Hello, Sheikh Zayed; bye, British forces: This expat saw 2 historic moments on Union day

British expat Len Chapman, who arrived in Dubai in March 1971, recalls momentous occasion

by

Nasreen Abdulla

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An old photo of Len, with his wife Jackie, daughter Hilary son Peter, taken in 1974 in the backyard of their Jumeirah villa. — Supplied photos
An old photo of Len, with his wife Jackie, daughter Hilary son Peter, taken in 1974 in the backyard of their Jumeirah villa. — Supplied photos

Published: Thu 30 Nov 2023, 6:00 AM

Last updated: Thu 30 Nov 2023, 10:34 PM

When British expat Len Chapman arrived in Dubai in March 1971 to work as an engineer at the newly built Port Rashid, his immigration process was done on the tarmac within 30 seconds. “When we got into the car and were being driven to our house on Jumeirah Beach Road, all we could see was desert,” he said. “There were no trees, and roads were almost non-existent. My wife turned and asked me if we had made a mistake.”

Len, who had been working in Bahrain prior to that, had come to Dubai, intending to stay for just two years. “If anyone had told me then that I would stay in Dubai for over 30 years, I'd have told them they were fools,” he chuckled. Now retired, the 86-year-old lives in Australia. Len spoke to Khaleej Times about the beautiful memories he and his family made during their time in the city. One of them was about the day the United Arab Emirates was formed. Take a look at Len's boarding pass when he arrived in Dubai in 1971.

Signing of the Union

“I had heard that the union was going to be signed,” he said. “I lived on Jumeirah Road, so I decided to go to the beach palace and see what was happening. When we got there, there were a few of us gathered around to watch what was happening. Soon, a long line of cars drove into the palace and we knew that the Union was being signed.”

A short while later, the gates opened and cars started driving out. “The first car out was a black Cadillac and as we watched, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan rolled his window down a crack and waved at us,” recalled Len. "This was followed by Sheikh Rashid’s (bin Saeed Al Maktoum) Mercedes and then all the other Rulers drove out. There were no celebrations or fanfare. It was a quiet but highly impactful union.”

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The same evening, Len drove down to Sharjah to witness another historic moment — British forces leaving the country. “The pilot that was flying the last RAF plane out with the soldiers was an old classmate of mine,” he said. “I wanted to meet him before he left. I was unable to meet him but I do remember walking across the base. There were a few people around because the base had been opened up for the first time and everyone was curious to see it. You could see that it really was the end of an era."

House 42A on Jumeirah Beach Road, where Len and his family lived for many years.
House 42A on Jumeirah Beach Road, where Len and his family lived for many years.

The Dubai charm

For Len, the one thing that still continues to leave him in awe about Dubai is the city’s hunger to grow. “When I first came here, the containers on ships were being unloaded physically by people,” he said. “Within seven years, the unloading was being done by cranes. The job I came to do was an ordinary job but it became an extraordinary one. By 1980, the size of Port Rashid had doubled. That is the thing about Dubai. It just grabs you and grows you with it.”

He admired Sheikh Rashid for the visionary he was. “He put in place the infrastructure and systems needed for the country to grow,” he said. “He had a very practical approach and it was his foresight that helped Dubai grow the way it did. Also, he was a people’s leader. You would often find him in the middle of the marketplace, interacting with people.”

He recalled his first experience attending a wedding in the UAE. “We used to live in Al Owais building, which was the first high-rise building,” he said. “A few months after we moved in, we got an invitation to attend the wedding. The guest of honour was Sheikh Rashid. So we all went, dressed in our finest to the Ambassador Hotel.”

The couple waited outside the hotel until Sheikh Rashid arrived and then followed him inside. “When we went in, we were shown to a table in the corner where there were three other European couples,” said Len. “It was the only table with cutlery. When Sheikh Rashid started eating, we all started eating. When he stopped eating, we all stopped eating.”

A photo of the family taken a few months after they left Dubai in 2003.
A photo of the family taken a few months after they left Dubai in 2003.

Len, who left the UAE in 2003, shared his favourite joke about his time here. “When I arrived, there was just one door to step in to Dubai, but when I left, I had to catch the plane from gate 279,” he chuckled. “It was a testimony of how much the city had grown while I lived there and I am happy to see it still continue to grow.”

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