Every day I drive to and from work on a freeway called Sheikh Zayed Road. It’s a 16 lane behemoth, flanked on either side (in the downtown area) by the soaring skyscrapers that define the city’s skyline. It’s a very impressive thoroughfare and so it should be, for it is named after a very impressive man. That man is the topic of this month’s ejo.
Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan is widely regarded as the father of the United Arab Emirates. Before 1971, the country as we know it didn’t even exist. The seven emirates that make up the country (Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Sharjah, Ajman, Fujairah, Umm Al Quwain and Ras Al Khaimah) were then collectively known as The Trucial States. They were called that because in 1820 they all signed a treaty with Britain, called the Perpetual Maritime Truce. In layman’s terms, the treaty gave Britain exclusive rights in the region in exchange for protection against external threats, particularly from Europe. England allowed the emirates to rule themselves but oversaw governance – which involved, amongst other things, arbitrating the frequent disputes between the sheikhs.
Almost 150 years later, in 1968, England announced that they planned to withdraw from the region and Sheikh Zayed (ruler of Abu Dhabi at the time), sensing an opportunity to form a coalition with the other emirates, proposed to them that they unite to become an independent country. Of course, now it seems obvious that they would do so. But at the time, this idea was revolutionary. The states may have agreed to form a trucial union way back in 1820 as a British protectorate, but the ruling Sheikhs of 1968 were prone to disputes, and in particular Abu Dhabi and Dubai had clashed a number of times. They weren’t exactly on friendly terms. In addition to this obstacle, some of the other states (namely Bahrain and Qatar) had plans for their own independence and wanted no part of Sheikh Zayed’s preposterous idea.
However, such was the Sheikh’s conviction that unity would provide strength, that he diplomatically persisted for three years until he convinced the others to sign on. On 2nd December 1971 six of the emirates signed an agreement to form the country the United Arab Emirates. A few months later, Ras Al Khaimah joined them and the country as we know it was born. Last year marked the 40th birthday of the UAE (an excellent vintage, if I do say so myself)! Now, if you think the USA puts on a good show for their Independence Day (4th July) celebrations, you ain’t seen nothing! The citizens of the UAE are not just proud of their country, they absolutely adore it. The National Day celebrations each year are bigger than anything else on the social calendar, including New Year’s Eve. Emiratis, and expats alike, adorn their cars with the national colours of red, white, black and green. Ribbons, stickers, flags, paint (yes, people paint their cars) and streamers. They fill the streets, covering everything with glitter and silly string. They sing, they dance, they do cartwheels. They beep their car horns and shriek with glee. There are parades and concerts and fireworks. It’s quite something to behold and you really can’t help getting caught up, not just in the excitement but also the great sense of national pride. And of course the undisputed hero of National Day is the man that made it all happen, Sheikh Zayed.
Zayed was born in 1918 into Abu Dhabi’s ruling family. When he was ten years old his father died, leaving Zayed’s older brother Shakhbut ruler of the emirate. Back then the entire region was poor and underdeveloped – oil hadn’t been discovered yet and the economy relied heavily on pearling and fishing, which provided scant income.
Zayed spent most of his youth in Al Ain (a desert oasis outpost), hanging out with his Bedouin tribesmen. They taught him their way of life, skills and traditions – a love of which stayed with him for the rest of his life. In fact even after he became very powerful he preferred to spend time with the Bedouin rather than with people of his own status. It was in the desert that he felt most comfortable, and it was there that he was taught, and became passionate, about hunting and falconry (though when he was 25 he famously gave up rifle hunting to set an example for wildlife conservation – another of his passions).
When Zayed was 28 his brother appointed him ruler of Al Ain and his political life was born. He started travelling extensively, particularly throughout the Middle East, Europe and the USA and it was on these travels that he noticed the high standard of education and health care available in the more developed countries. He saw how large the divide was between the Trucial States and the rest of the world, and he believed that it was imperative to bridge that gap. Unfortunately, as long as his brother Shakhbut was in charge, Zayed’s hands were tied and he was unable to effect any change.
When oil was discovered in 1958 things started to look up economically. Sheikh Shakhbut, however, was a frugal and cautious leader accustomed to a more austere lifestyle in keeping with Abu Dhabi’s historically hard times. Members of the ruling family became unhappy with how slowly he was progressing with oil exploration and development and in 1966, with Britain’s backing, they decided to oust him and appoint Sheikh Zayed as new ruler of Abu Dhabi. Zayed took to the role as though born to it. Using his own funds, he immediately set about making many changes and improving the emirate – developing housing, schools, hospitals. Later on when the oil money started pouring in he spent it on ports, roads, an airport and other infrastructure. He also began a lifelong project of conservation, responsible for the planting of millions of trees throughout Abu Dhabi (becoming known in the process as “The Man Who Turned The Desert Green”).
After taking power, he also realised that for Abu Dhabi to truly prosper it would need to co-operate and join forces with its neighbours. And when Britain declared its withdrawal from the area his vision for the UAE was ignited. At a time when the Sheikhs of the other emirates were looking at how they could gain advantage over each other, Zayed was looking at a bigger picture. He saw that if they got together they could achieve much more than if they remained separate entities and just a few short years later, his vision became a reality and the country experienced unbelievable growth (bolstered of course by the discovery that Abu Dhabi sat atop nearly 11% of the world’s natural oil reserves).
When the UAE came into existence in 1971, Sheikh Zayed was naturally elected President. He continued to be re-elected, and serve as ruler of the country, until his death in 2004.
When he died at the age of 86, the entire nation went into deep mourning. They were shattered. They had lost not just their leader but their father. And Zayed loved his people in the same way. He was once asked in an interview why he donated land and housing to his people, why he gave them free utilities, education, health care and many other advantages. To paraphrase, his response was, “Don’t you feed your children? Don’t you put a roof over their heads, put them in school and take care of them when they’re sick? That’s all I’m doing too – I’m taking care of my children.” His vision of the UAE as a powerful force in the world wasn’t restricted to economics, or finance, or oil. He wanted his people to be educated and healthy so that they could in turn contribute to their country, and to the world. Idealistic? Perhaps. But it was these ideals that made him one of the most adored rulers in history.
Why was he so loved? The basic answer is that he took care of his people. But it goes much deeper than that. He actually loved them, and no matter how powerful he became he never presented himself as being better than anyone else. He remained accessible. He prayed in the mosques with the common men, he sat and drank tea with the Bedouin, and if someone approached him in the street with a gripe he would listen. And yes, he would walk the streets. The idea of locking himself up in a palace didn’t appeal to him. Even after he’d amassed a personal fortune of over USD20 billion it wasn’t in his nature to act the privileged Sheikh. To the end he remained within reach and open to his people.
Perhaps what made Sheikh Zayed different was that he understood he was lucky, and he generously shared his wealth, not just with the citizens of the UAE, but with other countries in need. He donated fantastic sums of money to charities and causes around the world. He was also famously moderate in his views, believing in and encouraging women’s rights in the workforce. And even though he was devoutly Muslim, he was open-minded enough to allow the building of temples and churches in the UAE. This was something that more conservative Muslim countries such as Iran and Saudi Arabia thought was outrageous. But Sheikh Zayed firmly believed that tolerance, not tyranny was the right way to govern. His intelligence and perspicacity made him a visionary leader. His warmth and wisdom and approachability made him a loved one. Sheikh Zayed was considered the country’s national treasure, and today the UAE is a living memorial to his greatness.
I have developed a deep respect and love for the father of my adopted home. Every day when I drive past his enormous memorial poster on Sheikh Zayed Road, I look up and think about what kind of man he was, I think about everything that he achieved, and how to this day I have not heard one bad word said about him. There seems to be something almost magical about Sheikh Zayed. And every day, his warm eyes and wise countenance look down upon me and it feels as though, even though he’s now long gone, somehow he’s still watching and looking over all his children.