As far as I can remember, I have always considered England my second home. As a businessman, there is hardly a day when the phone does not ring, but the nearest thing to ‘getting away from it all’ are summers with my family spent at my English country house. There, I can relish the simple things in life such as, going for walks or simply strolling to the corner shop. There is something very ordinary and predictable about life there, which keeps one grounded about what is truly important.
However, there is one day during my summers that is extraordinary. June 21st is the day of the Al Habtoor Royal Windsor Cup: an annual polo event held at the Guards Polo Club in Windsor Great Park in the presence of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II and her husband, Prince Philip.
This year, I thoroughly enjoyed meeting up with friends from all over the world, including many from the UAE, and I took great pleasure in watching my sons’ team Al Habtoor, thrash my grandsons’ team by 5-3. But even those who are not fans of the game had a wonderful day, soaking up the pageantry and watching a procession of royal coaches and carriages. It is also a memorable occasion for me as I accompany the Queen when she awards the winner’s trophy, and enjoy exchanging words with Her Majesty, whose enthusiasm for the sport is only surpassed by her knowledge.
Sometimes, I am asked why I chose to partner with the Guards Polo Club to host this tournament. The answer is two-fold.
Firstly, I wanted to do my bit to promote the sport and felt there is no event more prestigious than the Royal Windsor Cup - the oldest in the Club’s calendar. I have always been fascinated with ‘The Sport of Kings’ and its aura of timeless nobility and was glad when my sons Mohammed and Rashid enthusiastically embraced it.
Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, I wanted to celebrate my own ties with Britain, as well as the that the United Arab Emirates and Britain enjoy. Nowadays, when we hear the words ’ ’ we think of geopolitical arrangements or military treaties and while it is true that this began on that footing, over the decades it has evolved on a much deeper level.
Formal ties between the two countries go back a long way. They were first cemented in 1820 when Britain offered protection to what was then the Trucial States, while stressing that it had no territorial ambitions and would not interfere in local matters. The treaty was amicably dissolved on December 2, 1971 when the United Arab Emirates was formed and the two nations remained firm allies.
Britain also features large in the nation’s aviation history. In 1929, British Air Force flying boats made the calm waters off Abu Dhabi their main base, while Bani Yas Island was used for refuelling. Later, in 1932, British Airways’ forerunner, Imperial Airways, constructed an airfield in Sharjah, along with rest houses for its passengers en route to India.
I grew up listening to so many exciting tales of those days from the older members of my family, including the exploits of the British explorer and photographer Wilfred Thesiger, who crossed the ‘Empty Quarter’ on foot, and whose love affair with the UAE continued until his death in 2003. We knew him as Mubarak bin London. Another notable Brit of the day was Ronald Codrai, whose books and photographs leave an impressive and indelible record of our country’s history.
Over the decades, the British Royals have been frequent visitors to the UAE and members of Dubai’s Royal family also have strong personal ties with England.
Britain is now one of our biggest trading partners: UAE exports to the UK are in the annual region of US$2 billion. British businesses flourish in the UAE too: the British Business Group has over 1,450 members, making it the largest of its kind in the region.
Today, more than 120,000 expatriate Britons live and work in the UAE while over one million British tourists holiday here each year. It is little wonder that UAE citizens have imbibed some of the best aspects of British culture and, hopefully, those Britons who consider the UAE as their second home, have gained an understanding and respect for ours too.
For me, the Habtoor Royal Windsor Cup is more than a polo tournament. It is emblematic of an abiding friendship between the UAE and Britain, which, I am certain, will continue to flourish for a long time to come.