As the nation prepares to give thanks for Sheikh Zayed’s leadership with 2018 marked as the Year of Zayed, we take a look at the founding father’s life, achievements and what he means to the people of the UAE.
Words: Camille Hogg
“He who does not know his past cannot make the best of his present and future, for it is from the past that we learn.”
These are the words of the man that made a nation – and not just any nation, but this one.
A land of tolerance, progress and unity: this was the vision of Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan when he became ruler of Abu Dhabi in 1966, and it continued throughout his subsequent presidency of the United Arab Emirates in every law he passed and decision he made.
It still continues today, beyond his 33-year reign, in the hearts and minds of all who live here, the people that remember him for where he came from and who he became.
And as 2018 marks the 100th anniversary of his birth, it’s time to celebrate all that he did for the nation with a year dedicated to him – the Year of Zayed.
A man of the many
“To understand Zayed, you have to know not only his qualities, but also his philosophies,” reflects Dr Fatima Alsayegh, chair of the history department at UAE University in Al Ain and author of The UAE: From Tribes to Statehood.
“So many people just see him as a leader and know him for his kindness,” she adds, “but he was more than that.”
Born around 1918 in the oasis town of Al Ain, and the youngest of four sons, Sheikh Zayed, came into a very different world than the one we know today.
A harsh, undeveloped desert landscape that had none of the prosperity we enjoy now; the emirate of Abu Dhabi relied on pearl diving and fishing in a time before the oil boom.
As a young man, he travelled around the land that would later become his to rule, learning about its people, its traditions and its past – and his early openness to listen, understand and explore became the qualities that defined his rule.
“At that time, there were no borders between people and their ruler,” Dr Fatima explains. “He went to every emirate and met with the people to hear their wishes.
“The Bedouins called him Zayed and he accepted that without objection,” she adds. “His court was always open. He sat with his people and he ate with them. He was one of them. That’s why they loved him.”
Known as Zayed to the Bedu tribes, and Baba Zayed to his nation as a whole, Sheikh Zayed’s reputation extended far beyond the borders of the emirate of Abu Dhabi.
“He adopted an open-hand policy towards the people of the northern emirates at a time when they needed it most,” Dr Fatima says. “He spent over half of Abu Dhabi’s budget on helping the other emirates, and he helped them without any conditions.
“Whether it was houses, roads, hospitals or schools, he built them. It was life or death, and when someone comes to you in that moment, you remember it.”
If Sheikh Zayed was known for his generosity of spirit, he was equally so for his belief in education for all, in protection of the landscape that shaped his formative years, and in female equality.
A beacon of progressiveness, the nation’s founder looked to the future when others were still focusing on the present, and knew his nation would become more beyond the timeline of his rule.
“He made equality for men and women here a reality,” Dr Fatima smiles. “He had so many obstacles in the way. In tribal society, the status of women is low, but when he made the decision to put his girls in school, the tribal leaders did the same. They trusted his judgment.”
At the core of Sheikh Zayed’s rule was his unending tolerance, and it was a quality that he spread to his people.
Knowing that the nation could not grow as an insular land separated from the outside world, he encouraged cultural and religious diversity, anticipating bigger things to come.
“Zayed grew up in a society where there was not always tolerance,” Dr Fatima says. “He knew that it needed to be introduced into society. He wanted people to know that the UAE’s society was open, that everybody could come here, and that’s the reason he called for harmony and tolerance – between everyone.
“He never graduated from school, but he had wisdom, and it’s almost like he foresaw the future,” Dr Fatima continues. “He knew things would change.”
A year of celebration
It’s these qualities that we’ll be keeping in mind during 2018, as we celebrate the Year of Zayed.
Celebrating the late ruler’s legacy, the Year of Zayed will look to his fundamental historic role in unifying the UAE’s emirates under the Federation and bringing it into a boom of prosperity, as well as his values and character.
While many initiatives are to be announced as the year progresses, one way that Sheikh Zayed will be honoured will be with a monument dedicated to him at the end of the Corniche in Abu Dhabi.
One thing is clear, though: he may be gone, but he’s not forgotten.
“Sheikh Zayed had the charisma of leadership,” reflects Dr Fatima. “He adopted so many changes for the people of the UAE that he will stay in their minds not just for generations, but for 100 or 200 years to come.”