His Birth and Upbringing
Sheikh Zayed was born in the Emirate of Abu Dhabi in 1918 to Sheikh Sultan Bin Zayed, the Ruler of Abu Dhabi from 1922-1926. He was the youngest of Sheikh Sultan's four sons and was named after his famous grandfather, known as ‘Zayed the Great’, the Ruler of the Emirate from 1885-1909.
Sheikh Zayed had a strong passion for anything with which a trueborn Arab is identified such as falconry, riding Arabian thoroughbred camels and horses and mastering archery. His character was shaped in his early youth, while living in the city of Al Ain. Its calm and vast expanses were instrumental in developing his leadership qualities.
As the Ruler's Representative in the Eastern Region
In 1946, Sheikh Zayed was appointed as representative of his brother, Sheikh Shakhbut Bin Sultan Al-Nahyan, in the Eastern Region. During his twenty years as his brother's representative, Sheikh Zayed gained a reputation as a natural born leader who ruled by example. Sheikh Zayed became not only a well-known, but also a popular and respected leader who was eager to listen to all his subjects and whose decisions were based on the consensus of the various tribes in the region.
He frequently travelled to even the remotest parts of the region in order to consult with people regarding their needs. He kept an open majlis, maintained close ties with his people and personally oversaw the implementation of reforms. He was the paragon of generosity and hospitality.
Sir Wilfred Thesiger, the famous British traveler who documented his famous trips across the Empty Quarter, noted in his book ‘Arabian Sands' that Sheikh Zayed was “a strongly-built man, with a brown beard. He was shrewd and sharp-witted, and his manner was quiet but masterful”. Thesiger remarked that Sheikh Zayed was a man whom he looked forward to meeting as “He had a great reputation among the Bedouins. They liked him for his easy, informal ways and his friendliness, and they respected his strong character, his shrewdness and his physical strength. They said admiringly ‘Zayed is a Bedouin. He knows a lot about camels, can ride them like us, is a sharpshooter and a skillful fight'.”
The traveler described the young Sheikh Zayed's governing style by saying “Zayed as the leader of a large family is always willing to listen to people's problems and then to find the right solution, settling disputes to the satisfaction of all, in a manner characterized by intelligence, wisdom and justice.” The former British Captain of the Trucial Oman Scouts, Anthony Shepherd, recounts in his book ‘Arabian Adventure' his impressions of his meeting with Sheikh Zayed stating “He was a man who commanded the respect, admiration and loyalty of the Bedouins living in the deserts around Buraimi. He was the most commanding figure in the Trucial States”.
After visiting Sheikh Zayed in Al Ain, Colonel Hugh Boustead, the British Political Agent in Abu Dhabi, wrote: “I was always astonished at the sheer size of the crowd who gathered around him whenever he toured Buraimi, and who treated him with the sort of reverence and attention due to a minor saint. He invariably had a kind word for everybody, and was most generous with his money. I was immediately struck by all that had been done in Al ‘Ain, his hometown, and in the Buraimi area, for the benefit of the people. Water ducts had been dug out to increase the water supply to the gardens, water wells were sunk and pumps were supplied and modern baths for men and women had been built in the falajs. Everyone who visited Al Ain noticed the happiness of the people in the area”.
The British scholar, Clarence Mann, visited the Eastern Region and attended Sheikh Zayed's majlis. In his book ‘Abu Dhabi: Birth of an Oil Sheikhdom' he noted that “The choice of Sheikh Zayed as a successor to his brother was logical and predictable, and perhaps in the best interests of the Sheikhdom. Next to Sheikh Shakh but he has always been the most influential person in the Sheikhdom. He controlled directly all villages in the area, with the exception of those under the control of Muscat, and his influence stretched throughout Al-Dhafrah. He is highly respected by the Bedouins because he knows and practices their ways and traditions, He used whatever little money he had to introduce reforms in Buraimi. Thanks to him, the Bedouins pledged allegiance to Abu Dhabi. His fairness, reformist attitude and exceptional political skills made him the natural leader of Abu Dhabi ”
Ruler of Abu Dhabi
The discovery of oil in the late 1950s transformed the economic landscape of the Abu Dhabi as it ushered the beginning of its development. In 1962, as the Emirate began exporting oil, it was immediately apparent that an innovative vision of governance was needed to address the new challenges and to optimize the utilization of oil revenues. The Al-Nahyan family unanimously elected Sheikh Zayed as the new Ruler of the Emirate on August 6, 1966. Thus a new phase of the history of Abu Dhabi started.
Sheikh Zayed carried out major reforms, such as modern education, healthcare, public housing, and general urban development. He drew up a plan for a major development and encouraged his people to participate wholeheartedly in the process, bringing in foreign expertise as appropriate. A few days after assuming office, the establishment of a modern formal government with its ministries and departments was announced and the new government was entrusted with the task of conducting the affairs of the state.
Sheikh Zayed’s priorities included building new roads, construction of a bridge to link Abu Dhabi Island to the mainland and the establishment of schools, houses, medical services, a seaport and an airport. Thus, Abu Dhabi was transformed beyond recognition, as it became a huge construction site with the noise of machines and equipment everywhere. Thousands of local people moved from barasti (palm frond) houses into modern homes. Modern roads were built over the desert sand and fresh water supply and electricity were connected to every house. Education shifted from the religious system of ‘Mutawiah' to a modern educational system and literacy classes were held for those who had not previously benefitted from education. The desert Bedouins began to receive medical services from clinics for the first time. His development venture succeeded in eradicating ages of backwardness.
Zayed: UAE President
In 1968, when Britain announced its intention to withdraw its bases from East of Suez, it became imperative for the Emirates to take some steps to change the course of history in the region; especially that the Arabian Gulf region was vulnerable to occupation by expansionist powers. Sheikh Zayed and Sheikh Rashid Bin Saeed Al Maktoum, Ruler of Dubai at that time, undertook an initiative that had a great impact on subsequent events. On February 18, 1968, they signed Al Samih agreement, which resulted in major changes that set the stage for the discussions of the Union of the Nine that took place among the seven Emirates and their sister states Bahrain and Qatar later on. Finally, this led to the unification of the Emirates under the name the “United Arab Emirates” after both Bahrain and Qatar announced their independence.
The UAE was founded on December 2, 1971, and Sheikh Zayed was unanimously elected by the rulers of the Emirates as the first president of the new state for five years. The Supreme Council of the Union expressed their confidence in Sheikh Zayed by re-electing him several times. Sheikh Zayed was the president, the builder and the caring father of the nation. Sheikh Rashid Bin Saeed Al Maktoum was elected vice-president.
Sheikh Zayed followed up the affairs of his newly born developing state and spent the oil revenues on various sectors in the UAE, especially those in need of development. He looked after the economy, education, heritage and culture. Thanks to Sheikh Zayed’s acumen and broad-mindedness, the UAE acquired good reputation among Arab and foreign countries. The security and stability of the UAE strengthened such a reputation further.
The Rulers of the Emirates who are the members of the Federal Supreme Council, agreed on drawing up a provisional federal constitution for an effective governance that defines the authorities of the federal institutions in a state adopting modern management methods and seeking at the same time to maintain the traditional form of direct democracy.
The GCC: a Greater ambition
Having a deep inner conviction in the benefits of closer cooperation not only among the seven emirates of the UAE, but also among all Gulf States, Sheikh Zayed was a leading force in the foundation of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). His vision was translated into action by bringing together the Gulf countries, which shared not only similar economies, but also a history based on common tribal social structures.
On the basis of such common grounds, Sheikh Zayed aimed at, and succeeded in establishing a formal regional and political entity. The GCC charter was signed by the heads of its member states consisting of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates in their first summit that was held in Abu Dhabi on May 25, 1981.
Developing Industrial Sectors and Infrastructure
From the start, Sheikh Zayed's vision involved the development of the industrial sector of the newly formed UAE, recognizing that oil was a non-renewable resource. His primary focus was on developing the manufacturing sector of his country, as a result of which the UAE enjoyed a boom, especially in the Seventies of the last century.
The development of the country's infrastructure was another pressing issue for Sheikh Zayed. From the very start of his rule, road construction, telephone lines and the establishment of national media were recognized as vital to link up the seven Emirates with each another. The new roads, international airports and seaports quickly enabled the UAE to play a prominent role in the modern industrial world and to take its well-deserved place among the world's most highly developed industrial nations.
The 19th of Ramadan 1425 A.H., correspondent to November 2nd, 2004 A.D. is sadly an unforgettable date as the United Arab Emirates lost its Leader, the Founder of its Federation after a long march of giving that lasted for four decades. The old and the young mourned his death, which shocked all UAE people.
Arab and foreign countries mourned the death of Sheik Zayed, and people all over the world expressed their sadness for his loss. World leaders issued sad obituaries filled with expressions of sorrow for a loss of a man who is respected and appreciated by the whole world, and whose accomplishments are numerous.
The UAE people found solace in Zayed’s sons who grew up by his side, absorbing his knowledge as he is the greatest tutor in leadership and fair governance. His Highness Sheikh Khalifa Bin Zayed was the worthy successor to the best predecessor as he assumed power with the consent and blessings of all UAE Sheikhs and people.