Abu Dhabi: Tuesday, August 7, marks the 19th day of Ramadan 1433, the eighth anniversary in the Hijri calendar of the death of the founding father of the UAE, Shaikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan, who passed away on November 2, 2004.
Shaikh Zayed’s achievements in terms of governance, first as Ruler’s Representative in Abu Dhabi’s Eastern Region, from 1946-1966, then as Abu Dhabi’s Ruler and then, concurrently, as founder and first President of the UAE, from 1971 until his death, meant that, during his lifetime, he was singled out as a great nation-builder.
He remains today a role model not only for the whole of the population of the UAE, citizens and expatriates alike, but also for the whole of the Arab world, remembered for his tolerance, determination and commitment to the building of a better life for his people, as well as his emphasis on the need for loyalty to the nation. As he himself had worked to build the nation, so, he believed, it was the duty of succeeding generations to commit themselves to protect the progress that had been achieved.
In a message delivered to Emirati youth nearly 20 years ago, but which remains clearly relevant today, Shaikh Zayed said: “What we have achieved, my dear young people of the Emirates, will not survive, unless you yourselves engage in further work and efforts, and sacrifices. You should work hard to protect our national achievements, to foster and support the continued march of our federation, and to make more achievements that contribute to the dignity and prestige of our country and to the welfare of our people. This cannot be achieved without positive and effective participation from all of you.”
Born in 1918, the fourth son of Shaikh Sultan Bin Zayed, who was Ruler of Abu Dhabi from 1922-1926, and named after his grandfather, Shaikh Zayed Bin Khalifa, ‘Zayed the Great’, who ruled from 1855-1909, Shaikh Zayed spent most of his childhood in Al Ain, learning to know both the country and its people intimately, knowledge that served him well for the rest of his life.
Shaikh Zayed understood from his own experience the nature of poverty and the impact that it had upon the country. It was as a result of this that he determined, at an early age, that, if the opportunity arose, he would ensure that such wealth as was available should be used to improve the lot of the people.
During the two decades he spent as Ruler’s Representative, based in Al Ain, Shaikh Zayed learned the process of governance and, at the same time, developed his vision of how, resources permitting, the country should develop.
With the commencement of oil production in 1962, Abu Dhabi’s economy was revolutionised, poverty being replaced by plenty. That process, however, posed new challenges of its own.
Whereas in the past, it had been necessary to spend cautiously what little money was available, now there was a different task: that of spending the new wealth wisely, to ensure that its benefits were shared by all. On August 6, 1966, Shaikh Zayed was selected by his family to preside over that task.
A rapid programme of development got under way, the building of basic infrastructure, schools — both for boys and for girls, hospitals, a port, an airport, modern housing for the people and much more. Underlying it all was Shaikh Zayed’s profound conviction that “wealth is of no value, unless it is used in the service of the people”.
While thankful for the blessings of oil and gas reserves bestowed on Abu Dhabi, Shaikh Zayed was well aware that other emirates were less well-endowed. As soon as he became Ruler, he increased Abu Dhabi’s contributions to the Trucial States Development Fund, soon assuming the role of its largest donor, and also funded many other development projects in the other emirates.
In 1968, the British announced that they would be leaving the Gulf at the end of 1971, and that the seven emirates needed to decide how they wished to face a challenging future. Shaikh Zayed, along with his fellow-Ruler in Dubai, Shaikh Rashid Bin Saeed Al Maktoum, took the lead in proposing the creation of a federation and in due course, on December 2, 1971, the state of the UAE was formally established, with Shaikh Zayed as its first President.
Over the subsequent 33 years until his death, Shaikh Zayed, re-elected as President at five-yearly intervals by his fellow Rulers, created and guided the new state. With a judicious use of the wealth from oil and gas, he supervised the process of creating a modern infrastructure, and, in keeping with another of his well-known beliefs, that “the real wealth of the nation is its people”, he devoted not just funds, but also his own time and determination to ensuring that education of the country’s citizens, men and women alike, was accorded the highest priority.
He also sought to ensure that the newly-educated were given the fullest possible opportunities in terms of employment. Recognising that the UAE was limited in terms of its own national human resources, he demanded that its women should be given the same opportunities as men to serve the country.
Today, thanks to his efforts and those of his wife, Her Highness Shaikha Fatima Bint Mubarak, Chairwoman of the General Women’s Union and the Family Development Foundation, UAE women can be found at all levels in government, commerce and industry, sharing in the task of building the nation.
At the same time, however, Shaikh Zayed recognised that, in an increasingly inter-linked world, expatriates, from all over the globe, had an important role in building the Emirates.
To ensure that they would feel welcome in doing so, Shaikh Zayed laid down the principles of tolerance, both in terms of religion and in terms of culture, and of promoting harmony that, today, as in his lifetime, represent an essential part of the country that he built.
He sought, too, to engender an understanding of the importance of cherishing and learning about the country’s heritage, stressing that “He who does not know his past cannot make the best of his present and future, for it is from the past that we learn”.
The investment made by Shaikh Zayed in the country’s people in terms of education and infrastructure was a reflection of his commitment to build the nation, to give to current and future generations a life far removed from the deprivations of the past.
The results of that commitment are visible for all to see –— a key part of Shaikh Zayed’s legacy.
In return, he believed that the country’s citizens should use the opportunities given to them to make their own contribution to development.
“Work for our nation does not cease; it is a never-ending responsibility. We view the concept of citizenship as meaning loyalty to our country and a commitment to work for its benefit. Citizenship requires from each and every one of us that we should view the making of a contribution to our country as the yardstick by which we are judged, because the homeland is a single entity, and the building of it necessitates that all of us should work together, hand in hand, and that all of us should be ready to serve and protect it.”
It was within that context, Shaikh Zayed explained, that “the intimate unity of purpose between the leadership and the people” had emerged. An important aspect of that, of course, is the open dialogue between Rulers and the ruled, displayed in the majlis and elsewhere, which permits consensus to emerge.
Externally, his belief in dialogue rather than confrontation won Shaikh Zayed plaudits as a statesman, not just in the region, in bodies such as the Gulf Co-operation Council, whose founding summit was held in Abu Dhabi in 1981, but more broadly throughout the Arab world and beyond.
His belief in peaceful co-existence and a pursuit of consensus, rather than in the creation of conflict, was based on his own experiences in the Emirates. So too was the extraordinary generosity that saw the UAE win recognition internationally as a donor of humanitarian assistance for those affected by natural disasters and conflicts and as a major source of development aid.
Any attempt to assess the achievements of Shaikh Zayed, as Ruler and President, is incomplete without acknowledgement of his firmly-held belief in Islam. For him, his faith was fundamental to his views and actions. From it, he drew his belief in the duty of a Ruler to serve his people.
This, he said in 1998, “is the duty entrusted to us by God Almighty, who commands us to treat all living creatures with dignity and respect.” From it, too, he derived his abhorrence of those who seek to distort the essentially tolerant message of Islam, whether to engage in terrorist acts or to impose their beliefs upon others.
At the same time, he was a firm believer in the need for dialogue between different faiths and cultures, rejecting the intolerant views of those who would seek to promote divisions.
On the anniversary of his death, it is right to remember his wisdom and vision, his generosity and his compassion. It is right too to recall his insistence on the need for loyalty to the state, created to bring a better life for all.
These remain fundamental guiding principles of the UAE of today, the legacy of its founding father. They will continue to light the path on which the people of the UAE, from the highest to the lowest in the land, tread confidently towards the future.