After I graduated from the University of Cambridge, I came to Abu Dhabi where my family had a contracting business, but I did not end up settling in any company because none of them appealed to me.
So I became a journalist, writing stories for Reuters and Agence France-Presse. By that time, in 1967, Sheikh Zayed had become the ruler, opening up the country to people from all over the world to help in his grandiose development strategy. A year after arriving – and mind you, Abu Dhabi was very small back then so you would meet everyone within a few weeks – I was asked to interview Sheikh Zayed for a British documentary and to translate his answers.
From that day onwards, I became his official translator and started working with the Abu Dhabi government. My career today is because of the opportunity he gave me to work for him.
Looking back, it is important to note that Sheikh Zayed took over at a very critical time. The British government had decided to withdraw its protection from the Gulf in 1968 and the emirates had not developed any alternative security measures. They had no army, no [significant] police forces; they had nothing to enable them to ensure their stability. All the oil reserves had just been discovered and they were being exported from a region that was very turbulent and full of dispute and armed conflict. So at this critical time, he had the vision to bring the seven emirates together to form a new, modern state that could take its rightful place regionally and internationally.
In those days, no one believed his vision could be realised. In fact, all the press back then used to write cynically about the objectives of Sheikh Zayed and his idea that a federation could be built between emirates that were, for a number of years, separate and which had disagreements between each other. It was a new experience in the region.
Nobody believed in it except for him, and it was his mission to convince everyone that this could be done. But one of the reasons he succeeded was his ability to use words to win people around him. Do not forget that the region was very isolated back then. It took an exceptional person to see through all of the difficulties.
Sheikh Zayed wanted to bring the modern world into the region and invest in everything, from healthcare to education. And while he had a very informal education growing up – he did not have the opportunity to go to modern schools – his experiences with others were the real sources of his knowledge. He was a person of immediate communication with others.
More importantly, he had innate intelligence that allowed him to understand the people around him and be able to read characters just looking at a person’s face. He could take three or four words you’d say and be able to pick up on what you wanted to speak about and the direction your thoughts were going.
When you compare him with others, he would always stand out anywhere he went, because he was a traditional leader who understood the tribes. They loved him because he was keen to retain their heritage and traditions, but was also a modern leader who wanted to build modern institutions. And if you look at what our leaders are doing today, you will see that they are continuing his vision. That is why Sheikh Zayed has become a true legend.
We feel him around us, not only in the physical traces he left, but also in our memories as human beings.
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