In November 2017 I looked back on 50 years living in Abu Dhabi. The anniversary provoked many questions: Why did I come here? Why did I stay so long? And what was life like for a European woman back then?
Some brief answers: My husband David had been here for four years, searching, and finding, oil in the desert. Newly married, I went where my husband was, and soon discovered that the Trucial States faced dramatic changes. It became my vocation to write about these developments – and I still do, as does my husband.
An essential ingredient for a “normal” life – in circumstances not very normal for a newly graduated German PhD historian – was mobility. Although there were no roads, my driving licence was converted into an Abu Dhabi one and our Oldsmobile took me to the souk, where I would visit shopkeepers to try out the Arabic phrases I was learning.
From 1969 I became the only European to frequent the Fort, then the seat of government, on a daily basis, having started a job in the Centre for Documentation – which decades later would become the National Archive. Kindly officials introduced me to their families, and the women were surprised that my husband let me work among men and did not provide me with a driver.
I first met Sheikh Zayed on February 15, 1968, in the new St Andrew’s Church, which was to be dedicated in the presence of the Anglican Bishop of Jerusalem and the Ruler of Abu Dhabi.
Sheikh Zayed seemed completely at ease with the people who came forward to greet him. We heard afterwards that he would have liked to join in the hymns, but did not know the words or the music! And on subsequent occasions we saw how he enjoyed interacting with the crowds at the Eid celebrations, be they in local dress, Pakistani or Indian clothes or European outfits.
I shook his hand for the first time in 1969 when he received well-wishers on the commemoration of his accession in 1966. After that, and until the last time he received his people at Eid, I accompanied my husband to greet him, and for many years was the only woman to do so, to the point where my presence was expected, including the time he hosted Queen Elizabeth at his majlis after she came ashore from her yacht in 1979.
Sheikh Zayed had a brilliant memory for people. On one ceremonial occasion in 1975, he was standing at the head of the majlis flanked by other dignitaries. When I greeted him he asked me something about my walad (boy) and, having just given birth to our first son, I started to talk about him, causing much laughter. It transpired that he had asked whether our gazelle had had any more offspring – a much less common event than the birth of a baby.
Although the Fort was the heart of government, foreign dignitaries and local petitioners alike would be directed to where Sheikh Zayed was “sitting” at the time. Once in the later 1970s, he convened the local heritage committee to a meeting followed by lunch. As the only woman, I was placed next to him, and what a perfect host he was, guiding the Arabic conversation towards topics for which he could be fairly certain I had the relevant vocabulary.
On yet another occasion when I was again the only woman – a picnic on top of Jebel Hafeet for the then Crown Prince of Bahrain, Sheikh Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa – the conversation turned from my book about the GCC to the question of what makes a good leader. I was privileged to have this insightful conversation.
It is difficult not to fall into clichés when describing the feeling one took away from a meeting with Sheikh Zayed. Was he impressive? Yes, but he was also approachable and keen to meet young and old, camel-man and statesman, journalist and preacher, builder and sportsperson, making them all feel at ease and engaged. He truly was a man of the people.
And in my eyes, after all these decades in the UAE, he remains the most charismatic person I have ever met.
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