The year, 2018, has been declared by the Government of the United Arab Emirates as the ‘Year of Zayed’, commemorating the 100th anniversary of the birth of the country’s founder, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, Ruler of Abu Dhabi from 1966. He presided over the creation of the UAE in 1971 and served as its first President until his death in November 2004.
The physical infrastructure of the country today, its roads and airports, its modern cities, its healthcare and educational services are the visible evidence of his achievements as the UAE’s leader. The spirit of cultural and religious tolerance, the harmony that underpins Emirati society and the empowerment of women offer testimony to the nature of the country he and his fellow-founders worked so hard to create. Together, these and other things comprise his legacy and the ‘Year of Zayed’ has been conceived as a way of ensuring both that those who recall his years of leadership remember him, and that those who came after him or who are visitors to today’s UAE, gain some understanding of his leadership remember him, and that those who came after him or who are visitors to today’s UAE, gain some understanding of his leadership.
Looking around the UAE today, it’s easy to see his achievements, to feel something of the way in which his philosophy and beliefs remain vibrant parts of local society, and to understand why he remains deeply-loved and deeply-missed.
It is more difficult, though, as the years pass and as Sheikh Zayed becomes an historical figure, almost the substance of legend, to get a feel for what he was like as a man, and of his benevolence and of his great humanity. That, after all, was often best displayed in his personal interactions rather than on formal occasions.
Anecdotes of these, often spread by word-of-mouth rather than being formally recorded, do go some way to explaining a little more about this remarkable leader. One little-known story from his early days of leadership provides evidence both of his caring behaviour and his humility. As Sheikh Zayed arrived one day to open a new clinic in a desert township, a local lady sought to attract his attention by grabbing his arm, desperate to bring a problem to his attention. At the time, the skin on his arm was very tender, and the rough gesture caused his arm to bleed. His guards moved to take her away, but he stopped them. “The wound on my arm will heal,” he told them, “but the wound in her heart will not be healed.” Patiently, gently, he allowed the lady to spill out her sorrows.
Thousands in the Emirates, both citizens and expatriates will have other stories of his humility and compassion to tell, and many tens of thousands will have heard them. Among them are those, for example, who witnessed the way in which Sheikh Zayed would join enthusiastically in the dancing at weddings, or who had the good fortune to see him visiting a local vegetable market, moving among the customers and stall-holders, trying the fruit, asking about how business was going. There are, too, many with their own personal memories about how he would travel regularly around the country, setting up camp in rural areas so that anyone, regardless of status, could come to talk to him and to ask for his help in solving their problems.
It was through this kind of interaction that Sheikh Zayed was able to keep his finger on the pulse of society and through this, too, that he expressed his love for his people, a love that they returned.
In 1976, writing about his affection for the traditional local pastime of falconry, he explained that one of its greatest attractions for him was the way in which it allowed people of varying status to come together. “The group may include a king, a governor, a prince, a prominent merchant or, again, just an ordinary man who has a house and a family to support, but a love of sport, friendship and a desire for the chase brings them all together.” “This companionship,” Sheikh Zayed noted, “permits each and every member in the expedition to speak freely and express his views and viewpoints without inhibition or restraint, and allows the one responsible to acquaint himself with the wishes of his people, to know their problems and perceive their views accurately, and thus to be in a position to help and improve their situation.”
As it was in hunting, so it was in the rest of his life. As leader, Ruler and President, Sheikh Zayed was as one with his people, sharing their concerns, their worries and their desires, Never remote, never placing himself, or allowing others to place him, on an elevated pedestal, he expressed his care and love for them. During his lifetime, they returned that in abundance, and the country continues to do so today.
Written by Peter Hellyer