On November 2nd, 2004, the entire world mourned the death of one of the greatest of Arab leaders. Entire nations watched with stricken grief the funeral of a man who I believe was one of the most remarkable and impressive leaders of our time. A man called by U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell “a friend and a strong example of generosity, wisdom, drive and forgiveness”. He is the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al Nahyan.
A good part of Sheikh Zayed’s eighty-six years were spent in the service of his country; the United Arab Emirates. Born in 1918, Sheikh Zayed grew up during a time when all of the states along the Trucial Coast (now known as the Arabian Gulf) were under the United Kingdom’s suzerainty meaning that the United Kingdom controlled the countries’ international affairs yet allowed it a certain independence in domestic rule. The local Arab leaders signed the treaty with Britain in 1853 with the aim of providing their coast with the protection of the British military and preventing pirates from staging attacks on British ships.
Nevertheless, the region remained undeveloped, without a single modern school anywhere and an economy that depended for the most part on fishing and trade. The only schooling of any kind that Sheikh Zayed himself received was in the basic principles of Islam from the local Islamic preacher who taught him the Qur’an, and the ways of the lenient yet fair hand of the Prophet Mohammed as a leader of the Muslim people, which greatly impressed the young Sheikh Zayed. He took to following in the footsteps of the Prophet and became an avid learner. His thirst for knowledge sent him into the desert to learn the traditional survival skills of the Bedouin tribesmen. I am quite certain it was during those years of growing into manhood that the late leader came to understand about human existence, the important need for natural resources, the natives and the land.
He received his first official assignment in 1938 by Sheikh Shakbut, his brother and the then ruler of Abu Dhabi. His job was to guide the first ever geological survey teams assigned by foreign oil companies to survey the deserts of Abu Dhabi. Sheikh Zayed handled himself with such proficiency that the success of this job earned him the position of the Ruler’s Representative of the inland oasis of Al Ain, an area of small villages scattered in the desert, in 1946. He took one look at the dust and poverty and, instead of seeing the hopelessness he saw the prosperous city it would later become.
His plans to improve the conditions of the regions started immediately. He cleaned the agricultural pipes and brought a steady water supply with the help of many including his own family who turned over their own private water supply to the public. And in the late 1940s, early 1950s, the agriculture market grew and Al Ain became a flourishing market center. Then, he got to work on bringing his life-long dream to life. He planted an assortment of trees in the Al Ain region and after years of hard work and dedication, these trees are now strong and mature; a strong indication of how far the Emirate of Al Ain, has come. It is very clear to me that his success comes from thinking of different ways of benefiting his country and his people.
In 1953, during his first trip to Europe, seeing common people enjoying schools and hospitals left a sharp imprint on his mind. He vowed that he would provide such facilities for his people when Abu Dhabi had money. And sure enough, like an answer to his prayers, the first commercial fields were discovered five years later in Abu Dhabi. Yet it wasn’t until 1962 that the first export oil cargo was to leave Abu Dhabi, placing the Emirates forever on the world map as one of the great oil suppliers possessing nearly 10% of the global oil reserves and 4% of gas.
By 1966, the many attempts by Sheikh Shakhbut’s family and leaders of other emirates to convince the then ruler to start investing Abu Dhabi’s oil revenues and economic growth failed. It was agreed that it was time for him to step down. And, after a bloodless overthrow in the royal palace, when it came time to choose a new Ruler of the Emirate of Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Zayed was the obvious choice. As well as being of sound political mind with years of experience in government, he also seemed to be a good-luck charm for his country. New oil fields were being discovered one after the other, the first formal Government structure for the Emirate was established, and the building of roads, schools, housing, and hospitals became top priority on the Emirate’s agenda. This large-scale program of renovation was not confined to the Abu Dhabi, it also extended to the Bedouin settlements of the desert.
In February of 1968, Sheikh Zayed became aware of the fact that Britain would cease its suzerainty on the region by 1971. It became the ultimate test of his ability to bring together people into a new state. Moving nimbly on his plan to bring together the seven emirates, Sheikh Zayed met with the then ruler of Dubai Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed al Maktoumin an effort to join the two emirates together in a federation. He also invited the other five Trucial States, Qatar and Bahrain to join them. The latter two chose to remain independent, while the former five agreed to join as a result of Sheikh Zayed’s determination and willingness to compromise for the common good.
And in 1971, true to his word, the official United Arab Emirates (UAE) was formed, consisting of seven emirates; Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Ajman, Fujaira, Ras al-Khayma, Sharjah (Shariqah) and Um al-Quwayn, with Abu Dhabi being the largest and the capital. And so, on December 2nd, 1971, with Sheikh Zayed as the presiding President, the flag of the new UAE was raised, a sign of the union that had taken place and the future they would face as one. The fact that he was always drawing plans to bring Arab countries in a fortifying union makes him unique in my opinion. Being an Egyptian, I see quite clearly that he was special because creating a unified Arab front is something all Arab leaders talk about yet rarely attempt to turn their words into action; Sheikh Zayed did that on more than one occasion.
Sheikh Zayed had a clear perception of how the social and cultural status of the Emirates plus its economy should be. His determination to implement plans to turn his country into the success it is today can be seen in the prosperity and growth of the seven emirates, and in his reconciliation attempts between Arab countries. Understanding Islam correctly is obvious through his religious tolerance and liberal rulings, hence making it clear how Sheikh Zayed has lead his country with a fair and just hand. I am in such awe of his successes because, to me, he is the type of extraordinary president who put the interests of his countrymen before anything else and questioned his conscience before embarking on new plans. With his keen insight and strong political outlook, it is no wonder he was re-elected time and again.
He is the main reason why Abu Dhabi is now known as ‘Garden City’ of the Gulf and the ‘Green Capital’ due to its dozens of parks and gardens – a sharp contrast to the dusty coastal village of before. He is why Dubai is now the tourism and business center of the Gulf, nicknamed the “Singapore” or “Hong Kong” of the Middle East. It is home of the annual Dubai World Cup, the legendary horse race with prices reaching over US$ 15,000,000, numerous malls with international stores and restaurants. It is the center of service-based industries as the new Dubai International Financial Center, and an enclave for industry-specific corporations as Dubai Internet and Media City, Microsoft and IBM, and media organizations as CNN and Reuters. Its skyline is dotted with skyscrapers, among them the second tallest building in the world; Hotel Burj Al Arab.
He is why Al Ain, previously all desert and Bedouin villages, is now the center of education in the region. It is a thriving city with a population close to 200,000. There are over 8,000 students attending the Emirates University in the “burgeoning green oasis-city”. There are also six Higher Colleges for Technology in the areas of Al Ain, Abu Dhabi and Dubai where several hundred more attend. Sheikh Zayed knew that the strength of a nation stems from its up-and-coming generations. He called the youth of the country “the real wealth of the nation”.
He supported the role of working women. “Islam gives women their rightful status, and encourages them to work in all sectors, as long as they are afforded the appropriate respect√É‚Äì,” he says. “Women have the right to work everywhere.” And true to his word, approximately half of the country’s workforce consists of women.
To world leaders he was known as the bringer of peace to the region. In times of war and strife, his attempts to bridge the gap between nations was tireless. One of his main concerns was unifying the Arab countries and bridging the gap between people of a joined culture and history. Preceding the1973 war when Egypt the Suez Canal to retrieve Sinai (the Egyptian peninsula linking Africa and Asia) from its abductor; Israel, Arab leaders decided to stop the import of oil to America as a way of convincing Israel to relinquish the peninsula without the need for war. Sheikh Zayed lead the procession and uttered his memorable quote that bolstered the Arab nations’ sense of unity, “Arab oil is not dearer than Arab blood.”
The demise of Sheikh Zayed is a loss to the world, the Arab world in specific and the Muslim community in general. Many of the Arabs I talked to, even those living outside the Arab region, and I all agreed on one thing: now that the wise and confident president of the UAE had passed on, the future of Arab countries looked bleak. They spoke to me of their sense of panic that arose with his death. They wondered about the fate of Palestine and what would happen to underdeveloped countries like Afghanistan and Iraq in the face of strong nations as the United States now that Sheikh Zayed’s voice of power and reason had gone.
Ensuing his funeral, most of the countries in the region announced one to three days of mourning; TV and radio transmission ceased, as did work in government and private-owned corporations. The admiration and respect for Sheikh Zayed was apparent in the large number of people who attended the funeral on November 3rd, 2004, among them almost every single Arab leader accompanied by Prince Charles of the United Kingdom. And those who were not present did not miss their chance to share their feelings with the world. French President Jacques Chirac expressed his “deep pain and sadness” over the Sheikh’s death while German Chancellor Gerhard Schr√ã‚Ä†der referred to Sheikh Zayed as “a pinnacle in the Arab and Muslim world who did his best to unify his country and strengthen it.”
Japan’s Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi said, “I hope the people of the UAE can work together towards more development and prosperity to fulfill Sheikh Zayed’s dream” – a plan of action the people of Emirates are diligently working on. In Dubai, for example, plans of constructing the tallest building in the world (‘Burj Dubai’), the world’s largest shopping mall in Dubailand and the world’s largest artificial island complexes are underway. This is the Emirates’ tribute to the late, the remarkable Sheikh Zayed.