The Gulf’s historical links with the UK capital are further illuminated in this
Thousands of Gulf visitors travel to London each summer to escape the searing heat at home. This year, they will be joined by people from around the world as the city hosts the 30th Summer Olympic Games. They will arrive in a city whose skyline is being transformed by investments from the Gulf, adding a new dimension to its multiple historical and human connections with the region.
The two most notable additions to the London map are The Shard in London Bridge and the Emirates Air Line cable car across the River Thames. Both opened to a wave of publicity in the weeks leading up to the Olympic Games. Funded by a consortium of Qatari investors, the former became the tallest building in Europe, towering 1016 feet over the South Bank, when it was opened by the Qatari prime minister and the UK’s Prince Andrew on 5 July. Its glass-clad pyramidal shape is visible from across London and provides a distinctive combination of premium office space, luxury apartments, and a five-star hotel, in addition to a public viewing platform offering birds-eye views of London.
Sponsored by the eponymous Dubai carrier, the Emirates Air Line opened on 28 June. Spanning one kilometre from Greenwich to the Royal Docks, the cable car crosses the Thames at a height of 90 metres (300 feet). Emirates stepped in to provide the funding after Transport for London failed to secure sufficient private financing for the project. With the two stations also carrying its name, the venture further embeds the Emirates brand in London, home since 2006 of the Emirates Stadium of Arsenal Football Club. Notably, the inclusion of the two branded stations onto London Underground maps marked the first time that a sponsor has had its logo featured on it.
In recent years, the influx of Gulf-based investment has contrasted sharply with the slowdown in London’s own financial and commercial sectors. The City of London has struggled to cope with the aftermath of the global crisis and its ongoing impact on the city’s signature business model. Away from the City, confidence was further shaken by widespread urban rioting in August 2011 that revealed a host of urgent socio-economic problems and political neglect. Against this gloomy backdrop, the projects financed by money from the Gulf have stood out even more than they might otherwise have done.
Other major initiatives include the redevelopment of Chelsea Barracks and the post-2012 transformation of the Olympic Village in east London, both with Qatari backing. The emirate already owns the flagship Harrods department store in Knightsbridge, and this spring it made moves to acquire three further trophy assets in the form of the Claridge’s, Berkeley, and Connaught hotels. Meanwhile, the streets around Knightsbridge and South Kensington reverberate to the sights and sounds of Gulf holidaymakers. They account for a significantly higher average-spend per head than most other visitors and constitute an economic lifeline for the otherwise-struggling retail sector.
London has long had close links with the Gulf. Historical connections impart a degree of familiarity on both sides that is lacking in other European or North American cities. While this does not provide a definitive buffer against periodic strains in the relationship, it does make it less prone to visceral shocks such as the furore instigated by senators in the state of New York to the proposed Dubai Ports World deal in 2006. Other aspects of the relationship include royal family linkages, a revolving door of retired British diplomats and military officials who provide advisory services to Gulf governments, and many Gulf students who pursue postgraduate studies in London.
This summer is primarily about the sport, and sporting aficionados in the Gulf will be glued to their televisions and their smart-phones, as well as the full panoply of social media sites. With this Olympics billed as the first fully ‘digital’ Games, and the GCC states boasting some of the highest technology penetration rates in the world, the stage has been set for an intense fortnight of discussion and debate. This will reach stratospheric levels should Gulf competitors reach the golden pinnacle, but, regardless of their performances on the playing field, the Gulf will have made its mark on London in 2012.