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A tall eucalyptus still stands at one end of Abdul Hafeez Khan’s garden. Shaikh Zayed chose the location. A plaque on the tree reads: “Planted by H.H. Shaikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan in 1962.” Khan points at the tree’s picture posted at the National Archives. Image Credit: Supplied

Abu Dhabi: Abdul Hafeez Yawar Khan Al Yousefi, the first agricultural adviser to Shaikh Zayed, the UAE’s Founding Father, has passed away aged 83.

A naturalised Emirati citizen of Pakistani origin and a key part of the mission to realise Shaikh Zayed’s dream to transform the country into a “green haven”, Al Yousefi was buried at a cemetery in Al Ain, a walking distance from his house, which was especially built for him by Shaikh Zayed.

Al Yousefi had degrees in agricultural science from both Pakistan and Lebanon and arrived in Abu Dhabi in 1962 at a special invitation of Shaikh Zayed, who was then serving as the Ruler’s Representative in the Eastern Region.

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Abdul Hafeez Khan with Sheikh Zayed, the UAE's Founding Father Image Credit: Supplied

Tariq Abdul Hafeez Al Yousefi, 57, son of the leading horticulturist, told Gulf News his father was invited to Al Ain to develop its agriculture.

“The Founding Father Shaikh Zayed had turned to international diplomacy in his efforts to find experts to develop Al Ain’s agriculture. Sir Hugh Boustead, the British political agent in Abu Dhabi, contacted Dr Jack Eyre, an agriculture adviser to the Middle East development division at the British Embassy in Beirut, Lebanon, requesting candidates,” Tariq, a retired pilot of the UAE Armed Forces, said.

Tariq said his father, who was then pursuing post-graduate studies in the Faculty of Agricultural Sciences at the American University of Beirut, got the job and landed in Abu Dhabi on September 7, 1962 for what he initially thought was a one-year contract but turned to be a lifetime companionship with the great leader of the UAE.

Al Ain Garden City
Green and lush Al Ain is now known as the Garden City Image Credit: Gulf News Archives

“Shaikh Zayed granted my father one of the first properly built houses in the history of the nation. Till today the exterior of the house remains the same, to mark more than four decades of friendship between the Founding Father of the UAE and my father,” Tariq proudly says.

He explained through the 1960s, my dad spent most of his time with Shaikh Zayed in his passionate drive for making the desert green. Whether in his house, which happened to be the only properly built structure in the region in 1962, or in the desert, or wherever Shaikh Zayed happened to be at the time, a deep companionship developed between the visionary leader and my dad through their commitment to a common cause.

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Abdul Hafeez Khan with Sheikh Zayed, the UAE's Founding Father Image Credit: Supplied

“But at that crucial moment of the UAE’s history, my father’s plans came to a sudden halt. There was no river gushing with water – just sand dunes and water used to be 25 to 40 feet below ground. This was the 1960s,” says Tariq.

“A pipeline had to be laid all the way from Buraimi to Abu Dhabi but due to the rising demand in Al Ain, the water table started to go down. They then used the same pipeline to bring water from Abu Dhabi to Al Ain. These detours were costly and time consuming, but such was Shaikh Zayed’s passion for agriculture that he always made the funds available.”

Tariq says his father had used to believe that Almighty Allah had sent him here for a purpose.

Al Yousefi had no idea that he was being sent inland, to the oasis village of Buraimi, his eldest son Tariq says.

Shaikh Zayed visited my father two days after his arrival in Buraimi, and in the days and weeks that followed, a deep companionship developed between a visionary leader and his adviser striving together for the cause of making the desert bloom.

Al Ain Garden City
Scenes from Al Ain, which is now known as the Garden City Image Credit: Gulf News Archives

“My father used to repeat Shaikh Zayed’s saying: ‘Give me agriculture and I assure you of civilisation’.

To work together, Shaikh Zayed had to hire an interpreter named Mohammad Zain from southern India to facilitate communication between my dad and Shaikh Zayed,” says Tariq Al Yousefi.

But Shaikh Zayed was uncomfortable conveying his thoughts and ideas through another person.

“One day, my father was told Shaikh Zayed gave the interpreter a huge amount of money and gently convinced him to go,” Tariq recalls. Shaikh Zayed gestured that Zain had left and my father was left with no choice but to learn Arabic.

“Shaikh Zayed was after cultivation. He had the money to build a modern city, but he wanted greenery before modernity.”

Gradually, the dream began to take shape.

When Shaikh Zayed became President in 1971, the UAE had only 2,530 hectares (6,250 acres) of cultivated land. He allotted funds for vast reclamation projects to increase the agricultural and forested areas. By the early 1990s, the area of cultivated land increased to 470,000 hectares (1,616,370 acres).

Despite the popular belief that agriculture was not suitable for the UAE due to its very hot climate, tough desert and scarce water resources, Shaikh Zayed was persistent and charted a clear path towards a greener UAE.

Al Ain Garden City
Thanks to Sheikh Zayed's first agricultural advisor, Al Ain is now a green, lush oasis in the desert Image Credit: Gulf News Archives

Fifty years ago, no one could believe that it was even possible to transform a barren land into the land of lush greenery we see today. For Shaikh Zayed’s vision, the sky was the limit,” Tariq said.

Shaikh Zayed’s steadfast efforts over the years led to the rapid growth of agriculture across all emirates.

Tariq says among the first batch of imported exotic trees were 12 crates of eucalyptus from Australia. A tall eucalyptus still stands at one end of my dad’s garden. Shaikh Zayed chose the location. A plaque on the tree reads: “Planted by H.H. Shaikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan in 1962.”

The visionary leader wanted to see greenery everywhere, Al Yousefi’s son says. Shaikh Zayed asked my father to select a plant that would survive the harsh environment and sandstorms.

After a fortnight of thinking of a plant that would survive, my father suggested planting palm trees. The idea excited Shaikh Zayed, who ordered that they start work at once.

Planting trees has long been seen as a way to counteract the effects of deforestation and improve the climate. The practice was spearheaded by Shaikh Zayed in a bid to improve liveability. Now the UAE boasts more than 40 million date palms, with more than 15 million in Abu Dhabi alone.

My father used to tell us, “For Shaikh Zayed plants were like his children. His determination and conviction to see this land bloom instilled confidence in people”


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Abdul Hafeez Khan Al Yousefi with copies of his book Image Credit: Tariq Abdul Hafeez Khan

Abdul Hafeez Khan authored a book titled “50 years in Al Ain Oasis .. memoirs of Abdul Hafeez Khan”.

In his book, Khan wrote, it was my passion to tame the desert that brought me here. It was the wish of my mentor and guide, a thorough expert in matters indigenous to the soil and the climate of Al Ain, to conquer the desert. In consequence, I became devoted and committed to Shaikh Zayed in his efforts to make the desert bloom. I brought him the knowledge and experience from outside of what we should try to grow here, while he imparted me his expert knowledge and experience on the actual soil and climatic conditions here.

In his foreword to the book, Shaikh Mansour Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Presidential Affairs, said it was due to the far sighted vision of the late Shaikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan that the UAE has emerged as the environmental capital of the world. “Throughout nearly six decades of service – first as the Ruler’s Representative in Al Ain, and subsequently as the Ruler of Abu Dhabi and Founder President of the Federation – he passionately combated desertification and was committed to making the desert green.

Shaikh Mansour commended Khan for his dedication, insight and unwavering effort and said with the arrival of Abdul Hafeez khan as Shaikh Zayed’s first Agricultural Advisor in Al Ain, pioneering projects were initiated during the early 1960s which completely transferred the façade of the interior oases. As the garden city of the Gulf, Al Ain has earned the coveted international recognition of being included in the UNESCO World Heritage List.