In 1918, His Highness Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan was born into the Al Nahyan family, who had ruled the emirate of Abu Dhabi for hundreds of years. He was the youngest of the four sons of Sheikh Sultan bin Zayed, who ruled Abu Dhabi from 1922 – 1926. When Sheikh Sultan’s successor died in 1928, Sheikh Zayed’s eldest brother, Sheikh Shakhbut, was elected by the family to be ruler.

At that time, Abu Dhabi was practically anonymous internationally. It was a part of the Trucial States, in treaty relations with Britain and its economy was based around fishing and pearl diving on the coast and basic agriculture at its intermittent oases inland.

When Sheikh Zayed was a child, education was scarce. He received instruction in the principles of Islam and memorised much of the Holy Qur’an, however, and always demonstrated a voracious appetite for knowledge. This led him to accompany the Bedouin tribesmen into the desert, wanting to absorb the life and heritage of the people.

It was at this time that he first experienced falconry, which was to become a lifelong passion. He particularly enjoyed the camaraderie of hunting expeditions, “away from the clamour of the city and the monotony of daily life.”* Apart from hunting, he learned how to shoot, how to ride a camel, how to track and how to find sweet water under the desert sands. In short, he fully experienced Bedouin life. He began to develop a love and understanding of the natural environment and the need to ensure sustainable use of its resources. Perhaps most crucially though, it was here that he began to gain the trust and respect of the Bedouin tribesmen, which later enabled him to garner their support on issues that were essential to the establishment of unity.

When the first oil company surveyors came to Sheikh Shakhbut in the early 1930’s, requesting a guide, the comprehensive knowledge of the country and its inhabitants that Sheikh Zayed had gained from his travels made him the obvious choice. Here, Sheikh Zayed had his first contact with the industry which would so dramatically affect the lives of himself and of his people.

In 1946, a new representative of the ruler of Abu Dhabi was needed in Al Ain. Despite his relative youth, the respect which Sheikh Zayed commanded locally made him Sheikh Shakhbut’s first choice for the position. Under his leadership, the nine villages comprising Al Ain began to develop and to integrate into a township.

The most famous of his achievements in Al Ain was the revision of local water ownership, to ensure a more equitable distribution and so to irrigate more land. As an example to others, Sheikh Zayed surrendered the rights of his own family. Agricultural production began to flourish, as did the local economy.

Throughout this time, Sheikh Zayed evolved his leadership skills, preferring to base his decisions on consultation, not confrontation. As Al Ain developed, so too did his vision. He ordered the planting of ornamental trees, now matured and marking Al Ain as one of the greenest Arabian cities; a forerunner of the huge forestation programme of later years.

He also dealt with territorial disputes, not only amongst the local tribes, but also with Saudi Arabia, who laid claim to the 3 Al Ain villages under Omani rule, thus developing diplomatic skills which would prove to be of great benefit.

In 1962, Abu Dhabi exported its first cargo of crude oil, starting an economic revolution. The people began to look forward to the benefits already being enjoyed in other parts of the Gulf and Sheikh Zayed was determined that they would receive them and that the facilities he had enviously eyed on his 1953 visit to Britain and France, such as schools and hospitals, would be established in Abu Dhabi.

Sheikh Shakhbut, however, accustomed to the previous decades of economic hardship, was slow to approve spending on public development, much to the frustration of his family. Eventually, they persuaded him to step down and allow them to name his successor. On August 6th, 1966, Sheikh Zayed became Ruler of Abu Dhabi.

Within weeks a massive development programme was underway. Schools, hospitals, roads and housing were constructed and some of the dreams of the people began to be realized. Zayed’s vision, though, had always extended beyond the borders of Abu Dhabi. As he had united the villages of Al Ain, so now he turned his attention to uniting the emirates.

As material proof of his dedication to unity, some of Abu Dhabi’s oil revenue was spent on the development of other emirates. This altruism continues to be a feature of his rule, illustrated by the UAE’s provision of funds for other countries, such as Bosnia, Lebanon and Yemen.

In 1968, Britain announced that it would withdraw from the area before the end of 1971. Sheikh Zayed and the late Ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum took the lead in calling for a federation of the emirates, Bahrain and Qatar. When the latter two opted out, the rulers of the emirates moved quickly and on the 2nd December, 1971, the United Arab Emirates formally emerged onto the international stage.

While Sheikh Zayed himself always attempts to share credit for the remarkable ensuing developments with his fellow members of the Supreme Council of Rulers (comprising the ruler of each of the seven emirates) no-one doubts that, without his wisdom and guidance, they would never have happened. The Supreme Council itself has recognised this by re-electing Sheikh Zayed to successive five-year terms as President.

Since its establishment, the UAE has confounded international expectations by developing successfully in all areas of life; social services, health and education, communications and technology, trade and finance, at a rate almost unmatched anywhere or at any time. More importantly, these material achievements have occurred against a backdrop of political and social stability. Despite the turmoil witnessed by other countries in the region, the UAE has thrived on change, whilst retaining its culture and heritage, thanks to the direct support and involvement of the Emirati people, which is greatly due to their respect and affection for Sheikh Zayed.

His philosophies, political or otherwise, are based on his strongly held faith in Islam. From this springs his desire to treat all people equally and to support those in need.

Throughout history, few leaders can have experienced the amount of radical changes that Sheikh Zayed has witnessed. Fewer still could reflect on them in the knowledge that they chose and acted in accordance with their beliefs and for the betterment of humanity, regardless of personal cost, financial or otherwise. Sheikh Zayed has the love and admiration of his people and international recognition and respect, all of which he has earned many times over.

* - From Sheikh Zayed’s book, “Falconry – Our Arab Heritage”. 1977.

UAE Yearbook 1999
Web Site of The Emirates Centre for Strategic Studies and Research
Abu Dhabi – Garden City of the Gulf. Peter Hellyer & Ian Fairservice. Motivate Publishing. 1999.

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