The UAE is widely recognised today as a successful modern state that, starting from scratch just four decades ago, has managed to establish the foundations of a prosperous and advanced society.

Its spectacular achievements have allowed the country to assume a position of preeminence regionally and internationally; to play effective and responsible political and economic roles and to contribute to the stability and security of the region.

Regarded as a major financial and economic power centre, the UAE holds a strategic position as a link between continents and the world's economic regions.

This remarkable feat, however, was achieved in a highly unstable regional environment. And how a visionary leader once described as “dreaming and [unable to] tell the difference between fantasy and reality'' and the country whose formation (in 1971) appeared to the world as “the launching of a wealthy but militarily defenceless and politically underdeveloped mini-state into a sea of troubles whose survival could be seen as an exercise in long odds'' emerged successful is an amazing story.

Having worked for more than 30 years as an interpreter for the late Shaikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan, Zaki Nusseibeh is a man who has witnessed that history. He shares his memories with Weekend Review.

How can we reconcile the image of the UAE today with that in 1971?

It is too difficult. As the six rulers of the Trucial States met in the absence of the ruler of Ras Al Khaimah at the Jumeirah Palace in Dubai on December 2, 1971, and proclaimed the establishment of the United Arab Emirates — an event coterminous with the termination of the protectorate agreements with Britain and with Iran occupying the UAE's islands one day earlier — the impression among most observers was that this new political entity lacked the basic requirements of statehood, possessed scarce human and economic resources and was unequipped to survive as an independent state through the severe challenges that lay ahead.

What were the initial reactions to the birth of the UAE in the Arab world and internationally?

The December 2, 1971, proclamation came at the end of over four years of negotiations. With the exception of certain reservations expressed by “revolutionary'' regimes such as the Popular Democratic Republic of Yemen, the first Arab and international reactions on that day were favourable.

The Egyptian newspaper Al Akhbar, for example, described scenes of rejoicing in the Gulf and the Arab world that greeted the news of the UAE's accession to the Arab League.

Western concerns at this stage were largely focused on seeing a viable political structure emerge in the Gulf that could help fill the power vacuum left by the sudden withdrawal of the British from a region that had some of the largest oil and gas reserves in the world.

The public viewed the emerging federation as a step towards wider Arab unity and as a barrier to foreign interference.

What was the message Shaikh Zayed tried to convey about his future plans for the federation?

With the British announcement in 1968 of their plans to withdraw from the Gulf by 1971, Shaikh Zayed became the union's most forceful voice in Arab and international media.

His message, widely reported in the Arab and international press, was confident and optimistic, notwithstanding his country's lack of the most rudimentary prerequisites of a modern state.

Following an interview with a British documentary team in 1968, in which he spelt out his vision for building a strong union on the coast, the producer came out saying: “This Shaikh is dreaming and cannot tell the difference between fantasy and reality.

"How will he bring modernity so rapidly to this island where the most elementary facilities are lacking?'' This incredulity was not limited to the media.

Shaikh Zayed told a private majlis in Cleveland how, immediately after the British announcement, he went to meet the ruler of Dubai to inform him of the necessity for them to get together to build a federation that could fill the vacuum left by Britain's withdrawal.

Shaikh Rashid apparently responded: “How could we build such a state, capable of maintaining security and stability in the region? Where do we get our police force from? How do we recruit men for a modern army? Where are the citizens who are capable of setting up the structures of a modern federal state?''

Shaikh Zayed answered: “We have the resources; we share a common destiny; and will find the men to build our state. Nothing is impossible once we show our determination to succeed and have faith in our future.''

Did Shaikh Zayed ever lose faith in the possibility of forming the UAE during the negotiations?

In spite of the numerous difficulties Shaikh Zayed faced over the four years of negotiations, he never lost faith and did everything he could to further his political vision.

He set out to settle the boundary disputes with Dubai and other neighbours — Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Oman and Iran — saying all frontiers between sister states were artificially imposed by foreigners and that he was convinced that all disputes could be settled amicably in a spirit “friendship, neighbourly relations and religious affinity''.

He also advocated that the wealth from oil should be used to benefit the entire population and that it could be used to assist kinsmen across the Arab world who would help defend the proposed Union and provide it with its needs in expertise and manpower.

Shaikh Zayed maintained this optimism in all his public statements after the failure of the proposed union of nine emirates, asserting that the door remained wide open for Qatar and Bahrain to join the federation which he envisioned as the rallying base for a wider union of the whole Gulf.

He was confident that the proposed union would successfully create its own deterrent defence forces to maintain stability and security in the region. In fact, he began to call for a speedy implementation of the British withdrawal, which he saw as a national imperative since, in his words, citizens of the Gulf had acquired the capability to shoulder full responsibility in running the affairs of their region.

Shaikh Zayed's strong assurances and unlimited faith in the success of the proposed federation notwithstanding, the general impression among most observers of the time was overly pessimistic. Why?

This was due to a number of factors, including the timing and rapidity of the British withdrawal from the Arab Gulf region; the fragile internal situation of the Sahel emirates; the highly unstable environment then prevailing in the Middle East and the Gulf region; the existence of adversarial relations between some of the emirates and the larger, more weighty regional states such as Saudi Arabia, Iran and Oman; and international competition to control the world's energy resources.

Why was the new political entity perceived as weak in the public and official reports of that period?

One of the main reasons for the perceived weakness of the new political entity was Britain's speedy withdrawal from the region, which did not give the rulers adequate time to devise alternative security and political systems.

Britain's exclusive treaty relationships with the emirates for the preceding 150 years viewed them as “protectorates'' and not “colonies'' and failed to provide them the prerequisites of modern statehood or the capabilities for self-defence.

When the British Labour government announced its sudden policy to withdraw from the Gulf before the end of 1971, its decision came as a shock to the rulers.

It was an equal shock to Britain's allies. The United States secretary of state, Dean Rusk, anxious that the strategic sea lanes facilitating transport of oil from the region could be threatened, unsuccessfully requested his British counterpart to delay the plans for withdrawal.

A Kuwaiti daily wrote: “The Labour government's decision to withdraw from the Gulf in such an abrupt fashion is tantamount to delivering the region to Leftist movements. The Soviet Union would fill the vacuum which would result from this withdrawal.''

What was the British diplomats' assessment of the potential of the Gulf rulers to establish a viable union?

As shown by Foreign Office documents published recently, British diplomats of the period were highly sceptical about the [Gulf rulers'] chances for success.

What is striking in those documents is the fact that diplomats reported their scepticism well before British withdrawal became official.

Shaikh Zayed, for instance, was reported to have advocated in a meeting with William Luce in 1964 the creation of a federation of seven Sahel emirates which he said Abu Dhabi would finance.

But British reaction was discouraging. Some diplomats began viewing the rise of Zayed as an obstacle in the way of a possible union between the Sahel emirates.

Balfour Paul, the British political officer in Dubai, wrote [in a memorandum] that Zayed's wealth and his inclination to run his state his way, may render coordination between the seven emirates more difficult than what had been the situation during the rule of Shaikh Shakhbout.

A British Cabinet Official Committee on Defence and Overseas Policy concluded in a study presented on June 7, 1967, that all attempts at encouraging the emirates to achieve progress, in the establishment of a united political entity since 1965, had been “slow and difficult'', and that the best that could be hoped for would be to encourage the creation of four unions among nine emirates — a union of northern emirates under the leadership of Dubai, or some of the northern emirates with Dubai and the others with Abu Dhabi.

How did the emir of Kuwait react?

The emir expressed his shock and concern that Iran might exploit the new situation. He said three years was not sufficient to allow the rulers to establish a viable structure.

Only Shaikh Zayed asserted in a meeting with British political agent Archie Lamb that he would do his best to establish a union capable of assuming full responsibility for its own affairs. British doubts about the viability of his proposal, however, remained paramount.

The formal agreement between the rulers to establish a federation was, therefore, never regarded as a serious prospect by the majority of observers.

The emirates themselves had a weak record of cooperation. Rivalries and disputes between the constituent states were historic and were frequently published in the Arab and international press.

Borders between them were never officially acknowledged because, historically, the idea of political borders dividing sovereign states did not exist in tribal territory.

Abu Dhabi and Dubai settled their border dispute in 1968 when Shaikh Zayed agreed to Dubai's territorial claims but other disputes were vigorously pursued by the constituent states — and within some ruling families — even after their union.

How did the disputes between neighbours fan rivalries within the union?

These rivalries were often fanned by the existence of unsettled — often openly hostile — relations between some of the emirates and Saudi Arabia and Iran. Although the military report of Major General John Willoughby had predicted that future threats for the new state would most likely stem from internal sabotage attempts sponsored by subversive and revolutionary countries, and movements of the region, the real danger which caused concern to the rulers — and was seen as a major obstacle in the way of their agreement — was caused by those neighbours themselves.

The Arab world shared this perspective in regard to Iran, at least. But the West viewed the Saudi-Iranian axis as the only guarantee for future stability and security in the Gulf after British withdrawal. [The West] exhorted the emirates to reconcile.

What position did the US adopt?

The US adopted a position [similar to the West's]. The rationale behind the policy was explained by former US national security adviser [Zbigniew] Brzezinski, during a private visit to the UAE in 1983.

He told a senior UAE official: “Our post-British-withdrawal policy in the region was based on support for an axis formed by Iran and Saudi Arabia as a guarantee for the free flow of oil to the industrial states and to prevent the spreading of revolutionary or communist influence in the region. “We viewed the UAE as a deficient ally, lacking in experience and militarily weak.

“As a hugely wealthy country that possessed no real self-defence capabilities, it was bound to attract the coveting ambitions of its neighbours and to run into serious problems.'' Most of the press coverage of that period reflected this view.

What position did the Shah of Iran take?

The Shah considered himself the “policeman of the Gulf'' and believed that Iran should supplant the major powers in the region because his country ranked immediately after the major four world powers in economic and military might.

He felt the UAE was vulnerable as a state, exposed to threats of communist infiltration or takeover bids by Leftist organisations working in tandem with their Palestinian allies.

He even offered military help to Shaikh Zayed by putting at his disposal his armoured units in Shiraz — this despite having occupied UAE islands prior to the birth of the union. But Shaikh Zayed declined this offer with his usual diplomatic skill.

The Shah at first opposed Bahrain's membership in the proposed union but having dropped his claims to Bahrain, he revived his demands for the UAE islands and occupied them militarily one day before the British withdrawal, creating a dispute that still clouds Iran's relationships with the Arab world and with its Gulf neighbours.

What is the story of Saudi Arabia's frontier disputes with Abu Dhabi?

Saudi Arabia's frontier disputes with Abu Dhabi and Oman go back to the beginning of the 19th century and Wahabi expansionism in the Arabian peninsula.

After Shaikh Zayed's unsuccessful visit to Saudi Arabia in May 1970, the country revived its territorial claims with vigour, this time encompassing more than one third of Abu Dhabi's territory.

Saudi Arabia's inflexibility in its demand — that its claims over Abu Dhabi territory be met before its recognition of the proposed federation — besides its sensibilities about a possible rise in Shaikh Zayed's stature in the new state became one of the most serious concerns confronting the rulers in their deliberations and posed a major impediment in the progress towards unity.

The whole Middle East and the Gulf region was experiencing an era of turbulence.

The constituent states of the newly formed federation were in open dispute in 1971 as they tried to cope with their internal rivalries while managing problematic relations with their neighbours.

A senior British commentator summed up the situation in 1971 by writing that the Arab world was torn by major upheavals that threatened its stability and security.

Those included a coup d'état in Sudan, an attempted coup d'état in Maghreb, civil wars in Jordan and Lebanon and intense hostilities among Arab leaders.

He added that the creation of a feeble union among six Gulf emirates that entertained unfriendly relations with Iran and Saudi Arabia in those troubled times was a gamble whose success could not be predicted with any certainty.

The union was surrounded by the Popular Democratic Republic of Yemen to the west, which pursued a Marxist policy in close alliance with China and Russia, a Leftist Baathist regime in Iraq to the east, an insurrection in Dhofar conforming to the South Yemen model, a Shah who desired to be the “policeman of the Gulf'' and a paralysed Arab League incapable of extending any assistance.

Negotiations between the rulers over the three years that followed the British announcement of 1968 were marked by major disagreements that were aired in public and seemed to give credence to those who did not believe in the viability of their federation.

Last-minute but effective talks persisted well into 1971 — which was the last and decisive year before time ran out.

It was then that both Shaikh Zayed and Shaikh Rashid returned to the spirit of their first bilateral February 1968 accord and paved the way for a federation of seven Sahel emirates.

There is no doubt that Shaikh Rashid's adoption of this project by joining forces with Shaikh Zayed was the ultimate factor that ensured its success.

The intelligence behind aiding intelligibility

Translators … are they faithful or traitors?

The remark that translators are traitors is based on an Italian saying. The French have a more chauvinist remark which claims: “Translations are like young ladies, when they are faithful they are not beautiful, and if they are beautiful, then they are not faithful!''

Shaikh Zayed had a clear and unequivocal notion on this issue — as he did on all questions he had had to deal with.

He knew what a translator should do. The translator must be absolutely faithful in his translations.

This is an imperative precondition — a destiny of a whole nation could depend on it. But this quality is a necessary but not sufficient to be a successful interpreter.

He once explained those qualities to his chief of protocol who came to offer him the services of a new university graduate as a translator.

He told him knowledge of language is not enough when it comes to translating, especially for a head of state.

The interpreter himself must be an accomplished diplomat. He must have the qualities of a statesman.

He should show a deep grasp of all the issues raised in a discussion. He must of course be of absolute discretion, as secretive, he said, as a tomb.

He must at all times keep the demeanour of a diplomat. But he should never invert himself into the conversation.

The ideal interpreter, he said, is in fact one that makes two heads of state talking to each other in different languages feel that their communication is direct and flows as if it were a single language.

Having shown a mastery of all of this, he said, and only then, an interpreter should go beyond the exact and faithful translation of the linguistic phrase to convey the exact meaning as intended.

That means he should not only translate the words spoken but also the mood of the spoken word, its nuance, its shaded meaning, its exact weight in every different context.

His translation should have the same impact on the receiver as intended by the original phrase.

It is only in this context that an interpreter can allow himself the flexibility of language to give the equal measure of every meaning intended.

Only then can he be regarded as a totally faithful, worthy and trusted translator.

I fully share Shaikh Zayed's ideas. I received my convictions — and work experience — directly from him.

Do you consider your translation a beautiful or a faithful lady?

As Shaikh Zayed said, a true translator must strive to be both at the same time, not only a wordsmith but also a polished mirror of the inner meaning of every message in its context. I spend my time and effort trying to accomplish this difficult task.

Scribe of many shades

Zaki Nusseibeh was born and educated in Jerusalem and graduated from the University of Cambridge with a masters degree in economics.

He began his career in Abu Dhabi as a journalist in 1967, writing for several Arabic and international news agencies and papers.

He began translating for Shaikh Zayed in 1968, becoming his personal interpreter, while working at the same time in the Abu Dhabi (later Federal) Department of Information.

He moved exclusively to Shaikh Zayed's court in 1975, becoming at the same time director of his press office.

At present he works as adviser in the Ministry of Presidential Affairs and as interpreter to President His Highness Shaikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan.

He holds a number of other positions, such as deputy chairman of the Abu Dhabi Culture and Heritage Authority, member of the Permanent Higher Executive Committee of the Shaikh Zayed Book Award.

Nusseibeh edited The Abu Dhabi Times the first English newspaper to be published by the Abu Dhabi government and participated in establishing Al Ittihad the government's first Arabic newspaper.

He also worked as a broadcaster and programme producer and helped develop Abu Dhabi's broadcasting and media services.