifa followed in his father's footsteps and visited 10 Downing Street to meet Baroness Thatcher's 2013 counterpart, David Cameron, who only two weeks earlier had attended her funeral at St Paul's cathedral.

And now, as in 1989, a visiting President was the guest of honour at a magnificent state reception offered by Queen Elizabeth II, Britain's monarch for 61 years, with speeches from both heads of state devoted to the warmth and growing strength of the bonds between the two countries.

There was rich symbolism as Sheikh Khalifa and the Queen led the state carriage procession to the castle after the President had been met privately at his own west London residence by the British monarch's second son, the Duke of York, and escorted to Windsor.

In a striking coincidence, across the North Sea, a period of uncertainty for other parts of Europe's royalty was simultaneously underlined by the abdication in Amsterdam of Queen Beatrix of the Nertherlands. She vacated the throne in favour of her son, Prince Willem-Alexander.

The presence of Sheikh Khalifa as Queen Elizabeth's guest at what is often described as her residence of choice represented not only a significant meeting of East and West, but a model of continuity in eventful, sometimes turbulent times for both regions of the world.

Meticulously choreographed, the colourful display of pomp and pageantry opened with the assembly of dignitaries at a royal dais outside the riverside railway station used by legions of commuters and tourists for its frequent service into central London.

Queen Elizabeth, accompanied by Prince Philip, greeted the arrival of the UAE car procession and presented the President to senior figures from the administrative royal authorities of Berkshire and the borough of Windsor and neighbouring Maidenhead.

Sheikh Khalifa smiled broadly during these early exchanges with his hostess and both stood smartly to attention when the national anthem of the UAE was played by the mounted band of the Blues and Royals (Royal Horse Guards and 1st Dragoons), commanded by Maj Nicholas Stewart.

At the last strains of the anthem, Lord Vestey, Master of the Horse, conducted the heads of state to the Scottish State Coach, built in 1830 for the Queen's great-great-grandfather, Prince Adolphus. The departure of the carriage, followed by four other coaches bearing members of the royal parties, was accompanied by a further rendition of the Emirati anthem, Ishy Bilady (Long Live My Nation), and its British equivalent, God Save the Queen.

After skirting the castle walls with a Household Cavalry escort, the procession reached the George VI gateway of the palace, its origins rooted in the 11th-century rule of England's first Norman king, William the Conqueror, and finally the castle quadrangle.

Men of the 1st Battalion and Nijmegen Company of the Grenadier Guards, and the F Company Scots Guards, flanked the route from the station along Thames Street, High Street and Park Street.


In picture: Sheikh Khalifa's historic visit to UK


Awaiting the procession in the quadrangle was a guard of honour formed by Welsh guardsmen in plumed helmets, red tunics and silver breastplates, men who when not discharging ceremonial duties belong to the ranks of the foot guards, the British sovereign's security force, and serve as fighting soldiers.

The regimental band played both anthems as the carriages reached the quadrangle. And the President took his place on a small dais with his hosts, facing the two rows of guardsmen.

Prince Philip, at 91 the oldest spouse of any reigning monarch in British history,  and also the holder of several honorary military commands, then conducted Sheikh Khalifa in an inspection of the guard of honour.

Rejoining the Queen, they watched the "rank and march past" of troops led by the mounted Life Guards band and followed by the King's Troop Royal Horse Artillery, the Household Cavalry sovereign's escort and the Welsh guardsmen.

Moving inside the castle through the Sovereign's entrance, the heads of state and Prince Philip were visibly at ease in one another's company. The party proceeded to the Grand Reception Room where state luncheon guests, having gathered during the ceremonial programme in the Crimson Drawing Room that suffered severe damage in the Windsor Castle fire of 1992, were presented to them.

Lunch was served at a single long table laid in the Waterloo Chamber, an immense and imposing room built to commemorate Britain's victory, aided by the allied forces of Austria, Prussia and Russia, over the French emperor Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. The chamber's panelled walls are decorated with centuries-old limewood carvings and numerous portraits of the European leaders who found common cause with Britain against France.

The ceiling and roof are designed to resemble a ship's timbers while the floor covering is reputedly the world's largest seamless carpet, woven during Queen Victoria's reign by prisoners at Agra jail in India's northern state of Uttar Pradesh.

Fifty soldiers were needed to roll up the carpet, which weighs two tonnes, and move it to safety when the 1992 fire, sparked by the heat of a spotlight on a curtain, left a trail of destruction affecting a fifth of the castle.

Speeches and toasts took place before the lunch began, their tone and content testifying to Emirati-British relations in robust health. The Queen spoke of a friendship dating from "before the foundation of the United Arab Emirates in 1971, under the wise guidance and leadership of your late father, Sheikh Zayed".

Sheikh Khalifa responded by hailing the "deep-rooted and steadfast" nature of the relationship.

Media reports generally capture the flavour of such exchanges by quoting key phrases and themes. Reproduced in full, however, the words convey more powerfully the sense of occasion and amity, along with the hard-headed strategic and economic benefits of close ties.

The British monarch is these days expected to be up to date with the nuances of popular culture. Accordingly, mention of Manchester City, the football club owned by the President's brother, Sheikh Mansour, who was among the guests, diplomatically spared the detail of the Premier League title's return this season to another part of the same city.

In more businesslike vein, the Queen made telling references to military and diplomatic cooperation and those other fields in which Emirati-British collaboration has developed.


In pictures: The people of Sheikh Khalifa's state visit


Addressing her guest of honour directly, the queen said:

Your Highness,

I am delighted to welcome you to Windsor Castle this afternoon as we celebrate your State Visit to the United Kingdom. Our two countries have been close friends since before the foundation of the United Arab Emirates in 1971, under the wise guidance and leadership of your late father, Sheikh Zayed.

Prince Philip and I fondly recall our visit to the UAE in 1979 and more recently when we were delighted to accept your kind invitation to visit again in 2010. We were struck by the warmth of the welcome we received and the generosity of Emirati culture.

Your visit this week is a chance to celebrate the depth of our partnership - a partnership that continues to grow and strengthen. Our Treaty of Friendship signed in 1971 declared that the UAE and the UK would consult each other, promote educational, scientific and cultural cooperation and build close trade relations.

This has never been truer than it is today and I am delighted with how our ties have developed, spearheaded by the UK-UAE Taskforce. And I look forward to these ties deepening as we develop the UK-UAE strategic partnership for the next generation.

Cooperation between our nations now ranges from our thriving educational and tourism links, joint defence projects, security and foreign-policy issues, to our increasing investment in each other's economies.

The UAE is one of our largest trading partners in the Gulf region, and we have welcomed Emirati investments in the United Kingdom in many areas from the construction of the largest port facilities in the UK to the Emirates Skyline, the spectacular cable-car crossing over the Thames and, of course, Manchester City.

Our friendship draws strength from the continuing links between our Royal Families, our governments, and our peoples. And it is based on a shared sense of ambition. I hope, Your Highness, that as a result of this Visit, our two nations will build on this historical and successful foundation and continue to work together to create a more productive and secure future.

In his reply, Sheikh Khalifa stressed the UAE's commitment to further advancement of "long-established bilateral relations" and the consolidation of a firm, enduring friendship.

The President said:

Your Majesty:It is my very great pleasure to be with you on this occasion, and I thank you, Ma'am, for your kindness and your most courteous invitation.

As the longstanding and historical relations between our two countries continue to develop positively in all fields, I would like to express my deep gratitude for your cordial visit to the United Arab Emirates in 2010, which left such a good impression on us.

We shall strive to develop further the long-established bilateral relations that exist between the United Arab Emirates and the United Kingdom in all fields, in order to achieve the interests of our two friendly countries. Indeed, it is my hope that this current visit serves to reinforce our deep-rooted and steadfast friendship that has continued for many, many years.

Your Majesty: please allow me to express once again my delight with this visit, as well as my confidence in the future prospects of the distinguished bilateral relations between our two friendly nations.

Each in turn concluded by leading guests in formal toasts, in the case of the President to "Her Majesty the Queen and His Royal Highness, the Duke of Edinburgh and to the health and prosperity of the people of the United Kingdom", by the Queen to "His Highness the President and to the health and prosperity of the people of the United Arab Emirates".

Among about 60 guests at the state luncheon were Sheikh Khalifa's brothers - Sheikh Mansour, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Presidential Affairs; Sheikh Abdullah, Minister of Foreign Affairs, and Sheikh Hamad, Chairman of the Abu Dhabi Crown Prince's court and managing director of the Abu Dhabi Investment Authority - along with Sheikh Ahmed bin Saeed Al Maktoum, chairman of Emirates Airline and Dubai World, and Sheikha Lubna bint Khaled Al Qasimi, Minister for Foreign Trade.

From the British government, Mr Cameron was joined by his foreign and defence secretaries, William Hague and Philip Hammond. The ambassadors currently serving their respective countries in London and Abu Dhabi, AbdulrahmanGhanem Al Mutaiwee and Dominic Jermey, were also present.

Queen Elizabeth had taken personal charge of the decorative detail of the table, selecting the china service and the floral arrangement of fresh roses.

Lunch began with an asparagus mousse served with quails' eggs and was followed by lamb from the Windsor estate accompanied by Jersey potatoes, carrots and spring cabbage. Dessert was a rhubarb creme brulee tartlet, coffee being offered after the meal in the Crimson Drawing Room.

The visit to Windsor was over but there was more to come. Next day, in the heart of London, Sheikh Khalifa became the latest of more than 70 heads of state from outside Britain to lay a wreath at the Grave of the Unknown Warrior in Westminster Abbey.

He was accompanied by two members of the UAE armed forces, Second Lt Moza Al Nueimi, the first female Emirati cadet to graduate from the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst, and First Lt Hamad Al Amiry, also a Sandhurst commissioned officer and a veteran of the UAE's Afghan military mission.

The President also met the Prince of Wales at Clarence House, the official residence of the heir to the British throne. Before holding private talks with the prince described as "jovial", Sheikh Khalifa was shown displays of work produced at The Prince's School of Traditional Arts and the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies.

Writing in the pages of The National prior to the state visit, Mr Jermey, the British ambassador to Abu Dhabi, had talked of an "enormous" strengthening of links, economically and socially but also in foreign policy and security. Service personnel of each country had fought "side by side protecting UAE territory" and, more recently, cooperated in Libya, serving together with courage in Afghanistan.

He pinpointed an ability to collaborate on even the most difficult of issues as pointing to the "rationale" influencing the 1971 Treaty of Friendship between the UK and the UAE, reaffirmed in 2010.

"Forty-two years on, and with this visit of Sheikh Khalifa, it is clear that that bond of friendship has never been stronger, and never more important," he wrote. "The affinity between our two countries runs in each other's DNA."

Sheikh Khalifa's state visit was the fourth, two in each direction, to be made during the life of the UAE.

And when the President made his farewells on completion of his official programme, there was good reason to believe that nearly three hours spent in the company of the Queen, and a full round of engagements the following day, had built significantly on the legacy of mutual respect and admiration that his father had helped to create.



For more on Sheikh Khalifa's state visit go to our topic page