Eleven years have passed since the UAE’s first president Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan left us. I remember the day his passing was announced as if it were yesterday.
As a young man I was privileged to know him when I learned that he was not only lionhearted, courageous and wise, but also humble and compassionate. He taught me so much. He was a great leader and those hours spent in his company will always be etched in my memory.
While working for a construction company in Abu Dhabi, one of my first jobs, and while serving as member of the board for Abu Dhabi Water & Electricity Authority, I inadvertently breached protocol by requesting payment for a project upfront. When everyone in his majlis was leaving, I was asked to stay behind because Sheikh Zayed wanted to see me. My heart sank but rather than a ticking-off, I received a lesson in kindness and forgiveness.
Sheikh Zayed made a powerful impression on everyone who met him. The British diplomat Edward Henderson described him as “handsome, with humorous and intelligent eyes, of fine presence and bearing, simply dressed, and clearly a man of action and resolution. ”
The explorer and author, Wilfred Thesiger hailed him as a skilled diplomat. “Zayed as the leader of a large family always sits to listen to people’s problems and then finds the right solution, sorting out disputes, with satisfaction for all in a manner characterised by intelligence, wisdom and justice.”
Despite his great wealth and international stature, he always stayed close to his pure Arab roots and felt just as home in the desert with the companions of his youth, his camels and falcons, as he did in his palace. Yet, he was a progressive leader, a moderniser determined to put the fledgling country, forged in partnership with Dubai’ s ruler Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum, on the map.
Together Sheikh Zayed and Sheikh Rashid worked to bring the UAE out of obscurity laying the foundations for a metamorphosis that is often described as “miraculous”.
Theirs was not merely a legacy marked by economic success, massive infrastructure and environmental projects or improved living conditions. They shaped the way we perceived ourselves. They taught us to hold our heads high, to be fiercely proud of our origins, heritage and unique culture; they encouraged us to be independent and strong in our beliefs while respecting the beliefs of others – and most importantly, they fostered unity and were the glue that brought our seven emirates together as one federal nation.
Last year, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, credited Sheikh Zayed as “the source of generosity” and announced that the 19th day of Ramadan, the anniversary of Sheikh Zayed’s passing, would be forever celebrated as ‘Zayed Humanitarian Work Day’ to “commemorate Sheikh Zayed’ s spirit of philanthropy and to promote the Emirati culture of giving…”
Since our country first unfurled its flag in 1971 the UAE has contributed over AED 255 billion towards humanitarian aid and development assistance ranking high on the UN’ s Human Development Index.
Sheikh Zayed’s care for his people, who today enjoy some of the highest standards of living on the planet, was exemplary but he had much more to give. His generosity knew no bounds and his help was given freely irrespective of the recipients’ ethnicity or race.
In 1992, our late president founded the Zayed Foundation for Charity and Humanitarian Works with an initial capital of over US$ 1 billion. Over the years, the foundation has saved and improved lives worldwide with emergency relief, low-cost housing, health-care and educational opportunities and the development of infrastructure.
Walking steadfastly in his father’ s footsteps, the UAE’s President and Ruler of Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, established his own foundation in 2007 that focuses on “health and education on domestic, regional and global scales”, including child protection and care as well as the provision of safe water.
I would also take this opportunity to pay tribute to HH Sheikha Fatima bint Mubarak Al Nahyan, Chairwoman of the General Women’s Union, Supreme Chairwoman of the Family Development Foundation, and President of the Supreme Council for Motherhood and Childhood.
Earlier this year, this great lady was awarded the title “The Mother of the Arabs” by the General Union of Arab Producers and the Arab Women’s Campaign. That recognition is well-deserved for her empowerment of mothers and children all over the world and her support for gender equality in business and politics. Her kindness is legendary and it is in part thanks to her efforts that Emirati women manage 20,000 businesses and have become successful ambassadors, judges, lawyers, doctors and pilots.
I still miss the comforting presence of Sheikh Zayed and Sheikh Rashid, our founding fathers, who built our amazing country brick-by-brick and influenced our characters. But we were not abandoned to instability or insecurity like orphans because they ensured that their own children, their successors, would continue their leadership style in the same vein. Gone, but never forgotten, their munificence, tolerance and ‘ can do’ spirit will guide the people of the UAE for all time.