Hope for the oceans at UAE Union Day celebrations in London

Guests gathered beneath the iconic 132-year-old whale skeleton at the Natural History Museum ahead of Cop28

Guests celebrate UAE Union Day under the skeleton of Hope the blue whale at the Natural History Museum in London. Photo: Embassy of the United Arab Emirates in London
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Poets, musicians and environmentalists led the UAE’s Union Day celebrations in London this week, which highlighted the country's long-standing relationship with the UK.

Ambassador Mansoor Abulhoul hosted diplomats, ministers, business people, poets and filmmakers at the Natural History Museum where the celebrations had an environmental focus, ahead of Cop28

“Tonight is a celebration of our planet, but also a plea not to take it for granted,” he told guests on Tuesday, who had gathered in the museum’s main hall, beneath the skeleton of a blue whale.

The Cop28 climate conference in Dubai would be the “most important event” the UAE had ever hosted, he added.

He highlighted the UK and the UAE’s “shared vision of global prosperity based on commerce, science, hope and co-operation”.

Speaking after the event, Mr Abulhoul told The National of the “magical” poetry readings, music and dance performances which brought the evening to life – giving a “bold” and “unusual” twist to the traditional national celebrations.

He hoped the UK and UAE could take relations “to the next level” in the coming year, with a view to working towards a free-trade agreement in the future.

“[This year] it’s really taking it to the next level. The trade links and investment links have always been there, it’s always been our northern star,” he told The National.

Seeing King Charles’ opening speech at Cop28 was “really heartening”, and had given him hope for the future co-operation between the two countries, “underpinned by the connections we have”.

The UK’s Minister for Nuclear and Networks, Andrew Bowie, who also spoke during the celebrations, urged governments at Cop28 to set aside the challenges posed by the continuing war in Ukraine and the events in Israel and Gaza.

“It is critical that nations approach Cop28 with the spirit of unity, and not division. That they sit down together and agree tough decisions to keep 1.5°C within our grasp,” Mr Bowie told guests.

“That leadership is what the UAE and Britain have shown together, both individually and as partners,” he added, pointing to a partnership between the two countries which sees the UAE's sovereign wealth fund investing in the UK's green energy and technological infrastructure.

“I'm proud to say the UK is supporting you every step of the way to make Cop28 a success, putting the world back on track to 1.5°C and halving global missions,” he said.

The evening included readings by British and Emirati poets and writers, chosen by the Emirates Literature Foundation.

Sir Ben Okri, the Booker Prize-winning author, read from Tiger Work, his newly published anthology of poems about the climate crisis.

“When they asked me to come up with words that will speak to the world on the verge of environmental collapse, I had a crisis of my own,” he said.

“The facts are horrific, the evidence overwhelming and still we carry on as if no crisis was happening,” he said.

Dance artist Charlotte Jarvis gave a ballet performance as the author was reading, and their daughter Mirabella read a letter she had written to the world.

Emirati poets Ali Al Shaali and Shamma Al Bastaki read from their work related to the climate. “I'm not blind, but walking on the pristine earth through a whale's skeleton with trees on either side,” said Al Shaali.

Biologist Tom Mustill played whale songs, which have been found to have rhythm patterns, like music.

Standing beneath the museum’s giant skeleton of a blue whale named Hope who died in the North Atlantic in 1891, he highlighted the species’ near extinction.

“We killed three million whales. A thousand blue wales were hunted in the Gulf region alone. They looked like they were going extinct. The science was clear. What stopped us from doing so?” Mr Mustill said as he played the whale song.

“What stopped us, was listening to them,” he added.

It was the first time that the voices of blue whales had been played in the museum’s main hall. “This is the first time Hope’s bones have felt the whales’ voice in 114 years,” he added.

“We have burnt so much coal, oil and gas. The Gulf hosts a unique culture, the only non-migrating humpback whales in the world. Can they survive? Will we stop burning fossil fuels in time?”

Emirati scientist Dr Hind Al Ameri, an expert in marine conservation talked about the importance of marine turtles on the UAE coastlines, drawing on the work of Abu Dhabi’s Environment Agency.

“The magnificent creatures play a crucial role in maintaining the balance of our ecosystem. Their loss could lead to a chain of events that will have catastrophic consequences on our marine ecosystems and their balance,” Dr Al Ameri said.

“It is crucial that we take action to preserve the species and their habitats, and ensure that they continue to flourish for generations to come with Cop 28,” she said.

Award-winning filmmaker Anthony Geffen talked about the emergence of a new “immersive” form of storytelling, through virtual and augmented reality. This would allow viewers to experience what it is like to be in a black hole, or to “turn their living room into a planetarium”.

Among his projects was a virtual ocean, which would teach children about marine life.

“Less and less kids dive around the world and swim. So how are they to know what's in the ocean? We have created a completely augmented reality experience that changes all the time, and you can learn about the ocean,” he said.

Isobel Abulhoul, founder of the Emirates Literature Foundation, recalled a culture of sustainability when she first moved to the UAE in 1968.

“No food was ever wasted. Water was certainly not wasted. They only cooked what they could eat, and they repurposed everything. Every part of the date palm was used,” she said.

“That's not how life is today, but that's how it was,” she said.

“I have a very good feeling about Cop28. As an oil-producing country, it's an inspirational thing to do,” she said.

Updated: December 03, 2023, 9:54 AM