Shaikh Zayed chairs the Federal National Council (FNC) meeting in Abu Dhabi. Image Credit: Gulf News Archives

Abu Dhabi: Ten years after the passing away of UAE’s founding father, Shaikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan, his legacy remains the guiding spirit of his country, whose infrastructure and staggering advancement he personally oversaw.

His benevolence and the socio-economic shift he engendered during his 33-year rule continue to inspire every facet of development in the UAE.

In achieving all that, he reiterated a timeless truth for the world to make a note of: the rewards of diligent work and steadfast vision, complemented by an inspiring display of unbiased generosity, will always lead to progress.

To the casual observer of Gulf politics — indeed, of world politics — it would be hard to miss the greatness of the character of Shaikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan, the founder and first president of the United Arab Emirates.

The man who turned the desert green had a penchant for expedient change — a trait that every leader aspiring to change the world possesses. His achievements are testimony of a leader devoted to the creative reworking of things, and of harbouring the eternal, necessary dissatisfaction with everything already achieved, so that things considered impossible may be made possible. It is no wonder then that Shaikh Zayed reworked seven disparate emirates into a single entity that is the UAE.

He changed the desert land of his country into a vibrant landscape and – most significantly – converted a tense climate of division into a consistent, altruistic state of unity. If there is a common trait in the great men of history, it is their devotion to, and resolute belief in, the power of change.

With London asserting that British forces would leave the Gulf by 1971, Shaikh Zayed led the campaign to unite the nine emirates which had been under British protection. Qatar and Bahrain would end up leaving the proposed union, leaving Shaikh Zayed with seven remaining emirates to unite. 

Birth of the UAE

December 2, 1971, saw the creation of the UAE and, almost immediately, pangs of doubt regarding the nascent state’s survival gripped the world. It saddened Shaikh Zayed that the country — whose creation he so diligently negotiated — would be so pessimistically received.

The less optimistic thought was that the internal and regional conflicts were enough of a threat to tear apart the new-born state in a few months or, perhaps, within a few years, and the union would come to be remembered as a failure.

Reality, however, would prove otherwise. Not only has the federation survived, it has, in fact, prospered, achieving impressive levels of stability and prosperity, largely due to the policies enacted by Shaikh Zayed, jointly with those of Shaikh Rashid Bin Saeed Al Maktoum of Dubai, thus sealing the pact of peace and cooperation among kin and cousin.

Elected President of the UAE in 1971, Shaikh Zayed’s first term extended five years and recurred for six consecutive terms. Even through disputes with Saudi Arabia, Iran and Oman over territorial claims or occupation, Shaikh Zayed maintained a clear-sighted approach to authority: protecting the UAE’s national interests were paramount, and concessions, if any, were such that they did not compromise the country’s sovereignty.

Understanding the values of restraint and conciliation, his principles of justice and benevolence made him maintain that wealth, and the way in which it is distributed held the secret to internal cohesion.

To him, capital, being nothing more than providential trust, was a commodity that needed to be redistributed. If they gave in to greed, the privileged would – so he believed – be responsible for poverty and catastrophe, a thought process indicative of his discerning mind.

In the three decades of his rule, Shaikh Zayed tirelessly invested in the UAE, overseeing the establishment of various ministries and public welfare. Shaikh Zayed also financed the building of public housing facilities, hospitals and schools, to address a dearth of such facilities in Abu Dhabi and the rest of the federation.

The capital’s airport, once a dirt strip, was upgraded to a facility of international calibre, along with a seaport on similar scale. State-of-the-art highways, roads, and bridges came up connecting the capital island with the mainland.

The president’s commitment to the prosperity of the entire country – not just Abu Dhabi – meant that the capital and the other emirates were major shareholders in development. Every individual who was involved in building the country was inspired by him as their leader, whose actions and conduct provided an example worthy of emulation. 

Real wealth of the country

Shaikh Zayed has always regarded financial resources as a tool to facilitate the development of what he believed to be the real wealth of the country – its people, in particular, the younger generation.

Shaikh Zayed once said: “Wealth is not money. Wealth lies in men. This is where true power lies, the power that we value. They are the shield behind which we seek protection. This is what has convinced us to direct all our resources to building the individual, and to using the wealth with which God has provided us in service of the nation, so that it may grow and prosper.”

Addressing the graduation ceremony of the first class of students from the Emirates University in 1982, Shaikh Zayed said: “The building of mankind is difficult and hard. It represents, however, the real wealth of the country. This is not found in material wealth. It is made up of men, of children, and of future generations. It is this which constitutes the real treasure.” 

Women’s rights

Women in the UAE have enjoyed Shaikh Zayed’s full support. They are increasingly playing their part in political, social and economic spheres by taking up positions at all levels in public and private sectors. The first woman appointed to the Cabinet was in late 2004, the day before Shaikh Zayed died.

Remarkable progress has now been achieved by the women of the Emirates due to initiatives taken by Shaikh Zayed and by his wife, Her Highness Shaikha Fatima Bint Mubarak, who is the Chairperson of the country’s General Women’s Union.

Playing a prominent role in civil services, health, education and business, and in the police and armed forces, UAE’s women are now becoming increasingly active in the political process too, through membership in various consultative and legislative bodies and in the Cabinet.

But Shaikh Zayed’s generosity was not limited to his own country. Abu Dhabi, having been the beneficiary of Kuwaiti assistance, followed similar paths: Shaikh Zayed established the Abu Dhabi Fund for Arab Economic Development (ADFAED) which dedicated a segment of oil windfall to over 50 less fortunate Muslim countries in Africa and Asia.

At a time when he was still laying the foundations of the UAE’s union, charity and giving were also on his list of priorities. The inception of the fund marked a major milestone at that time and sent a strong message to the whole world that the United Arab Emirates cherished its philanthropic and charitable heritage, that this federation of seven emirates, even during its nascent stages, aspired to cooperation and integration for the benefit of all the peoples and nations of the world.

Shaikh Zayed was in complete synergy with Islam’s compassion for the needy. He never hesitated to extend assistance to the global community and was a pioneer in humanitarian work. From 1971 to 2004, the UAE gave Dh90.5 billion worth of aid in various forms to 117 countries around the world.

Government aid accounted for the largest percentage at over Dh73 billion, followed by the Abu Dhabi Fund for Development, an autonomous institution owned by the Abu Dhabi Government to help developing countries achieve growth and development through assistance in the form of concessionary loans, at Dh15.3 billion.

As well as assisting the less fortunate, Shaikh Zayed was also predominantly occupied with the question of Palestine. A pan-Arab nationalist, he continuously voiced his concern and discontent with the core issue of Arab concern, and repeatedly called upon the international community to fairly source a solution to the conflict.

If during the early 1970s Abu Dhabi’s financial reserves were modest, it was because Shaikh Zayed dedicated a significant portion – what amounts to hundreds of millions of dollars – to Arab states confronting Israel. During the 1973 October War, Shaikh Zayed supported King Faisal Bin Abdul Aziz, who pledged significant financial support to both Egypt and Syria. Not only that, but he also supported the oil embargo on the United States and Netherlands after Richard Nixon authorised a massive military transfer to Israel. “Arab oil is not dearer than Arab blood,” said Shaikh Zayed during the events. 

Early life

Born in 1918, the fourth son of Shaikh Sultan Bin Zayed, he spent most of his childhood in Al Ain, learning about his country and its people – knowledge that would serve him well in the years to come. His father ruled Abu Dhabi from 1922 to 1926, named his son after his grandfather, ‘Zayed the Great’ who ruled from 1855 to 1905. As a boy, he understood the nature of poverty, which served to steel his determination that none of his countrymen would experience the same plight.

Shaikh Zayed spent two decades as Ruler’s Representative, based in Al Ain. He learned the process of governance by direct experience which coincided with his tenure that was involved in developing a vision for how the country should develop, should resources permit.

In 1968, with the British leaving, the seven emirates were obliged to decide how their futures would play out – a future laden with challenge but also, for Shaikh zayed, a future rich with promise. 

Broader vision

Shaikh Zayed’s vision was characteristic in that it always extended further than the usual limits. In addition to adopting orphans, he built hospitals in Asia, Europe, and Africa. He displayed a noticeably more liberal stance towards other faiths – be their practitioners inside or outside his borders – and was also a strong supporter of women’s rights, believing the advancement of the nation depended on Emirati women as much as it did on men. 

Great environmentalist

In his youth, Shaikh Zayed recognised that over-exploitation of natural resources would lead to the extinction of species. He drew that insight from the traditional heritage of the people of the Emirates – whether dwellers in the deserts and mountains, or coastal fishermen and pearl divers.

Shaikh Zayed always believed that man had a duty to maintain an evolving balance with nature, to preserve it not merely for today’s generation but for the future generations as well.

Shaikh Zayed was amongst the first to recognise the threats to wildlife populations and set into motion a variety of captive breeding programmes for species related to falconry. He moved to ensure that wild-caught falcons lived longer in captivity by setting up his falcon hospital at Al Khazna. He followed this up by bringing to use captive-bred hybrids.

In a speech given on the occasion of the UAE’s first Environment Day in 1998, Shaikh Zayed spelt out his beliefs: “We cherish our environment because it is an integral part of our country, our history and our heritage. On land and on the sea, our forefathers lived and survived in this environment. They were able to do so only because they recognised the need to conserve it, to take from it only what they needed to live, and to preserve it for succeeding generations.”

Shaikh Zayed showed deep personal interest in the history and heritage of the UAE, advocating the necessity of preserving the fundamental traits of the UAE society. At the same time, he worked hard to bring the benefits of modern development to the people of the UAE.

In his view, it was of crucial importance that the lessons and heritage of the past be remembered. They provide, he believed, an essential foundation upon which real progress could rest permanently:

“History is a continuous chain of events. The present is only an extension of the past. 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. We gain experience and we take advantage of the lessons and results of the past. Then we adopt the best and that which suits our present needs, while avoiding the mistakes made by our fathers and grandfathers. The new generation should have a proper appreciation of the role played by their forefathers. They should adopt their model, and the supreme ideal of patience, fortitude, hard work and dedication to doing their duty,” he said.