'I've never read a book on leadership that captures what Sheikh Zayed was'

Opinion: The transformation of the UAE in a generation could only be possible through strong, clear-sighted leadership, writes Elham Al Qasimi
The six rulers of the United Arab Emirates, December 2, 1971
By Elham Al Qasimi
Sun 25 Feb 2018 02:40 PM

The legacy of Sheikh Zayed was introduced to me as a child growing up in the US. Around the fourth grade in school, we were learning about government and how the United States was formed as a democracy. At home, I asked my parents about the UAE and so first heard the stories of how he was a founding force in the shift from a largely nomadic population to the modern era. He was someone, they said, who saw something where there was nothing.

I didn’t fully understand the things they said, but that’s the memory that stayed with me; the child’s impression. It created the foundations for what I later experienced when we moved back to the UAE, a system that has delivered above and beyond the norms of what an average country could achieve within one leader’s lifetime.

Looking back, how did Sheikh Zayed know that he needed to build the capacity to manage our own natural resources? How did he know how to negotiate the agreements to achieve it? How could he be the leader of an entire people without generating a single negative or resentful memory?

The reason for that, I think, is because he had a clear vision for what he wanted to leave behind: a better world for his people, both economically and socially. From the beginning, he had the right intentions and the right values, and he consistently stood in the face of injustice, which inevitably happens amid growth of such magnitude.

There was one memorable instance where an Emirati man went into his court and complained that he was living in the street, despite the promise of housing for everyone. No one, he said, would answer his queries. Sheikh Zayed called over his son, who was responsible for the housing programme, and told him he didn’t want to see him again until this problem was solved – for everyone. He wouldn’t accept anything less from anyone. Even his own son.

To me, that’s the kind of leadership that people spend years trying, and frankly failing, to instill. I’ve never read a book on leadership that captures the essence of what Sheikh Zayed was and how he had the intuition and the courage to make such profound changes. But the proof is all around us; his people are better off living in the world that he created.

One of his last greatest pushes was on tertiary education for women – and driving for better quality, not just quantity, of that education. I now work for Mubadala where Sheikh Mohammed Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, is our chairman and I see the culture and values that Sheikh Zayed put in place reverberate all through the company.

As a woman, I’ve never felt more empowered as I have under his leadership, where you are encouraged to go and solve your own problems and pursue your own opportunities.

There’s a deep respect for women’s leadership and decision-making in the UAE that could easily be overlooked. For example, I now manage a $20bn tech portfolio for Mubadala. Why would that happen if I wasn’t respected and trusted for my professional skills and conduct? So I feel really blessed to be from this part of the Middle East.

Whenever I’m tired or frustrated, or wishing I was at home with my kids, I think about Sheikh Zayed, a man who never gave up trying to create opportunities for everyone in the UAE. It’s now up to us to continue his story and leave a country even better than the one we inherited.

Tribute by Elham Al Qasimi, adventurer turned entrepreneur

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