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For a nation to progress steadily and stand on its own feet in such a short time, is a remarkable achievement to say the least. Such is the amazing experience of the young federation of the UAE, that reaches 46 years of age on December 2. In fact, the UAE’s journey is of a rare historic nature and dimension.

Perhaps only the Republic of Singapore shares a similarity with the UAE in terms of nation-building experience. Singapore’s first prime minister, late Lee Kuan Yew, who passed away in March 2015, was known for his great affection for the leadership of late Shaikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan. His admiration for the growth and development and the success of both Dubai and Abu Dhabi was limitless. He had reportedly told His Highness Shaikh Mohammad Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Rule of Dubai, when they met over a decade ago, how deeply impressed he was by the massive growth of Dubai and Abu Dhabi. Lee highlighted the fact that UAE’s development “has eclipsed that of Singapore”.

Lee, who was Singapore’s prime minister from 1959 to 1990, was very keen on building a solid relationship between the two countries. Cooperation between Singapore and the UAE has flourished over the years, particularly in the fields of education, banking, medicine, technology and tourism. A senior Singaporean diplomat, who was stationed in Abu Dhabi, had once told this writer that the comparison between late Shaikh Zayed and Lee was fitting and appropriate. Each is rightly considered by the people of their respective countries “as the Father of the Nation”.

This is certainly the legacy of late Shaikh Zayed as much as it is of Lee. They have both devoted their lives to serve one purpose: To lay the foundation for future generations to build on. Like late Shaikh Zayed in UAE, Lee too held office for more than 30 years during which time, Singapore grew from being a developing country to one of the most developed nations in the world.

Both the leaders considered education as the key to progress and development. In fact, they both dealt with education as the number one investment area. Both Lee and late Shaikh Zayed belonged to the same school of thought.

Late Shaikh Zayed, like Lee, is well-remembered by frequently repeating that oil will one day deplete, but education will remain the pillar of the society. Shaikh Zayed is highly regarded as the builder of modern higher education facilities in the UAE. In 1985, he had entrusted the then Chancellor of the UAE University (the only national university funded by the state at the time in Al Ain, in the emirate of Abu Dhabi), Shaikh Nahyan Bin Mubarak Al Nahyan, now Minister of Tolerance, with the task of establishing a new system of post-secondary education exclusively for Emiratis, that would stress the ideals of productivity, self-determination and excellence.

Shaikh Nahyan worked out a system of the highest quality that was used to educate young Emiratis for professional and technical careers that the young country was desperately in need of. For Shaikh Nahyan it was a highly challenging task and a race against time. The Higher Colleges of Technology (HCT) was established in 1988 by Federal Law No 2, issued by late Shaikh Zayed. Four colleges commenced that year. Since then, 14 colleges and the Centre of Excellence for Applied Research and Training have also opened throughout the six emirates to form the system of HCT. This was followed by establishing Zayed University with campuses in both Dubai and Abu Dhabi. All HCT and Zayed University programmes and courses are delivered in English to more than 24,000 students, offering a wide range of Applied Diploma, Bachelors and Masters degrees.

Apart from education, the UAE has flourished tremendously during the three decades of late Shaikh Zayed at the helm, in industry, farming, travel and tourism, banking and investment. Shaikh Zayed was fortunate enough to find wise partners right from the beginning of his journey to build the federation, in Shaikh Mohammad and late Shaikh Rashid Bin Saeed Al Maktoum. The country they have successfully built, along with the other Rulers of the emirates, is a clear testimony of making the UAE a globally relevant country in world affairs.

Late Shaikh Zayed’s endeavours with late Shaikh Rashid resulted in the historic agreement to establish the UAE as we know it today. The task was not an easy one as it required considerable ingenuity, entrepreneurship and above all — lots of wisdom.

Mustapha Karkouti is a columnist and former president of the Foreign Press Association, London. You can follow him on Twitter @mustaphatache.