I was lucky to have met Sheikh Zayed twice in the late 1980s during his visits to Fujairah, where I used to live. You cannot imagine the joy people expressed when they met him.
For us Emiratis, his presence was always felt. I still remember pausing at his photos in our school notebooks. There is a big difference between our generation and the younger one.
My children have never met Sheikh Zayed, neither have they heard his speeches. There is some kind of sadness I feel for them having not witnessed the origin of the prosperity we live in today, and how he brought it about. They do not have the same appreciation for the current status of the UAE compared to how it used to be.
I was born in Fujairah in the 1970s, so I witnessed the difference in the way of life prior to and following the union, when the spirit of coming together transformed the country and ended all conflict between tribes and emirates. It all started with Sheikh Zayed. He was a peacemaker. He created a brotherly friendship with all the rulers, particularly Sheikh Rashid Bin Saeed Al Maktoum (late Ruler of Dubai), with whom he was close. He made everyone feel like an Emirati citizen, regardless of which emirate they were from.
Looking back, I can easily pinpoint why he was called the father of the UAE. If he saw Emiratis without housing, he would immediately provide them with decent homes. My uncle, the late Saif Khammas, was in charge of picking up funds from the salaries committee established by Sheikh Zayed and delivering them to widows in a remote town in Fujairah called Al Beth.
In fact, I know someone who still receives that assistance. These were the kind of principles and values that were implemented by Sheikh Zayed. They were the first fruits of the union felt by many Emiratis. For example, Fujairah was no longer a remote, distant area.
My father used to study in a small local school in Dubai called Kuttab, after which he travelled to Kuwait to continue his higher studies. But when he came back, there were already proper schools opening in Fujairah and, in 1975, he took over as principle in one of them.
He benefitted from the fact that Sheikh Zayed started with education and the other basic foundations that affect people’s daily lives, health and real estate. All the big construction firms such as Ghantoot Group were started with his help through funds he created.
He also encouraged knowledge transfer from countries such as Egypt and Syria, either bringing over experts or sending Emiratis there to get experience. Even when it came to agriculture, he made huge efforts to recover land through the spreading of greenery in areas including Al Ain.
Today, we have over 200 nationalities in the UAE. We went from having a tribal attitude to developing a regional identity and finally, a global approach that is forever looking forward. But one should never forget that it all began with that one person: Sheikh Zayed.
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