Earlier this year, a Saudi friend of mine gave me a book called All the Countries We’ve Ever Invaded: And the Few We Never Got Round To. It’s a light-hearted look at the 171 countries (out of the 193 that are currently UN member states) that Britain has either invaded, raided, or where it has generally abused the local populace. But it’s hard not to read the litany of Britain’s imperial escapades without feeling pretty uncomfortable, especially when it comes to this region.
From Sykes Picot to Suez, the British haven’t done themselves many favours with regard to the Middle East’s recent history. And when it comes to the UAE, I think we’d all agree that the British population isn’t necessarily the most popular of the umpteen nationalities in the country. It doesn’t help that there are more than 100,000 of us living here, by far the largest collection of Westerners.
We stick out as well. The Brits are either deathly pale or perilously sunburnt, and have a reputation for being slightly over-exuberant — especially on Friday afternoons. If you are a regular reader of the UK tabloid press, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Dubai is permanently awash with sozzled expats with bloodshot eyes. As a result, I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been told by taxi drivers, locals and even the British themselves that “there are just too many Brits in the UAE”.
Well, they may have a point. But for every ‘banged-up Brit’ beloved by the Daily Mail, there are plenty more hard-working Britons who prefer to let actions speak louder than fumbles in the back of a taxi. In this week’s edition, we have named 50 of them. Some of the entries on our list have been in the UAE since the 1960s, while the most recent arrived on our shores just last month.
In a way, they are all following in the footsteps of Edward Henderson, a diplomat who served with the Arab Legion after the Second World War, and eventually made his way to the UAE, where he became an advisor to the then governor of Buraimi — and later founding president of the UAE — Sheikh Zayed. After leaving the diplomatic service, Henderson had such a high regard for the UAE that he moved to the country and eventually retired here. Although Henderson sadly passed away in 1995, his wife, Jocelyn, still lives in Abu Dhabi.
The next generation of Britons in the UAE have included men like Sir Maurice Flanagan and Tim Clark, both of whom have played huge roles in the rapid development of Emirates. Two titans of the local banking industry — National Bank of Abu Dhabi CEO Michael Tomalin and Emirates NBD CEO Rick Pudner — are set to retire in 2013, after years of service.
Lucy Bruce has set up nurseries in the UAE and shelters for children in India. Sam Barnett has quietly helped reshape the television landscape in the Middle East.
That the UAE has close ties with the UK is not in doubt; hardly a month seems to go by without a British minister turning up in either Dubai or Abu Dhabi to discuss what is universally referred to in state-news-agency speak as “strengthening bilateral relations”. Just last week, British foreign secretary William Hague weighed in to back Dubai’s bid for the Expo 2020 showpiece.
So despite the dodgy taxi rides and the lurid headlines, Britons are — I believe — still contributing enormously to the development of the UAE.
Long may that continue.
Ed Attwood is the Editor of Arabian Business.