I first saw Sheikh Zayed in London in 1966. I was still a student at Cambridge and my father was the Jordanian ambassador in London. It was before Sheikh Zayed became the founder of the UAE. He was invited to the embassy for dinner. I met him as a student would meet a foreign leader, and I had no idea then that my career and destiny would be working for him.
In 1967 when I graduated, we had the Six-Day War and my parents had moved back to Jerusalem by then. I couldn’t go back home so I came to Abu Dhabi where our family had a contracting business, in order to try and seek a career in a newly developing city. By that time, Sheikh Zayed had become the ruler and had opened up the country in what were the beginnings of a very grandiose development strategy that welcomed people from everywhere to help in the development in the country.
I did not end up settling in any company because it did not appeal to me. By some accident, I became a journalist and began meeting people and writing stories for Reuters and Agence France-Presse, which is how I met Sheikh Zayed. Abu Dhabi was a small place and you met everyone within weeks of arriving.
It was in 1968 that I was asked to interview him for a British documentary and to translate his answers. That was the first formal meeting I had with him in the Qasr-al-Husun Fort, the ruling house’s seat of power for 300 years. I interviewed him, and from that day on, I became involved with the Abu Dhabi Government as Sheikh Zayed’s translator, media officer, eventually director of the press office of information and as a cultural advisor. So, my career which continues until today began with that meeting with Sheikh Zayed and the opportunity he gave me to work with him.
Sheikh Zayed took over at a very critical period, when the British government withdrew the umbrella of protection they provided the Gulf. Britain was tied to the Emirates by a series of treaties that started in 1820. In 1968, when they decided that they could not continue with that role, the Emirates had not really developed any alternative security structures such as an army or police forces to enable them to ensure their stability. The oil reserves had just been discovered in a region that was very turbulent, full of disputes and armed conflict. So it was at this moment, in 1966, that he became ruler of Abu Dhabi and took on the vision that he had carried for some time: uniting the seven emirates together in a new and modern state.
In those days, no one believed his vision was practical or could be realised. In fact, all the press back then used to write cynically about the “grand” objectives of Sheikh Zayed and his idea that a federation could be built between emirates that were, for a number of years, separate and that had disagreements between themselves. Nobody believed in it except for him, so it was his mission to convince everyone that this could be done. He began by meeting with Sheikh Rashid of Dubai and the other rulers. But he also had to convince the public and the rest of the Arab world which was very sceptical. The importance of words were very clear to him when set out to convince everyone, including the western world. One of the reasons he succeeded was by understanding the power of words.
In terms of education, Sheikh Zayed was taught informally. He was instructed in the traditional way of the Quran, the Sharia, and the Prophet’s (pbuh) Sunnah (method). He also had a love for poetry, so from early on he started reading about ancient Arabian heritage, the classical Arab Diwan (court), and the Mu’allaqat, which truly is a repository of everything that the Arab heritage has to give in terms of wisdom and nobility an honour.
He was inspired by the stories of the Prophet (pbuh) and the Arabs and Muslims of old. I remember travelling with him to Grenada in Spain and he was looking at the heritage that the Arabs and Muslims had left behind in an environment of tolerance and openness. He wanted to achieve great things for his people. I never heard the word impossible from him.
He was an avid reader and learner. As his responsibilities grew, I would say he was more disposed to immediate communication, so he’d listen to others and meet with a wide variety of people across literature, politics and other interests. He was keen to discuss and share opinions with them, so he was able to learn a lot by meeting people from every background. He learned from life. Life and his experiences with others were his real sources of knowledge. He also had an innate ability to understand people. He would need just a few words from them to be able to pick up what they wanted to speak about and the direction their thoughts were going.
When he travelled to the West in the 1950s, Sheikh Zayed came back with big ideas. Like Peter the Great [who expanded and modernised the Russian Empire] he wanted to bring modernity to the region, and invest in education. So when the oil revenues began coming in, he put his plans into action. He was charismatic and kind, and believed it was his mission to help his people use the wealth available to improve their conditions, raise standards of living, and also help those around the region. He felt this way toward any person or family in need, as well as toward nations and countries as well. In his first five year plan from 1968 to 1972, when everything that is in the Emirates today was missing, he allocated 10 percent of budget to help other countries around the UAE. And until today, the UAE is the world leader in humanitarian aid.
In the region, he was a traditional leader who understood the tribes. They loved him because he was of the opinion that they retain their heritage and traditions, but he was also a contemporary political leader who began a drive to build modern institutions. But he had a difficult task.
He knew there were numerous obstacles, like the trials that all human beings who are leaders and who have feelings for others must go through. He would suffer when he heard of the suffering of others, whether it was in Lebanon or Palestine or anywhere in the world, and it’s why he was always keen to help. Often, Sheikh Zayed would go to the markets and buy things en masse from the traders, not because he needed anything, but would say that the traders have families and had come to sell goods to provide sustenance to their families. “What would happen if they weren’t able to sell?” he would say.
In those days no one believed his vision was practical or could be realised. Nobody believed in it except for him”
An amazing penchant for patience did not allow him to overreact to the obstacles that came his way. He was powerful, but never tried to impose his view on others or ask any sacrifice of them. He knew it would take time for people to understand what he wanted to happen. He didn’t seek any advantage or want any status in what he was doing. Instead, he would listen. The British diplomat Martin Buckmaster, who once came to Al Ain, wrote in his notes how “everyone was happy around Sheikh Zayed despite the harsh conditions they lived in.”
Undoubtedly all the work did take a toll on him. Sheikh Zayed was very strong and robust when he was young. The historian and traveller Wilfred Thessiger wrote about how all the bedouins looked up to Sheikh Zayed because he could “ride better than anyone on horse or camel back, and was a good shot as well.” He was physically strong, but over the years and toward the end of his life, the meeting with people and working from dawn to the early hours of the morning undoubtedly took a physical toll and meant he did become unwell.
I miss him. But he is still very much in our lives and I still often wake up with his words on my mind, giving me the drive to go, learn and research and prepare reports. But he is also still with us; you can see him in his children in the way they talk and speak and act.
If there is one thing I wish I could tell people about him is about his conviction that we as a human race are one family. He believed God had put us on this Earth to work and help each other. He didn’t believe in differences between people because of race or creeds. He even used to say that it was all of God’s design for us, and that “we should only look at each other’s deeds.” Aside from his political and strategic abilities, that I’d say that is the most enduring lesson he has left for all of us.
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