The first memory I have of Sheikh Zayed, may God bless his soul, is from a story we learned in the classroom as small children.
We were told how Sheikh Zayed was driving around the city one afternoon when he saw a girl crying outside her school. He stopped the car, approached the girl and found out that her father was late picking up her that day.
So he sat with her until the father was able to fetch her. That image of him sitting there with her – there was a photograph of them together in our textbooks – is engraved in my memory.
Although I never met Sheikh Zayed, he was always present in our lives. We knew him as “Baba Zayed” and he was almost as much a father figure to us as our biological fathers. You looked up to him as your childhood hero. I think that feeling was universal among Emirati and non-Emirati children; we all shared this same sentiment.
What I learned from him – and it’s a lesson that has stayed with me ever since – is the belief that anything is possible. Sheikh Zayed was told back in the 1950s that there was no way he could build anything here in the desert. But he challenged that notion and turned the country into his dream of a paradise. Knowing how this story of ours began tells us that having a strong belief in ourselves can help us achieve anything today.
And this is especially resonant when you consider that this was 50 years ago, when man was not yet on the moon and the UAE not even a country. In fact, most of the families back then didn’t even have running water. The fact that five decades on from this time the UAE is sponsoring a probe to reach Mars is something that speaks volumes for what it has been able to achieve.
Sheikh Zayed also once said that it’s men who make the factories and the machines, not the other way round. That belief in human capital has manifested itself in the UAE’s investment in education and healthcare. The doors were open to scholarships, particularly when the nation needed to build that capability the most.
My own desire to study has always been driven in part by the motivation of his message. The opportunities I’ve received are the result of his work, and if we are able to give back even 10 percent of what the UAE has given us then I would feel very happy – though I don’t think we would ever be able to give back what the country has done for us. But we can always strive to do our best.
When you live abroad, as I have done while studying in the UK and US, there is almost an assumption that you must be unhappy with the status quo. But we Emiratis know that, even today, we can to go and meet our leaders at an open majlis. We know that our voice is important and that we can have our concerns listened to. This is quite unique and it has created a very strong bond that holds the people and the leadership together.
There’s a story that someone once suggested to Sheikh Zayed that there were too many foreigners in the country. He replied that “the land is God’s land and the money is God’s money”. That speaks volumes for how he was open to taking in the best of what people have to offer. And this again comes from his belief in human capital. Sheikh Zayed genuinely loved humanity. He really believed that human beings can achieve anything if they set their mind to it.
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