This month fifty-seven years ago, Dubai’s ruler visited New York City and Washington, DC, for the first and only time. Just before summer, he had signed over the majority share in onshore oil concessions from a British concern to US-based Continental Oil Company. It was a crossroads moment for Dubai. The arrival of US oilmen was meant to reignite flagging optimism: American can-doism was supposed to locate the ever-elusive oil reserves on whose profits the city’s plans and schemes were being spun. It was also the case that American-made cars had already started to dominate Dubai’s few kilometers of asphalt. All the more plausible, then, that the ruler, Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum, did give the alleged “pretty broad hint” that he’d welcome an invitation to the land of highways and oil companies.
Continental’s response to the hint was a three-week itinerary, so compressed it would suffocate the most persistent bout of Wanderlust: three nights in New York for a view from the Empire State Building, a stroll through the Bronx Zoo, a tour of the UN building, and an excursion to Princeton University (framed by the plunge of the Holland Tunnel outbound and the heights of the George Washington Bridge on the return); a train to DC for three nights to visit presidential monuments (in the weeks before their transformation into the backdrop of the March on Washington and Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech), a mosque, Mount Vernon, and the White House; then a flight to Houston to catch another flight to a Texas ranch resort; the next morning a flight to an Oklahoma city whose oil operations had already abandoned it; then a night in Denver for a glimpse of the Rockies; the next morning a chartered plane “over the Grand Canyon” to Phoenix, and from there trips to irrigated deserts, Las Vegas, and the Hoover Dam; the next morning a flight to Los Angeles; the following day a flight to San Francisco and a drive to Muir Woods National Monument; Yosemite National Park the next day; a flight to Chicago for the planetarium and aquarium and an evening flight to Niagara Falls; after one more natural wonder, a flight to Detroit to tour an auto assembly plant, before boarding the ninth and final airplane back to New York.
The impossible itinerary did not hold. When Dubai’s ruler and his retinue reached Washington, he cut the trip by a week. He likely never got further than the capital. While my search has not been exhaustive, I’ve found no US reporting on the visit. The limited correspondence, clearly subjective, is from British embassy officials in Washington who met a ruler not “favourably impressed by what he has seen.” With hardly concealed relish, another official claimed Rashid “was clearly appalled by the speed and noise of New York and arrived in Washington in an exhausted condition.” Recuperating in the comfort of hotel rooms, Rashid apparently told the official of his “obvious preference for England.”1
Four years ago, an artifact from the unsuccessful trip surfaced on the Twitter feed of Dubai’s current ruler, Rashid’s son Sheikh Mohammed. It’s a familiar touristic snapshot taken from the viewing platform of the Empire State Building. Rashid’s other son Hamdan and some well-known advisers are also identifiable. The photo is hazy, likely a result of the photographer’s unsteady stance atop the world’s tallest building. In a follow-up tweet, Sheikh Mohammed announced “our dream is alive,” with an image of what’s currently known as Dubai Creek Tower, designed as the world’s tallest structure (construction currently halted). One is left to presume that a late summer day in 1963 had a direct influence on the shape of tomorrow’s Dubai.