Charles's coronation: UAE historian recalls encounters with the King during his visits

Peter Hellyer shares memories of opportunities he got to spend time with the King, away from the crowds, the cameras and the public eye

Peter Hellyer talking with King Charles during a visit to Abu Dhabi. — Supplied photo
Peter Hellyer talking with King Charles during a visit to Abu Dhabi. — Supplied photo

By Peter Hellyer

Published: Sat 6 May 2023, 1:05 AM

Last updated: Sat 6 May 2023, 11:26 PM

Today in London, in a ceremony full of pomp, splendour, ceremonial and much else besides, King Charles III and his wife, Camilla, are formally crowned as King and Queen of the United Kingdom and of fourteen other countries, from Australia, New Zealand and Canada to tiny little Tuvalu in the South Pacific. Whatever view one may have of Britain’s monarchy, it is highly likely that those relationships will evolve in the years ahead, as the traditions and the history they represent also evolve.

On this day, though, it is the pomp that takes centre stage. Ancient regalia, glittering crowns, state coaches, finely-bedecked horses, servicemen from throughout King Charles’s realms – all these have their part, as well as the deeply religious ceremony in London’s Westminster Abbey that lies at its heart.

There has been no other event like it since the King’s mother, Queen Elizabeth II, was crowned just over 70 years ago – and that was a hugely different world.

To the millions who observe on television, or on the streets of London, King Charles will appear as a distant figure, with his uniform, his medals and his robes, crowned with potentates from around the world looking on. How on earth, they may ask, can this personage possibly understand and engage with the public? He is, surely, too remote.

Over the last thirty years, it has been my good fortune to be involved with several of the visits that the King, then Prince of Wales, has paid to the Emirates. Memorable occasions, since they were not simply formal receptions where a hand-shake might be exchanged, but opportunities to spend a little time together away from the crowds, the cameras and the public eye.

On one such occasion, in 1995, I had the pleasure of guiding him around the island of Sir Bani Yas, to show him the pre-Islamic Christian monastery that had recently been discovered by the Abu Dhabi Islands Archaeological Survey, ADIAS.

This wasn’t just a formal visit. Charles had studied archaeology at Cambridge University and we discussed in some detail the significance of our discovery. Deeply interested in religious tolerance, he later discussed the monastery with the late Sheikh Zayed and also with President Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed.

To be able to engage in such discussions was a rare privilege.

So too, I suppose, was the opportunity to drive him round Sir Bani Yas, even if the greater flamingos I promised would appear around a corner were, surprisingly, not there that day!

“I’m used to that,” he laughed. “Always being promised things that don’t quite work out…”


I was aware, of course, of Charles’s interest in the environment and in conservation, and his official programme on several of his visits to the Emirates included an environmental component. On one occasion, that involved a visit to the Al Wathba Lakes, just outside Abu Dhabi, to look at some of the thousands of migrating birds that spend the winter there.

Again, this wasn’t just a trip for the sake of filling in a bit of his programme. He had a real knowledge of and interest in the birds we saw. He was certainly able to distinguish between dunlins and curlew sandpipers better at a distance than I was.

Another of his pastimes is painting with watercolours. On one of his trips to the Emirates, I recall, he asked if there was any way in which a little time could be squeezed out of his official programme so that he could relax for half an hour or so with a bit of painting.

And so it was that I have the slightly unusual memory of watching the future British King sitting on top of a sand dune, sketching the deserts of the Empty Quarter.

There were, of course, other events at which he reached out to the British community in Abu Dhabi. On his first visit, I recall, I and a few others had the pleasure of meeting with him privately, to hand over a fairly substantial cheque as a donation from Abu Dhabi’s British community to the Great Ormond Street for Sick Children in London. The warmth with which he thanked us was evident. Years later, of course, the Mother of the Nation, Sheikha Fatima bint Mubarak, gave a further amazing donation of sixty million pounds sterling. The link between Great Ormond Street and Abu Dhabi may receive little attention, but it is deep and has been long-lasting, thanks in part to the direct interest shown so many years ago by King Charles.

In encounters such as these, I have had the pleasure of engaging over the years with Britain’s new King away from formal occasions, looking at old pottery, discussing inter-faith dialogue, driving over bumpy tracks and sharing binoculars. He has an extraordinary ability to engage in conversation with people from all walks of life, coupled with a memory that allows him to remember people he has met before. That is pretty impressive.

So, as I look at today’s broadcasts of the Coronation of King Charles III, a remote and austere figure who, for a day, will be at the centre of the world’s attention, I shall remember the man with whom I have had the good fortune to spend a bit of time on and off over the years.

He will, I believe, prove t o be a thoughtful, warm and impressive King.

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