Last week I was lucky enough to be able to participate in a once-in-a-lifetime experience – a State Visit hosted by Her Majesty The Queen for the President of the UAE.
This is pretty unique; The Queen came to the UAE on a State Visit only two and a half years ago and I am not aware of any other Head of State returning the complement so swiftly. I had to dust off my morning suit and hunt around for a top hat to head down to Windsor on the first day, where we witnessed an incredible display of pageantry, pomp and ceremony.
At the heart of it all, though, was friendship – it was a delight to see the warmth between The Queen and the President, a warmth reflected by the crowds of flag waving, cheering onlookers who lined the streets of Windsor as we processed through in open top carriages.
Some magnificent military guards played both national anthems at each corner, with a mounted band following us up to the Great Court at Windsor.
In my carriage, the iPhones came out to record it all – to the delight of onlookers who cheered loudly as we filmed their enthusiasm. Alas, my pockets were not large enough to accommodate the latest in apple gadgetry with me, but I had a glimpse of what it must be like to be royalty as I waved my top hat to the crowds lining the streets.
On arrival, I stood with the Emirati suite as we watched His Highness Sheikh Khalifa and His Royal Highness Prince Phillip inspect the troops, all to the sound of drums beating and the playing of the military bands. A moment to be proud of.
Also a moment to relish for The Queen as we basked in the sun after one of the bleakest British winters on record. And then the State Luncheon – an opportunity to meet the great and the good of British society from the Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition, members of the Royal Family to prominent politicians, business people and military.
I spoke with most of the Emirati suite (extraordinarily high level, with royalty and ministers) who thoroughly enjoyed the spectacle and the warmth of the welcome. I guess that His Highness Sheikh Mansour would be particularly pleased The Queen mentioned Manchester City FC in her speech!
The next day, I accompanied the President to a meeting with the Prime Minister at No. 10, Westminster Abbey and to tea with Prince Charles at Clarence House.
There were many striking moments, but amongst the most poignant was the short ceremony of laying a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior. The President was accompanied by two serving Emirati military officers, one who had served recently in Afghanistan alongside UK troops and another, a female officer, who had been outstanding in her performance at the UK’s elite military training college, Sandhurst.
Respect was offered to our fallen warriors only a few hours after the visiting Emirati guests had been commiserating with us as the news came through of 3 British soldiers being killed in action in Herat.
Throughout the visit, I was struck by the genuine feeling of respect and friendship that was present –both between our two royal families who have known each other for many years, and in the personal relationships formed and nurtured amongst politicians, businessmen and many others.
The whole visit was an amazing feat of organisation, and we were incredibly fortunate that the one thing that even The Queen has no power over – the British weather -was perfect. I felt proud that the UK was able to host such a unique and historic event. A State Visit of this kind really sets the UK / UAE relationship apart from other nations and demonstrates the high regard in which we hold our Emirati friends.