Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan

Founding Father of UAE with a vision of Economic, Social and political development

His Highness Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan was the founding father of modern day United Arab Emirates who, like his country, moved from poverty and obscurity to vast riches and a place on the international stage in the course of his life. Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan was born in Abu Dhabi in 1918 and served as the President of United Arab Emirates from 1971 to 2004 and the Ruler of Abu Dhabi from 1966 to 2004 till he died on 2nd November 2004.

Sheikh Zayed’s vision was driven by a passionate belief in social, economic and environmental sustainability. Armed with the valuable lessons of the past, he believed that it is important to pursue development that meets the needs of present and future generations. To that end, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan laid out a vision that would ensure the sustainable development of the UAE.

He placed great emphasis on education and empowerment, on the welfare of the less fortunate in the UAE and around the world and worked tirelessly to protect the heritage of the land we live in the environment of natural resources.

Sheikh Zayed left behind a legacy of noble values such as equality, tolerance, charity, and generosity that have remained long after his 33-year leadership. As a man of peace and vision, he promoted the virtues of compromise, reason, and dialogue in a region troubled by crises and conflicts. The enduring legacy of Sheikh Zayed, who was blessed with a visionary mind and generous heart, is celebrated to this day while his contributions and initiatives are a reflection of his rare skills as a true leader.

A great leader, respected by rich and poor, and an inspiration to many, Sheikh Zayed always emphasized that the real wealth is not material gain, but his investment in people who would eventually build the future of the nation. Health, education, and social welfare sectors improved drastically under his leadership and so did the economy.

Sheikh Zayed used oil revenues to further advance the UAE and build a strong economy. Subsequently, the UAE ranked amongst the region’s most economically developed countries and the second biggest economy in the GCC region, after Saudi Arabia. As the country’s ruler, Sheikh Zayed introduced a formal government structure with departments developed to handle specific tasks. He assigned public officials to build basic housing facilities, schools, health services, and the construction of an airport, seaport, roads, and a bridge to link Abu Dhabi to the mainland. Additional financial resources were also spent on planting trees in Al Ain in order to transform Abu Dhabi into a green city.

Sheikh Zayed was the first statesman to call for a union. He quickly realized that for Abu Dhabi to prosper, it needed to cooperate with its tribal neighbors. His first step was to meet with the then-ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum. The meeting was held on February 19, 1968, at Samih, where the idea of a united Arab nation under one flag was discussed. Eventually, on December 2, 1971, a federation of six emirates (Abu Dhabi, Ajman, Dubai, Fujairah, Sharjah, Umm al-Quwain) formed the United Arab Emirates. Sheikh Zayed was elected president and Sheikh Rashid was elected vice-president. Shortly afterward, on February 11, 1972, Ras al Khaimah officially joined the federation.

Under Sheikh Zayed’s leadership, the UAE was recognized internationally to be on the forefront of those who provide foreign aid and assistance to those in need, in addition to taking care of its citizens and their welfare. The UAE has provided extensive financial and infrastructural support to Yemen, Syria, Palestine, Egypt and Pakistan during crises. The value of the country’s humanitarian assistance, including long-term aid for refugees and internally displaced people (IDPs), amounted to AED 4.48 billion (USD 1.23 billion). In Syria alone over the past year, with major funding from the United Arab Emirates, UNICEF and partners have been able to examine and evaluate the malnutrition of about half a million children, providing 128,000 of them with nutritional supplements rich in vitamins and calcium. Children who suffer from acute malnutrition have received specialized treatment.

Sheikh Zayed was deeply concerned by the poor economic and social situation of his people and promised that he would make use of all the resources available to build a modern state to improve the standard of living of the Emiratis. He was firmly convinced that truthfulness, honesty, and devotion were essential traits of a leadership committed to serving its people. He provided his people with a better standard of living to ensure progress and prosperity. Making wise use of the oil revenues that had begun to flow, Sheikh Zayed drew up ambitious plans for development, focussing initially on the creation of the infrastructure.

Sheikh Zayed always expressed his pride in the achievements of Emirati women in terms of their role in strengthening the economic and social sectors of the society. “We reaffirm our commitment to provide all necessary support for our women, such that will ensure that their role in society can be further strengthened, and so that the scope of their participation in the comprehensive development of our country can be widened,” he once said

He was born a Bedouin, growing up just as Abu Dhabi was heading into a period of deep depression in the 1930s, when the Japanese manufacture of artificial pearls destroyed pearling in the Gulf, on which Abu Dhabi depended. He was appointed as the Ruler of Abu Dhabi in 1966 and from that time on, the tide of development went in full flood. With new oil fields being found year after year, the state coffers seemed inexhaustible, as deep as Zayed’s commitment to transforming his desert state.

Roads, schools, hospitals and every other attribute of a modern state appeared almost daily, while Al-Ain, where Zayed had spent 20 years, cleaning and repairing the falaj system of irrigation become his major achievement, was rapidly made into a green city, with ornamental trees as well as the ubiquitous palms – today it also houses the UAE university.

Safely in office, Zayed surrounded himself with good advisers and took a genuine personal interest in all that went on. The result was that Abu Dhabi became a clean modern city, and though it lacked the brashness of Dubai or the experience of Bahrain, it did somehow manage to give the clear impression that it was the heart of the UAE, and the cornerstone on which all rested.

Zayed himself, as the years went on, became more the statesman than the Bedouin, while retaining his early piety and commitment to the Bedouin way of governing by consent, and always seeking consensus. As head of one of the richest small countries in the world, he was a constant target of supplicants, but quickly learned to discriminate, always putting Muslim causes at the top of the list. The Palestinians, and in particular schemes for Jerusalem, were always given high priority.

Never was he afraid to take sides, or to speak – and act – if he thought things were going wrong. He quickly supported Kuwait after the Iraq invasion in 1990, and sent a contingent of UAE troops to join the American-led coalition which restored Kuwaiti sovereignty. But as sanctions dragged on, he regularly sent ship-loads of supplies to Iraq, and it was an open secret that the UAE played a major and willing role in Iraqi sanction-busting.

Zayed’s only schooling was the study of the Koran and the practical education gained from sitting in his father’s majlis or going off on hunting expeditions. Yet he made the transition from penniless desert Sheikh to fabulous riches and dominion over a modern country with no trouble, hardly putting a foot wrong.

Since its establishment, the UAE has confounded international expectations by developing successfully in all areas of life; social services, health and education, communications and technology, trade and finance, at a rate almost unmatched anywhere or at any time. More importantly, these material achievements have occurred against a backdrop of political and social stability. Throughout history, few leaders can have experienced the amount of radical changes that Sheikh Zayed has witnessed. Fewer still could reflect on them in the knowledge that they chose and acted in accordance with their beliefs and for the betterment of humanity, regardless of personal cost, financial or otherwise. Sheikh Zayed has the love and admiration of his people and international recognition and respect, all of which he has earned many times over.

Sheikh Zayed died in 2004, in his late eighties, leaving behind a legacy as the Father of the nation. He was succeeded as the UAE’s President and as Ruler of Abu Dhabi by his eldest son, His Highness Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan in 2004. The principles and philosophy that he brought to government, however, remain at the core of the state, and of its policies, today.

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