In January 1976, when I landed at the Dubai International Airport for the first of my several lengthy Dubai-and-environs stays, I arrived with Champ, our much-loved 90-pound, long-haired, honey-colored collie. (My husband David was already there.)
During the unloading procedure, Champ’s kennel had fallen the equivalent of two stories from the belly of our 747 onto the tarmac. It literally exploded. Miraculously, Champ was not hurt, but terror-struck he fled for his life. No one had a chance to stop him. He was bent on getting as far away from the nightmare of airport sounds and sights as possible.
Instead of seeking people or someplace with water and food, he was seen striking out into the open desert that abuts the Rub’al Khali––the so-called Empty Quarter of the Arabian Peninsula––the largest continuous sand body in the world, a belt of salt flats and shifting dunes the size of Texas, which even the Bedouins, the traditional desert dwellers, find daunting. Daytime summer temperatures easily reach 130 degrees Fahrenheit, and in winter, the night temperature drops well below freezing. With good reason, Wilfred Thesiger called this inhospitable terrain “a death in life.” And that’s where Champ seemed likely to be.
Initially, David and I searched for Champ on our own, but after a full day without success, we reported the airport accident to the Dubai police, who agreed to distribute flyers describing Champ and our reward to their police force. We also contacted the Dubai media outlets–-all were willing to help.
Meanwhile, His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum (born 1949), the son of and eventual successor to the aforementioned Dubai of Ruler, His Highness Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed al Maktoum (1912-1990), was then already known throughout the Gulf as a sportsman. Falconry was a particular passion of his, one he often practiced near an oasis called Al-Aweer, about 35 kilometers from Dubai’s center. On the fifth day after the airport mishap, Sheikh Mohammed was once again in the desert with his birds. As he marched along, he suddenly noticed fresh animal tracks in the sand. Though educated at England’s Cambridge University, his traditions are distinctly Bedouin. Historically, Bedouins have been known as superb trackers with an uncanny ability to follow trails over miles of harsh terrain.
Sheikh Mohammed later told us that he knew the tracks were only about a half-hour old and not the tracks of a native animal. Curious, he decided to follow them. Within half an hour he found Champ, who was by then ragged, thin, exhausted, near death.
The Qur’an teaches that man has a duty to animals. It says, “There is no beast on earth nor bird that flies, but the same is a creature like unto you, and to God shall they return.” (6:38) Hospitality, particularly in the desert, is a stringent duty. Champ was a wanderer lost, a stranger, to whom refusing hospitality would have been an affront to God.
“This must be the dog that was lost at the Dubai Airport last week,” one of the Sheikh’s aides said.
Sheikh Mohammed took Champ to the oasis for food and water. He gave him shelter, a shiny new collar, comfort and hope. And a day or two later, in a beautiful ceremony, he returned Champ to us. At the close of the formal proceeding, I shook the Sheikh’s hand. “How can I ever thank you?”
“Maalaysh” (It was nothing), he said with the smile of a man long-practiced in the art of kindness.
The Sheikh was then the UAE’s minister of defense, a position he assumed in 1971, just after the UAE’s founding, when he was only 22 years old, the youngest minister of defense in the world. After he returned Champ to us, I made it a point to find out more about him. From all sides I heard only praise. He was described as a humanitarian, a hero to children, an animal-lover, a pilot, a prince.
Today he rules a nation and is lauded as a key architect of Dubai’s transformation from a sleepy desert enclave with a few hundred thousand inhabitants to a microkingdom that bristles with initiative.
This is Champ,fully healed from his desert ordeal and once again chasing his beloved tennis ball on one of the UAE’s beautiful beaches.