H.H Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan

[1918 – 2004]

Birth and Upbringing

Sheikh Zayed was born in the Emirate of Abu Dhabi in 1918 at al-Hosn Palace to Sheikh Sultan bin Zayed, the Ruler of Abu Dhabi from 1922-1926. The youngest of Sheikh Sultan's four sons, he 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 related to authentic Arab traditions such as falconry, camel and Arabian horse riding and shooting. His character and charisma was molded in his early youth while living in al-Ain. It was from his experiences there that he developed his leadership qualities.

Ruler's Representative in the Eastern Region

In 1946, Sheikh Zayed was assigned to represent his brother, Sheikh Shakhbut bin Sultan al-Nahyan, in the Eastern Region when he was appointed the Ruler’s Representative 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 well known, but a well-loved and respected leader who was eager to hear from all of 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 he personally oversaw the implementation of reforms. He was the epitome of generosity and hospitality.

Sir Wilfred Thesiger, the famous British explorer who documented his famous trips across the Empty Quarter, observed in his book ‘Arabian Sands' that Sheikh Zayed was “a powerfully built man, with a brown beard. He had a strong intelligent face, with steady, observant eyes, and his manner was quiet but masterful” (1960: 213). Thesiger remarked that Sheikh Zayed was one man that he looked forward to meeting as “He had a great reputation among the Bedu. They liked him for his easy, informal ways and his friendliness, and they respected his force of character, his shrewdness and his physical strength. They said admiringly ‘Zayed is a Bedu. He knows about camels, can ride like one of us, can shoot, and knows how to fight'.” (1960: 214).

The explorer described the young Sheikh Zayed's governing style by saying “Zayed as the leader of a large family always sits to listen to people's problems and then finds the right solution, sorting out the disputes, with satisfaction for all in a manner characterized by intelligence, wisdom and justice.“ (1960?page ref).

The former British Captain of the Trucial Oman Scouts, Anthony Shepherd, recounts in his book ‘Arabian Adventure' his impressions of Sheikh Zayed stating “He was a man who commanded the respect, admiration and loyalty of the Bedouin living in the deserts around Buraimi as he did of the villagers. His was the most forceful personality in the Trucial States” (1961: 136).

Colonel Hugh Boustead, the British Political Agent in Abu Dhabi, wrote after he visited Sheikh Zayed in al-Ain that “I was always astonished at the crowds who gathered around him wherever he went in 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 home town, and in the Buraimi area, for the benefit of the people. The Persian springs had been dug out to increase the water supply to the gardens, wells dug and pumps supplied and cemented baths for men and women had been built in the fallujahs(falaj??). Everyone who visited Buraimi noticed the happiness of the people in the area” (1971: 233-4).

The British researcher, Clarence Mann, visited the Eastern Region and attended Sheikh Zayed's majlis. In his book ‘Abu Dhabi: Birth of an Oil Shaikhdom' he noted that “The choice of Shaikh Zaid as a successor to his brother was logical and predictable, and perhaps in the best interests of the Shaikhdom. Next to Shaikh Shakhbut he has always been the most influential person in the Shaikhdom. Centered in al-Buraimi, he controlled directly all villages in the area, with the exception of those under the control of Musqat, and his influence stretched throughout al-Dharfah. Highly respected by the Bedouins because he knows and practices their ways and traditions, he was at the same time well-liked by the British who appreciated his progressive ideas for the Shaikhdom” (1971: 97-8).

Ruler of Abu Dhabi

The discovery of oil in the late 1950s changed the whole economic landscape of the Abu Dhabi as it marked the tangible start 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 chose Sheikh Zayed as the new Ruler of the Emirate on August 6, 1966.

Sheikh Zayed implemented major reforms such as modern education, healthcare, public housing, and general urban development. He organized a key development process programme and encouraged his people to be involved and participate wholeheartedly in the process, bringing in foreign expertise for support where necessary. A few days after assuming office, the establishment of a modern formal government with its Ministries and Departments was announced and the new Government entrusted with the task of conducting the affairs of the state.

One of Sheikh Zayed’s priorities was infrastructure that included building new roads, construction of a bridge to link Abu Dhabi Island to the mainland and the establishment of schools, housing, medical services, a sea port and an airport. The face of Abu Dhabi began to change as it became a construction zone with the sound of machines in every direction. Thousands of local people moved from barasti (palm frond) houses into modern homes. Modern roads were laid over the desert sand and fresh water and electricity connected to every house. Education shifted from the religious system of ‘Mutawiah' to a modern educational system and literacy classes were established for those who had not previously benefitted from education. Bedu in the desert began to receive medical services from clinics for the first time. 

President of the United Arab Emirates

In 1968, Great Britain announced its intention to withdraw from its bases East of Suez. Therefore, it became imperative for the emirates that made up the Trucial States to formulate a plan for the period after the withdrawal of the British from the Gulf Region.

Sheikh Zayed, along with Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed al-Maktoum, the ruler of Dubai at the time, took on the issue and their initiative had a major impact on events to follow including the al-Samaih Agreement signed on February 18, 1968. That Agreement paved the way for loftier deliberations such as the discussions for a union of nine states - the seven Trucial State emirates and their two fellow states of Bahrain and Qatar - that ultimately led to the establishment of the union of the emirates now known as the ‘United Arab Emirates‘ (as both Bahrain and Qatar announced their independence and withdrew).

The United Arab Emirates was established on December 2, 1971. Sheikh Zayed was unanimously elected, by the Rulers of the other emirates, as the first President of the newly formed nation for a period of five years. Sheikh Rashid was elected as Vice President. The Supreme Council later renewed its confidence in Sheikh Zayed by electing him several more times until his death. He was revered not only as the President but as the builder of the nation and as a loving father to the nation's citizens.

The Rulers of the emirates and the members of the UAE Supreme Council agreed on the establishment of an interim federal constitution for effective rule and a law defining the powers of federal institutions taking account of modern democratic government while, at the same time, preserving the Nation’s traditional roots.

Sheikh Zayed started managing the affairs of the newly formed state. He distributed oil wealth to all the state's sectors especially the ones that needed development the most. He focused on the economy, education, culture and heritage. As evidence of his vision and forward thinking, he worked hard to preserve the Nation's reputation among its fellow Arab states as well as among foreign nations and, today, the UAE enjoys a good international reputation as a result of the security and stability that has been attained. 

Reforming Education

One of Sheikh Zayed's first wide-scale initiatives for the UAE was the provision of education to all citizens. This resulted in schools and learning centers being built all over the country and the recruitment of teachers from other Arab countries to provide education to the younger generations.

Within a few years, the UAE was able to meet all the necessary education requirements for a modern sovereign state. Sheikh Zayed's efforts in this culminated in the creation of a variety of accredited institutions such as the UAE University, the Higher Colleges of Technology and the Zayed University. Police academies were established and the UAE became home to an increasing number of local and international private universities and colleges.

The GCC: a larger ambition

Sheikh Zayed, convinced of the benefits of close cooperation between not only the seven emirates of the UAE but between all Gulf States, was a leading force in the foundation of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). His vision was to bring together the Gulf countries that shared similar economies but also a history based on common tribal social structures. On these common grounds, Sheikh Zayed aimed at, and succeeded in, establishing a formal regional and political entity. The charter of the Council was signed on May 24, 1981 in Abu Dhabi by the heads of its member states that are Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and, of course, the United Arab Emirates. 

Developing Industrial Sectors and Infrastructure

From the start, Sheikh Zayed's vision was to develop the industrial sector of the newly formed UAE,  recognising that oil was a finite resource. His primary focus was on developing the manufacturing sector of the Country that, as a result, enjoyed a boom in the seventies.

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 connect the seven emirates with one another. The new roads, international airports and sea ports quickly enabled the UAE to play a role in the modern industrial world and to swiftly take its place among the world's most highly-developed industrial nations.

Protecting the Environment 

Known for his love of nature and his eagerness to preserve the environment, Sheikh Zayed focused, in his first acts as the new Ruler of Abu Dhabi, on the promotion of agriculture and the expansion of greenery in order to curb desertification.

Later, as President of the UAE, he extended his concern for environmental conservation to the whole country and created the political infrastructure for environmental research, protection and development. Not only did Sheikh Zayed support the growing of crops, but he also ordered the planting of more than 140 million trees throughout the Emirate of Abu Dhabi. Furthermore, he founded a program to protect native wildlife, such as the Dorcas Gazelle and the Arabian Oryx. In acknowledgment of his strong support of environmental protection, Sheikh Zayed was the first head of state to be honored, in 1995, with the Golden Panda award by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). In 2005, one year after his passing, the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) honored Sheikh Zayed posthumously as an outstanding and innovative leader with the ‘Champion of the Earth' award. 

Peacekeeping and Charity Work

Sheikh Zayed held a firm belief in Arab solidarity. Moreover, he called for cooperation between all nations based on the principles of friendship, mutual respect and non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries. In particular, Sheikh Zayed felt it was his duty to use his personal and political authority, in both the Arab and International arenas, to achieve a just and durable peace in the Middle East based upon the withdrawal of Israeli forces from all the occupied Arab lands and the restitution of the rights of the Palestinians - especially their right to return to their homes, to establish their own independent state and to restore their rightful sovereignty over their national soil. Accordingly, he supported Egypt and Syria in  their 1973 war for the liberation of the Arab occupied territories in Palestine by imposing an oil boycott, making his famous declaration: “Arab oil is not dearer than Arab blood.”

In October 1980, Sheikh Zayed called for an Arab summit to rescue Lebanon from its factional civil war. In this regard, he stated “No Arab should lag behind performing his duty in Lebanon or Palestine, or in any other place in the Arab world.”

His consistent interest in preserving Arab solidarity made him the first Arab leader to call for Egypt's return to the Arab League during the Amman Summit in October 1987 after relations were severed following Egypt's signing of the Camp David Accord with Israel. Restoring diplomatic relations with Egypt underscored his conviction that only negotiations would achieve political results in the long run.

During the 1991 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, Sheikh Zayed was one of the first Arab leaders to call for reconciliation and  he invited displaced Kuwaiti families to take refuge in the UAE. His determination for peacekeeping was also demonstrated by the UAE's participation in the UN's ‘Operation Restore Hope’ in Somalia in 1992, as well as in his mediation efforts when civil war broke out in Yemen in 1994.

On the international stage, the most notable example of Sheikh Zayed's belief in global solidarity was the UAE's participation in the NATO-led peacekeeping mission in Kosovo in 1998. The UAE was the only Muslim state to join the operation and Sheikh Zayed's compassion towards the population of Kosovo moved him to organize a major humanitarian relief program through the UAE’s Red Crescent Society. This relief initiative was specifically aimed at preserving peace and to help to rebuild the country's infrastructure.

Sheikh Zayed’s belief in solidarity was deeply rooted in his Islamic faith. Sheikh Zayed supported Muslims all over the world by providing copies of the Holy Quran, establishing Islamic centers and research institutes and providing financial support to Hajj pilgrims.

The political thinking of Sheikh Zayed provided him with sound strategic visions that helped him to build a unified, modern state. He personally used to follow and take an interest in every issue in his Country and routinely visited all of the emirates to inspect the conditions of the people and to enquire about their needs. He participated with the people of the UAE in most of the events that brought them together and made considerable sacrifices for the sake of his country.