Abu Dhabi: Nabeel Zakhour knew that the city he was headed to had no running water, no paved roads and no airport. But something about it held out a promise to him, and so the 22-year-old Lebanese hopped on a plane in 1967 and headed to the airport closest to the desert city of Abu Dhabi.
Four decades and four years later, Zakhour's love for the UAE, has not waned. Now a 66-year-old business development executive living in the capital, he says he is proud to have witnessed the country's phenomenal growth. "This is home for my family. We have spent the greater part of our lives here, and are tourists everywhere else," he told Gulf News.
Zakhour narrates how he came to the UAE with employment in a contracting company that was building some of the first roads in the capital.
"As part of this firm, I literally saw the first kerbstones being put in place for Hamdan Street, Electra Street and Airport Road, as well as the first communities take up residence around these popular thoroughfares," he said.
According to the expatriate, the first signs of development had already been drafted out on paper when he landed here.
"When I first arrived here, most of the dwellings were one-storey structures. In fact, I had promised my then-fiancee that I would bring her to live with me within a year's time, but it took me three years before I could find suitable accommodation," Zakhour reminisced.
"But a landing strip was built in Abu Dhabi in 1968, and the first airport terminal was opened in 1970. With the Mina Zayed port becoming operational soon after, activity started increasing slowly but surely. And after the implementation of the 1968-1972 plan, the first five-year plan in Abu Dhabi, we could see infrastructure developing in front of our very eyes," he added.
As Zakhour settled down into his home and his work, he also had many a cherished chance to meet with the founder of the UAE, the late Shaikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan. And when asked about the late leader and UAE founder, Zakhour's face lights up.
"I was always in awe of His Highness' immense humility and tolerance. Not only could he understand the troubles and needs of his people, but he also had the foresight to see what they would need for years to come," he said.
According to Zakhour, he was often a guest at Shaikh Zayed's Majlis along with his co-workers and superiors.
"We heard so many stories of how the late President took care of his people. He was an inspiration to young people like us who were trying to make a life for themselves at the time," he said. "I remember how the great leader once picked up a watchman in his car. The watchman had just finished his night duties, and had had a bad day. So Shaikh Zayed listened to all his worries while driving him, and never once mentioned who he was or made the man feel any different than himself. This was the spirit of humility and care with which he built the UAE," Zakhour recounted.
With the passing of the years, the executive has raised three children in the UAE.
"All my children are now well-settled adults in their early thirties, and I do believe that their upbringing in a country with such strong familial values had a major role in this," he said.
The advent of the 40th UAE National Day not only makes him nostalgic, but also fills him with immense pride to have been part of the country's economic development.
"Many people may not realise now how much the UAE has grown in such a short span of time. As an example, we see thousands of commuters now travelling daily for work between the different emirates. But we need to remember that just about 40 years ago, there were no refuelling stations on the road, not many cars and in fact no roads. It was all just sand, and look where the country is today," Zakhour said.