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Sun 7 Dec 2008 04:00 AM

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Royalty comes to town

Damian Reilly stands on the dock to watch the QE2 sail into Dubai to become a floating hotel.

Damian Reilly stands on the dock to watch the QE2 sail into Dubai to become a floating hotel.

We're all milling about, mid-afternoon, quayside at Port Rashid. It's an odd scene. Men from the media are lazily setting up cameras in the specially cordoned off media enclosure. Event organisers are patrolling the marquee, calm now, hours before the party. Local security guards, resplendent in dish-dashes, talk into walkie-talkies, and grin at one another. The cushioned majlis area in the VIP section, which is separated from the media section by a flimsy fence, is unpeopled.

A girl, handing out handheld Union Jacks and UAE flags, shouts cheerfully to someone: "We tried to get them to let us do the UAE flag in British colours, but no one would give us approval." There is much cackling at this.

Behind me a television journalist and cameraman are interviewing a red faced man, mid-fifties, in a blazer with a side parting. He is telling them how proud he will feel when he sees her, when she comes in over the horizon for the last time, to start her permanent life in Dubai. "It will be like having a part of Britain here in the UAE. It will be brilliant," he says.

Overhead, an Airbus A380 circles for the umpteenth time, engaged in a ceremonial fly-by. It has the name of its airline, Emirates, emblazoned fatly on its belly. Down here on terra firma, rumours abound that the airline is on the brink of a merger with Etihad, a move that, should it prove true, will scare the life of rivals all over the world. There's a pleasing symmetry: the QE2 may once have been the biggest story in international travel, but above her now is the future.

We still have two or so hours to kill before the QE2 will make an appearance. She is currently a mile or two off Dubai's coast, flanked by a flotilla of enthusiastic onlookers. Chief amongst them is the magnificent boat of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, ruler of Dubai. Later, before the QE2 comes into port, we will get a look at Maktoum's boat.

It is enormous. Someone tries to tell me it houses a full-sized squash court. I remain dubious - even if the owner is a keen squash player, surely the sport is very poorly suited to being played on the open seas? It's hard enough without the ground beneath players rolling or pitching.

What to do? I move into the indoor media section, where computers have been laid out for journalists. The one I try to use tells me, via an intransigent message on the desktop, that is has been "hacked by Godzilla," and is thus not operational. Chastened, I find something else to do.

Outside the front of the marquee, I can hear bagpipes being played. To my mind, the sound of the bagpipe lends an unarguably British atmosphere to any event: a tea party in Kenya, a political ceremony in New York, a tupperware party in Timbuktu. Like a child beguiled by the Pied Piper, I follow the music. Blow me down if it isn't being produced by a troupe of twenty proud looking emiratis. What an extraordinary sight.

Later, someone will tell me that it is not as unusual as I think, to see Arabs playing bagpipes at ceremonies. But I am still very impressed by the melding of British and Arab sensibilities. Today it seems so very fitting, as this ship, this icon of Britain comes to reside permanently in Dubai, itself the most famous part of the Gulf.

What does the growing crowd think? Peter, 40, a British school teacher who has lived in Dubai for four years, is excited: "When I first heard she was coming I thought it was just a rumour. But then so many of the things you hear planned in Dubai at first seem too far-fetched to be true."

"Actually, now I think about it, the rumours normally always turn out to be based in fact. I think this is a great idea. Why not? What would have been a better alternative for the ship? To be scrapped? Or to set up permanent home somewhere else? A least here she can still be enjoyed by people from all over the world. She is an ideal acquisition for Dubai. She's got the great history, and her class will lend itself to the developments that will be built around her. Everyone wins."

Jane, 32, another British expatriate from Scarborough, is less enthusiastic, although she has taken the day off from her job with an international bank to watch the event: "I think it is a bit like that whale shark they have got in the aquarium in the Atlantis hotel. What's her name? Sammy - you know, Sammy the shark. Sammy is meant to spend her life swimming through the world's oceans. She is too big to be in an aquarium. I think the QE2 should still be sailing around the world. That is what she was created to do."One of the VIP's, who asked not to be named, tells me: "It is fantastic, just fantastic. Dubai grows more famous around the world by the day. Having this ship here, which is already world famous, is exactly what Dubai is about. Ten years ago, the world didn't know about Dubai. Now everyone does."

Jane's point, it seems to this observer, is reactionary. Indeed, the world is changing, fast, and perhaps the QE2's arrival in the Gulf is symbolic of this change. Someone should tell Jane.

Created by a Western power, Britain, in 1967, the ship - then the largest in the world - was emblematic of not only the country's international prestige and power, but of its commercial might. The QE2 typified the scale of British achievement and ambition.

How things have changed. Today, Britain hunkers down for the inevitable and heavy recession. Sovereign wealth funds from the Gulf own huge shares in British assets - to the point that there is a strong argument to be made that the Gulf is propping up the British economy.

Why, only last month, the British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, came to Dubai and Abu Dhabi looking for handouts to the International Monetary Fund, as well as talking about how Britain welcomed investment from the Gulf.

With each dollar or pound the Gulf invests in British or European economies comes increased power and influence in those regions. The QE2 may have first left port when Dubai and Abu Dhabi were nothing but far away places, but her shifting of residency and ownership coincides with a much larger geo-economic and geo-political shift in power. The British flag still flies over the QE2, but for how much longer?

Back on quayside, an event organiser is shouting frantically into his walkie-talkie. We're getting closer, the rumour goes, to actually seeing her as she draws nearer to the dock. "No, no, no, you don't understand," he bellows.

"It is going to be incredible. We're going to have everything. There is going to be smoke, mirrors, fireworks, the whole shooting match." Other people, I notice, professionally involved in the ceremony, are becoming more agitated now. The cameramen are nervously scanning the horizon for the first sighting. I join them.

And, then, suddenly, there she is. The funnel is the first thing we see. That funnel. Plumes of dark smoke trail from it. Its days are numbered though. Soon it will be removed, placed in a museum, and a replica will be put in its place, a replica that isn't a funnel at all, but a deluxe, penthouse suite. Is this in good taste? Time will tell.

The crowd cheers, I cheer. I even notice Jane cheering. The QE2 cheers back. Well, it doesn't cheer, it lows. Massively. Its fog horn is a wonderful sound, one that has been heard in every corner of the world.

She's bought in by three tugs. The bagpipers are squeezing away frenziedly. There is also an elite team of local dancers. They sway and wave sticks around, nearly synchronised.

Onboard, the decks are lined with passengers who have streamed out of their cabins to watch this moment - the QE2 arriving for the final time. It's rumoured that Beatrice Muller, the little old lady who has lived on board for fourteen years since her husband died, is up there waving. I can't spot her, but I wonder how she must feel. Homeless, I expect. As the ship draws ever closer, it is impossible not to be impressed by how massive it is.

Suddenly, there is the promised lightshow, and all the rest. Dubai is making headlines, yet again. The people of Southampton may want the ship back, but who cares about them now? Like everyone else, I am waving my flags - one British, one UAE - like a man demented. Welcome to Dubai, your majesty.

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angelo 11 years ago

I wonder how long before this 50 year old ship suffers the same fate as her predecessor who ended up ignominiously in Hong Kong harbour after an alleged insurance scam - or am I being a pessimist again?