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The late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan

​​The late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan

The late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan was the first president of the United Arab Emirates. Under his forty years of rule the country was transformed from a stunted conglomeration of seven emirates into a strong modern nation with one of the highest GDPs per capita in the Arab world and a state-of-the-art infrastructure and social system. His death on November 2, 2004, marked the end of an era for the United Arab Emirates.
As the president of the UAE, Sheikh Zayed gained the trust and respect of the international community and managed to establish the Emirates as a global player among the modern industrial countries. As ruler of the Emirati people, he maintained the traditional role of a father-figure to his people, approachable to every citizen to discuss not only the intricacies of state policies but any personal concerns that were brought to him. As such, Sheikh Zayed combined the image of a modern statesman with the characteristics and values of a traditional tribal leader.

Ruling Al Ain

Sheikh Zayed was born in Al Hosn palace, Abu Dhabi in 1918, to Sheikh Sultan bin Zayed, who himself ruled the emirate from 1922-1926. The youngest of four boys, he was named after his famous grandfather, known as Zayed the Great, who also ruled the emirate from 1885-1909.
In 1946, Sheikh Zayed was assigned to govern Al Ain and to represent his brother Sheikh Shakhbout bin Sultan Al Nahyan in the Eastern Region. During his twenty years as governor, Sheikh Zayed gained a reputation as a natural leader who ruled by example. His principles of leadership were to maintain close ties with the people and to personally oversee the implementation of reforms. As such, he kept an open majlis where he based his decisions on the consensus of the different tribes and travelled the region frequently to consult the people, even those in remote areas, about their needs. It was during his rule of Al Ain and the Eastern Region that Sheikh Zayed became not only well known but a well loved and respected leader, eager to hear from all of his subjects.

Ruling Abu Dhabi and the Making of the UAE

The discovery of oil in the late 1950s and early 1960s reversed the whole economic formula in the Gulf region, as it marked the real start of its development. In 1962, as the Emirate began exporting oil, it was immediately obvious that a new vision of governance was required to address the new challenges and to optimise the use of oil revenues. The Al Nahyan family unanimously chose Sheikh Zayed as the new ruler of the emirate on August 6, 1966. He implemented major reforms such as modern education, healthcare, public housing, and general urban development.
However, the improvement of living standards and the distribution of oil revenues were not the only challenges facing the country. In 1968, it became clear that the Trucial States had to transform into a stable modern nation state within three years. Sheikh Zayed realised the importance of a strong union to make the future state durable on an international level. A constitution, legal system and model of rulership had to be agreed upon and established, all of which were hitherto unknown to the country. Sheikh Zayed became the leading force in the creation of a federation between the Gulf countries, together with Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum, the Ruler of Dubai with whom he signed an agreement in 1968. The efforts of both charismatic leaders finally resulted in the foundation of the United Arab Emirates in 1971.
On December, 1971, Sheikh Zayed was elected the first President of the new state by Their Highnesses the Rulers of the Emirates, who are simultaneously members of the Federal Supreme Council (FSC). Every five years, the FSC renewed its confidence in Sheikh Zayed and re-elected him.

Leading the Union

On December 2, 1971, Sheikh Zayed was elected the first President of the new state by Their Highnesses the Rulers of the Emirates, who are simultaneously members of the Federal Supreme Council (FSC). Every five years, the FSC renewed its confidence in Sheikh Zayed and re-elected him.

By keeping a close eye on the growing nation, Sheikh Zayed was able to distribute Abu Dhabi’s oil wealth to the sectors that were most in need of development and to ensure a stable social status quo for UAE citizens. He was not only concerned about the economic stability of his country, he also felt that it was his personal responsibility to teach the new generation about their heritage and culture and the importance of keeping the memory and the values of the past alive in order to better cope with the rapid changes that were to come. On a political level, his foresight and moderation not only ensured the unity of the UAE as one nation, but made the nation known within the Arab world for its stability and the generosity the rulers extended to their own people and to other nations. The UAE quickly gained an international reputation as a politically and economically stable country.​

Expanding the Federation: The GCC

Sheikh Zayed, convinced of the benefits of a federation 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 which shared not only a similar economy but a history based on common tribal social structures. On these common grounds, Sheikh Zayed aimed 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, namely Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and, of course, the UAE.

Reforming Education

One of Sheikh Zayed’s first wide-scale initiatives for the UAE was to provide education for all its citizens. As a result, schools and learning centres were built all over the country and teachers were recruited from other Arab countries to educate the young generations.
Within a few years, the UAE was able to meet all the necessary education requirements for a modern nation-state. Sheikh Zayed’s efforts in this area culminated in the creation of many accredited institutes such as the UAE University, the Higher Colleges of Technology and Zayed University. The UAE is also home to many private universities and colleges, including Abu Dhabi University (ADU), Ajman University of Science and Technology (AUST), the American University of Sharjah (AUS), and the American University in Dubai (AUD). As a result, the UAE quickly became an accredited centre of learning, attracting students from friendly neighbouring countries. The UAE was also one of the first countries in the Middle East to introduce computer skills into the schools' curricula.

Developing Industrial Sectors and Infrastructure

From the start, Sheikh Zayed’s vision to develop the industrial sector of the UAE was driven by his recognition of oil being a limited resource. His focus was on developing the manufacturing sector, which enjoyed a boom in the 1970s when the total production value of the UAE rose from AED 940 million to AED 2,980 billion. To plan industrial development policies and diversification, Sheikh Zayed formed the General Industrial Corporation (GIC), which was later transformed into the General Holding Company (GHC), a public joint-stock company.

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 a national media were recognised as vital to connect the seven emirates with each other. The new roads, international airports and sea ports quickly enabled the UAE to play a role in the modern industrial world and thus swiftly take its place among the world's most highly-developed industrial countries.

Protecting the Environment

Known for his love of nature and keenness to preserve the environment, Sheikh Zayed focused, in his first actions as  ruler of Abu Dhabi, on the promotion of agriculture and the spreading of greenery to curb desertification. In his role as President of the UAE, he expanded 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 plantation of more than 140 million trees throughout the emirate. Furthermore, he founded a programme to protect local animals, such as the Dorcas Gazelle and the Arabian Oryx. In acknowledgement of his strong support of environmental protection, Sheikh Zayed was the first head of state to be honoured, in 1995, with the Golden Panda award by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). In 2005, one year after he had passed away, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) honoured Sheikh Zayed posthumously as an outstanding and innovative leader with the 'Champion of the Earth' award.

Peacekeeping and Charity

Sheikh Zayed held a firm belief in Arab solidarity. Moreover, he called for co-operation 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 weight in both the Arab and international arenas to achieve a just and durable peace in the Middle East, based on 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 restore their rightful sovereignty over their national soil. Accordingly, he supported Egypt and Syria in the 1973 war for the liberation of the Arab occupied territories in Palestine by imposing an oil boycott as an effective weapon, and 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 the civil war among its factions. Regarding this, Sheikh Zayed said: "No Arab should lag behind performing his duty in Lebanon or Palestine, or in any other place in the Arab world." His consistent concern to preserve the 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 disclosed 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 to welcome Kuwaiti families to take refuge in his country. Sheikh Zayed’s concern for peacekeeping is 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 an international scale, 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 organise a major humanitarian relief programme by the UAE Red Crescent Society. This relief initiative helped not only to preserve peace but also to rebuild the country’s infrastructure.

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