Fifty years ago today, the welders, caulkers, greasers, painters and sparks of John Brown & Co looked on triumphantly as they revealed their greatest engineering feat to a watching world. At precisely 2:28pm, the Queen pressed the launching button which sent a bottle of Australian white wine crashing into the vast bow of their creation. With that, 69,053 tonnes of steel, teak and dreams eked down the slipway and into the River Clyde’s embrace.
It seems astonishing that only half a century has passed since the launch of the Queen Elizabeth 2. The yard which forged her has long been consigned to memory and the shipbuilding industry is a shadow of its former glories. What is even more astounding, however, is the realisation that the QE2, the grandest ship of them all, continues to face a precarious future.
Amid the half centenary celebrations taking place this week in Clydebank, it seems fitting to ask precisely what her current custodians intend to do with her. Nearly nine years have passed since she became the property of Dubai, a period characterised by frustration, secrecy, and unfulfilled promise. When ownership of the vessel transferred to Istithmar, the investment arm of Dubai World, a state-owned holding company, Sultan Ahmed bin Sulayem vowed to berth her as a floating hotel at a specially constructed pier at the man-made Palm Jameirah.
The initiative chimed with Dubai’s practical and ideological ambitions; the QE2 would provide the then booming emirate with much-needed accommodation space, while her status would confer a degree of soft power. “Dubai is a maritime nation and we understand the rich heritage of QE2,” Mr Sulayem said at the time. “She is coming to a home where she will be cherished.”
There is a paucity of evidence to suggest that has been the case. Initially, that was down to a combination of circumstance and folly, as the emirate’s debt-fuelled investment drive, heavily reliant on property and trophy acquisitions, was hit hard during the global recession.
The plans for the hotel vanished without trace. By late 2009, the ship was finally drydocked, and Dubai entered talks with officials in South Africa to relocate the QE2 to Cape Town for the 2010 Fifa World Cup. The scheme seemed to represent the perfect marriage of wealth and opportunity, but for Dubai World – then in talks to renegotiate £16 billion of debts – there was not enough of the former to render it viable. Days before the QE2 was due to start sea trials, the deal collapsed.
The next four years saw Dubai endorse various other ventures only to quickly backtrack. In July 2012, Mr Sulayem said the ship would form a smaller 300 room hotel at Port Rashid as part of the terminal’s redevelopment. Yet just six months later, Drydocks World, a subsidiary of Dubai World, announced the “grand dame of the sea” was to become a 500-room hotel in “the heart of a leading Asian city”.
The Singapore-based Oceanic Group came on board to help broker a deal and a competition was launched to determine a new look for the ship’s interiors, with the award-winning British design firm Benoy among those taking part. Sadly, it was all smoke and mirrors. No-one ever agreed to pay Dubai’s asking price, and the project, like all the others, was a pipe dream.
Since then, the ship’s cheerleaders here in Britain have tried to convince Dubai to return her. One consortium proposed relocating her to Greenwich, while a working group – drawn from the Scottish Government, Scottish Enterprise, Visitscotland, and local authorities – was rebuffed in its attempts to bring her back to the Clyde.
According to one source involved, initial contact was made with Dubai World via Scottish Development International’s offices in the British Embassy in Dubai, before being quickly shut down. “Dubai did just not want to know,” they explained. “We knew the project was ambitious, but it didn’t even get off the drawing board. I believe the expression is we were dinghied.”
In the two years since, the QE2 has been moved elsewhere within Port Rashid, with the firm, Shafa Construction, subcontracted to carry out unspecified work. The fate of the ship’s interiors remain unknown, while work carried out on her superstructure – including the removal of her lifeboat davits – has drawn controversy.
How then, will Dubai mark today’s anniversary? If events since 2008 are any guide, it will pass unmarked. The ship will likely continue to be upkept, but that comes at a cost – around £600,000 a month, according to a source familiar with the maintenance programme.
For Dubai World, still suffering from past hubris and the fall in oil prices, that is an expense it can ill afford. The conglomerate has extended repayments of around £7.3bn in outstanding debts due in 2018 to 2022. The deal has bought Dubai breathing space, but it leaves little room for financial gambles with uncertain returns, a category into which the QE2 falls.
Perhaps the real anniversary we should all look out for is the one which falls next November. By then, a decade will have passed since Dubai bought the ocean liner from the Carnival group, a deal which included a ten-year-long no sell-on clause, and stringent restrictions on how the QE2 can be modified. With its expiry, new opportunities and new threats will likely open up, but Dubai should not wait until then to declare their intentions. If they truly cherish a queen in exile, now is the time for them to show it.