Shaikh Zayed chats with a group of bedouins in the desert in the 1970s Image Credit: National Archives

To understand the very nature of the UAE today is to understand the significance and vision of the late Shaikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan — Shaikh Zayed the Great — who was born 100 years ago. It was he who forged the ties that bind the UAE, saw the potential, laid the foundations and built its framework, and set it on a path from sand dunes to skyscrapers — an urbanised, sophisticated high-tech society in a matter of few decades.

Christopher M. Davidson in his book, The United Arab Emirates: A Study in Survival, wrote in 2005 that the nation is one of the most stable and successful examples of an Arab political union — all due to the skillful diplomacy of Shaikh Zayed.

The UAE designated 2018 as the Year of Zayed as a tribute to a visionary leader who had the ability and determination to make the country what it is today.

“He had the vision to look 50 years from now whereas our vision is just one year,” notes Emirati businessman Mohammad Abdul Jalil Fahim.

It’s one of the reasons why Shaikh Zayed earned appreciation and esteem from his peers and global leaders. That, and his skills and ability to develop a state and society through his wise leadership, wisdom, tenacity and the will to go forward.

In a September 2009 Newsweek edition, five years after his death, the magazine listed Shaikh Zayed as one of the top 10 influential world leaders to have radically transformed their countries in a relatively short period of time. It said Shaikh Zayed excelled in the establishment of the UAE, transforming it into a modern regional economic powerhouse where religious tolerance is practised and liberal policies, including right of equality for women, are observed.

“We believe that wealth in itself is of no value unless it is dedicated to the wealth and prosperity of the people,” Shaikh Zayed said. “States cannot be built upon wishes nor can hopes be achieved by dreams. Our federation has stood firm in the face of crisis. It has prospered through hard work, perseverance and sacrifice and by placing the interest of the nation above any other. In this way only can we attain our goals, strengthen the foundation of our state, preserve its stability and serve God.”

Above all, he was an astute politician. Before he become the president of the UAE, bringing together seven emirates including Dubai, Sharjah, Ajman, Umm Al Quwain, Fujairah and Ras Al Khaimah, he ruled Abu Dhabi from 1966 onwards. Previously, he was the governor of Al Ain from 1946. It is this extended experience in service, together with his personality that made him a wise politician and a diplomat, exercising persistent patience while remaining flexible and non-dogmatic.

The first person who wrote about Shaikh Zayed was Wilfred Thesiger, the British explorer and travel writer. In his 1959 book, Arabian Sands, Thesiger said Shaikh Zayed “had a great reputation among the Bedu [bedouin]. They liked him for his easy informal ways and his friendliness and they respected his force of character, his shrewdness and his physical strength… He knows about camels, can ride like one of us, can shoot and knows how to fight.”

In his book, Adventures in the Arabian Peninsula, Captain Anthony Shepherd wrote “Shaikh Zayed enjoys the admiration and loyalty of all and without a doubt he was the strongest personality in the area… and one of the few greats I met.”

In Desert Falcon, Claud Morris quotes Colonel Sir J.E. Boosted, the British Political Agent in Abu Dhabi from 1961-1971 as saying: “I am always amazed by the crowds of Emiratis who surround Shaikh Zayed with respect and attention. Shaikh Zayed exemplifies strength as he shares his citizens from the Arab bedouins digging wells and setting up constructions. He sits with them and shares all aspects of life and living with them as a very modest democratic man who doesn’t know arrogance.”

In December 1989, President Yang Shangkun made the first ever visit to the UAE by a Chinese head of state

Larger than life

Shaikh Zayed was described as a very simple man, modest, intensely religious and seen as a world class statesman. Malcolm Peck, an expert on the Gulf, writing in the late 1990s said Shaikh Zayed “is aware of his power but he doesn’t abuse it. He succeeded in transforming it into a moral charismatic power which is respected both inside and outside the Emirates’ boundaries.”

Michael Hudson, an American political scientist, in his classic book Arab Politics, puts it this way: Shaikh Zayed “was the principle force behind the federation”. He ruled with the late Shikh Rashid Al Maktoum and “their leadership [was] no longer just traditional or charismatic, it [was] also becoming increasingly legal-rational” — meaning the UAE experienced much institutional development by way of laws and regulations to govern the state.

After 1971, he quickly set up a Supreme Council of the UAE made up of the rulers of the seven emirates of which he was the head and president through consensus. Later on, the Federal National Council was established to represent the people of the UAE.

Hudson wrote that Shaikh Zayed was aware that “tribal character [was] changing … and has taken up the challenge by modernising his government and seeking to expand his legitimacy beyond the classical tribal norms.”

Linda Blandford, writing in the 1970s, said Shaikh Zayed had “the wisdom of Socrates and the leadership of Frederick the Great.”

On the other hand, Peter Mansfield in his 1976 book titled The Arabs said, “Shaikh Zayed was decisive, ambitious and quite capable with the affairs of the 20th century.”

Shaikh Zayed receives former Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi during her visit to the UAE in May, 1981

Shaikh Zayed was the president of the UAE from 1971 until his death on November 2, 2004. During his tenure, he met with several international heads of state including Indira Gandhi, Queen Elizabeth, Prince Charles and Princess Diana, and Nelson Mandela

Former French president Valery Giscard d’Estaing noted in the early 1970s that “Shaikh Zayed was viewed as quite capable negotiator. It was a role in which he was adept in.”

Jimmy Carter, the former US president, noted at the time: “There were a lot more occasions when Shaikh Zayed negotiated quietly and without any publicity. … He never sought credit or approval for his diplomatic efforts. Yet he was tireless, even in the face of belligerence and bad faith, among those he was trying to help.”

Another French president, Jacques Chirac, said “Shaikh Zayed lived and ruled over such a span of time that he held within him an extraordinary knowledge, an encyclopedia knowledge of modern world events and history, and he was often the one making that history.”

In pursuit to that quest for knowledge, Shaikh Zayed met astronauts who made the journey into space in 1974; he met them before the journey and again after they landed. He listened to their experiences there and wanted to know what they saw in space. Today, the UAE is in the process of launching its Hope, or Al-Amal in Arabic, probe to Mars, set to arrive there in 2021, to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the founding of the UAE.

Chirac said that Shaikh Zayed’s achievements “are incredible… He was the dynamic force behind the political, economic and social development of the UAE and worked tirelessly to ensure the regional character of the UAE federation.”

Former US president George W. Bush called Shaikh Zayed “a pioneer, an elder statesman and a close ally”.

Former Secretary of State Colin Powell who described Shaikh Zayed as a “model of generosity, wisdom and leadership. The whole world knew him as a man of development, justice and civilisation.”

Pakistan president Mohammad Zia-ul-Haq with Shaikh Zayed in Karachi on February 9, 1985

Former British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said Shaikh Zayed “led his country with vision, wisdom and skill” adding, “his legacy to his country, to the region and to relations with the UK can’t be overstated.”

Speaking for the world community, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan noted “Shaikh Zayed’s wisdom, strong belief in diplomacy and generous assistance to developing nations won him wide renown outside his country.” Annan was referring to the establishment of the Abu Dhabi Fund for Arab Economic Development to provide development assistance to underprivileged countries. So far, it has funded Dh80 billion for 498 projects across 83 countries, making it the top donor, according to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development. Credit must go to Shaikh Zayed who ordered the fund’s establishment in 1971.

Bernard Reich, in Political Leaders of the Contemporary Middle East and North Africa, a Biographical Dictionary, wrote that “an aspect of Zayed’s leadership is the politics of stewardship — a closely personal involvement in preserving and improving” the UAE. “He has encompassed an enlightened environmentalism, protecting endangered species of wildlife, reintroducing indigenous forms that have become extinct, and undertaking a major effort at afforestation.”

From the beginning, he wanted to turn the forest green. Businessman Munib Al Masri recalled the time when he went to Abu Dhabi as a geologist in the 1950s. “Shaikh Zayed wanted us to create a forest,” he said. “He wanted us to plant trees from Abu Dhabi to Al Ain.”

Marwan Asmar is a commentator based in Amman. He has long worked in journalism and has a Phd in Political Science from Leeds University in the UK.