Two of the greatest legacies of Sheikh Zayed, the UAE's Founding Father, are the Emirates’ embrace of tolerance and culture.
That was the message from a session at Expo 2020 Dubai with Noura Al Kaabi, UAE Minister of Culture and Youth, and Zaki Nusseibeh, cultural adviser to the President of the UAE and chancellor of UAE University.
At the UAE National Pavilion on Saturday, Al Kaabi and Nusseibeh explored ways in which these intertwining principles have contributed towards the country’s rapid evolution in the past 50 years.
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It was a path first charted by Sheikh Zayed and passed down to the UAE’s present leadership, Nusseibeh says.
He recalls attending a majlis in 2008 at which Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, underlined that nuanced view of tolerance.
“He told the open majlis that he didn’t like word ‘tolerance’ because it meant accepting somebody who is perhaps inferior to you or something that is not good. Unfortunately, this is the same definition in most languages today,” Nusseibeh said.
“Except, in the Arab language we have a difference in how we express it. One word that is closer to my understanding of tolerance is ‘samaha,’ which is the ability to empathise with others. It’s this meaning of tolerance that was practised by our Founding Father and UAE society at large.”
Nusseibeh said Sheikh Zayed had displayed that quality before the country’s formation, citing tolerance as central to its future development.
“In one of the first interviews I had with him in 1968, Sheikh Zayed basically said ‘we need to open our country to the world and bring in modernisation’,” he said.
“But, at the same time, he also said we need to keep an equilibrium between that rate of modernisation and development, opening ourselves to other cultures while retaining our heritage and national identity.”
For Al Kaabi, maintaining that balance is a pillar of the UAE’s cultural policies.
She points to the success of both the multicultural nature of Expo 2020 Dubai, with 192 countries represented, and the UAE’s National Pavilion, which celebrates the heritage and achievements of the country’s citizens and residents.
Abrahamic Family House, the interfaith complex to be built on Saadiyat Island in the capital next year, also stems from Sheikh Zayed's initial vision, Al Kaabi says.
“Why are we celebrating the 50th anniversary of the UAE? Because of a man of the desert who, in his twenties, opened his arms to a British explorer in 1948. In the 1950s he went to the Vatican and in the 1960s he opened the first church in Abu Dhabi. And in the future, we will have the Abrahamic Family House.
“So what is happening here? This is not a coincidence. We are following a timeline.”
Nusseibeh attributes the Founding Father’s enduring appeal to that sense of continuity.
“When we talk about Sheikh Zayed, we are talking about a school of government and a culture,” he said. “This is what the present leadership was brought up on, and therefore we are still living his legend.”