ABU DHABI — Sarika Yaqoob and her family left Dubai at midnight to arrive in Abu Dhabi at 3:00 a.m. on Tuesday, the day Pope Francis would deliver a historic mass during what was the first-ever visit by a pontiff to the Arabian Peninsula.
"We've been here since 3 a.m., we were walking all the way," Yaqoob told CNBC at the edge of Zayed Sports City Stadium, where more than 140,000 attendees had gathered for the mass both inside and outside the venue.
Because of blocked roads, her family parked their car some six miles from the stadium and walked. But they aren't tired, she said, her voice brimming with anticipation. "We are not tired, we are very excited, really energetic … our legs are aching, but it's something you get to witness once in a lifetime. This is something that is very exciting."
Yaqoob, whose family hails from Pakistan, is one of the estimated 1 million Catholics living in the United Arab Emirates. The invitation by the UAE government of Pope Francis has drawn attention to the comparative religious freedom enjoyed by its residents, who span more than 200 nationalities, in a region that's better known for strict Islamic conservatism.
"I never thought I would see this, because it's a Muslim country," one attendee, a Filipina resident of Dubai for the past nine years, told CNBC from the stadium stands. "It is so nice ... I cannot explain it."