The Queen’s Six Years In Dubai by Rob Lightbody

Rob Lightbody looks back over the past six years since QE2 departed Southampton on her final voyage, and wonders what lies ahead.

It is now six years since QUEEN ELIZABETH 2 departed on her final voyage to Dubai after a memorable final season and final day in Southampton.  As she passed the Isle of Wight at thirty knots, her passengers looked forward to enjoying a last two weeks on board what was arguably the most famous ship in the world, and for many of them felt like a home from home.

QE2 Southampton Departure. Photo © Andy Fitzsimmons, used with permission.

QE2 Southampton Departure. Photo © Andy Fitzsimmons, used with permission.

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The final voyage went to plan, what came afterwards certainly has not.

The Sale is announced

In summer 2007, forty years since her launch, everybody knew they were going to have to do something about the ship.  But it was still a surprise when Cunard announced that they had sold the ship and her contents to Dubai World for $100 million, and that she had less than eighteen months of sailings left before the handover.

Dubai’s plans sounded fairly drastic.  Hotel QE2 was to open in 2011, totally rebuilt with a glass funnel containing luxury penthouses, and drastically altered interiors.  Options considered by Dubai had even included extending the ship either horizontally or vertically to make the hotel larger.  She was to have her own pier built on the Palm Jumeirah.

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Most observers agreed, however, that Cunard didn’t really have a choice but to accept their offer.  Many who had delayed travelling on her either forever or for a long time (including myself), were now forced into a ‘now or never’ situation, and booked first or last trips on her.  She remained popular and profitable to the end. 

Things start to go wrong

As the final voyage was underway, behind the scenes many of those involved were worried that the sale could still fall through.  The problem was that Dubai’s original reason for buying the QE2 had evaporated, before she even arrived there.  In addition to the obvious ‘trophy factor’ of acquiring the QE2 , she was to be a quick solution to a shortage of hotel rooms that they had there.  However the economic downturn of 2008, meant this was no longer the case; the business case for QE2 in Dubai quite simply no longer existed. 

Arrival & Handover

After arriving on Wednesday the 26th November 2008, the party continued for one more night before the contract of sale was signed in the Boardroom the next day.  Sighs of relief were breathed all round by those who had been working on it.

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The photo above of the signing in the boardroom, which hasn’t been published before now, shows Cunard and Istithmar executives signing the contract.

Many amongst the passengers and crew were genuinely upset to be leaving QE2 behind, and chose not to look back at her as they walked away.  The final event on board the ship was a reception hosted by the British Embassy in the Queens Room on the evening of the 27th of November.

The waiting game begins

It had been anticipated that she would be put into dry dock within days; but instead she continued to sit where her passengers had left her, and observers were amazed to see her lights still ablaze and her mighty funnel still smoking.  Her V-Ships crew, who had already been aboard while she was still sailing with Cunard, were working hard to keep her running as if she was just in port for an overnight stay, indeed passengers on visiting cruise ships, thought that was the case.  QE2 forlornly blew her famous whistle as QM2 docked behind her on her world cruise.  The only visible difference to the ship, was the removal of the large CUNARD logo from the front of her superstructure.

Plans, plans and more plans

After nearly a year sitting idling in warm lay up, they had finally found a plan for QE2.  She was to move to Cape Town, South Africa, under her own power, and serve as a hotel there during the 2010 World Cup.  Her crew was increased to make her ready and to sail her, and she was moved into Dubai dry dock.  It was her first dry docking for four years.

QE2 Dubai. Photo from Rob Lightbody’s collection.

QE2 Dubai. Photo from Rob Lightbody’s collection.

All systems were tested, repaired, certified and re-activated, it was a huge project.  Due to her change of ownership, her flag had to be changed, but where would accept a forty year old passenger liner onto their registry?  There wasn’t much choice, but Vanuatu came to the rescue.  By late August, she was days away from starting sea trials, when growing opposition in South Africa led to the plan falling through.  She slipped back into warm lay up, without her crew getting the chance to even spin up her propellers.  Behind the scenes, her project team carried on trying to find a solution for her.  Plans they were approached with ranged from the downright crazy, to sensible but economically unrealistic.  Some were completely reasonable, but lacked the necessary up front cash.  The QE2 project team travelled the world working on the project, looking at locations, talking to investors, but nothing ever quite worked out. 

Part of the problem was the initial cost of retrieving her from Dubai, to place her in a more suitable location.  There was also the problem of the restrictions in place as part of the Cunard’s contract of sale, but the big problem was finding a location that would keep her busy enough to turn a profit.  It is not surprising to hear that a plan to scrap the ship was included in the options.  Nobody wanted that though.

The next few years continued with the status quo…

In 2010, they moved her to the inner harbour of Port Rashid to make more room for visiting cruise ships, and as a result of the prevailing wind now pushing her away rather than against the dock, she snapped all her lines a couple of months later during a sandstorm in January 2011, dramatically drifting across the harbour.  A tug hailed by the crew on the bridge rescued her just in time.

In April 2011, I visited to document the ship’s state and the next month the brand new QUEEN ELIZABETH visited, with aerial photos arranged by Cunard.  A dramatic contrast was clear between the old and the new Elizabeths, it was nice to see that Cunard hadn’t forgotten their former flagship.

QE2 at Port Rashida with QUEEN ELIZABETH April 2011. Photo © Cunard and used with permission.

QE2 at Port Rashida with QUEEN ELIZABETH April 2011. Photo © Cunard and used with permission. 

In September they announced that QE2 was to remain at Port Rashid as part of a revamped cruise terminal and her original intended berth at the Palm was re-purposed for housing instead.  Then at the end of 2011, they held the first of what they hoped would be a series of events on board the ship, but in reality may have turned out to be the last… A grand New Years Eve party was arranged and held on the aft decks, overlooking the Dubai skyline.  On board the still laid-up ship, guests were escorted along an approved route to get them out to the decks.

Summer 2012 then saw contradictory announcements being made by QE2’s owners Istithmar World as board shuffles altered priorities.  It was an omen of things to come.  She was costing many millions of dollars a year to run without generating any income at all, and it was clearly not sustainable.

A New Life ?  The last plans.

At the end of 2012, the original team (management and crew) were replaced when a new joint venture and their crew abruptly took control of the ship.  The original team were given little notice that their four years aboard was to end, and had little time to conduct a handover.  They were proud of what they’d achieved, and sad to leave QE2 without taking it to a conclusion.

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A few weeks later, the new managers were ready to announce what they were planning in a press release which explained their impressive sounding plans.   However specifics were vague, and many expressed serious doubts about it. After more than 4 years, actions were going to speak louder than words this time.

Although the ultimate ownership of QE2 remains with Dubai World, a new holding company had been created backed by Dubai Dry Docks World and Oceanic Group.  The new crew were provided by Oceanic.

The abrupt change in control was the reason that the previously secret QE2 London plan became known – they had been working with the Dubai team, and making steady progress, but they were now stopped in their tracks.  Despite what many doubters said, I still think it is a good plan. 

In April 2013, the new group announced that she’d be leaving by August or September, and then in July they gave October 18th as the departure date.  This date was repeated in August when the Chairman of Dubai’s Drydocks World, Khamis Juma Buamim, talked to Arabian Business and still sounded enthusiastic and expected QE2 to be heading to Singapore then Hong Kong by early November.  In October, the results of a design competition were announced.

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QE2 in Dubai on Feb 22, 2014. Photo © Hythe Shipshape on Flickr – used with permission.

 (Above photo reference:  https://www.flickr.com/photos/hythe-shipshape/12967676683/)

However looking past the announcements, the reality has always looked rather different.  After being dry docked in January 2013, the lights finally went out on QE2, and stayed out.  Her expensive time in warm lay up ended, and she’s been in cold lay-up on shore power ever since.  She’s been in the same position. afloat within the Dry Docks World facility, visibly dirty and very dark at night, but otherwise intact.  No work is known to have been carried out, beyond what is required to keep her safe.  During 2014 there has been no real news about the ship, and no announcements and it has never been clear where exactly the hotel would be, which seemed fairly fundamental to any plan.

Her position as shown on Google Maps satellite imagery, shows where she lies today.

Final thoughts 

As QE2 inevitably starts 2015 still in Dubai, I am left wondering.

What would have happened had Dubai not made that offer?  She’d have sailed for quite a few more years, but she would probably have had to face the music by now anyway.

Would she simply have followed Canberra for scrapping, as many wished?  But bear in mind that she was never actually publically put up for sale.  What if she had been?  Would people have been able to come up with realistic plans for her?

If I hadn’t visited the SS Rotterdam Cruise Hotel, I would probably be amongst those who wished her to go the way of the Canberra, but they have shown what is possible in a modern, sympathetic hotel conversion of a beautiful ship.

And Dubai itself – although in general they’ve looked after her very well, has being taken there and being hidden away there actually sealed her fate?  They’ve always been secretive.  Part of the reason for the lack of press coverage, is the press find it impossible to get access to the ship, or to get answers from them.  QE2 will still command attention from the international press when something happens to her to get their attention.. 

She is, however, still intact, which as she set sail on her final voyage we didn’t imagine she’d be by now.  As the new cruise ships tower ever higher over the water, even a grubby laid up QE2 looks more beautiful than ever.  I still think she deserves saving, and I hope that a suitable future for her can still be found.

QE2_Ad_3Written and copyrighted Rob Lightbody 2014

Martin Cox

Martin Cox

MARTIN COX - Founder and publisher of MaritimeMatters, inspired by maritime culture and technology growing up in the port of Southampton. He works as a photographer in Los Angeles, and his works has been exhibited in LA, San Francisco, New York, London and Iceland.Martin is the co-writer of the book “Hollywood to Honolulu; the story of the Los Angeles Steamship Company” published by the Steam Ship Historical Society of America. The Los Angeles Maritime Museum has commissioned artworks and collected his photographs.
Martin Cox
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