How Sheikh Zayed's childhood shaped his character as a leader

Sheikh Zayed came to life amid years of hardship and deprivation for his people. His character as a man and a leader began to develop and nurture in his childhood years.
Ayesha almazroui

He wasn't born with a silver spoon in his mouth and his body had not felt the comfort and softness of silk. He was born in the desert, in a hot and harsh climate, and he was raised in a tough and challenging environment.

Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan came to life amid years of hardship and deprivation for his people. His character as a man and a leader began to develop and nurture in his childhood years. The desert taught him patience, resilience, self-reliance and determination. But despite its cruelty, he was the opposite of that. He had a big heart that cared for everyone and he had awareness of the feelings of those around him.

"We have to be proud of our forefathers," Sheikh Zayed once said, "who were able to face the harshness of life with a strong will and dedication to shape a better collective future." He had a strong sense of pride in the past and a great vision for the future.

In the early years of his life, Sheikh Zayed used to play in Qasr Al Hosn in Abu Dhabi, the home of the ruling family at that time. When the tribesmen used to visit his father, Sheikh Sultan Al Nahyan, in his majlis, he watched his father, listened to the way he talked with people and learnt from his methods in dealing with his people: listening to their concerns, solving their problems, and helping the needy in the society.

When he grew older, he went to Al Ain, where he spent the first years of his youth. People who lived there at that time remember seeing him climbing on Jebel Hafeet, on the outskirts of the city, chasing and hunting deer. Nothing has prevented him from reaching his goal, they say.

During his youth, Sheikh Zayed had learnt the bedouin principles, values and virtues. He was characterised by courage and determination, fighting for honour not for material gains and willing to offer his blood in defence of his land against any attack. He was known for his great hunting and horse riding skills, as these were his favourite pursuits. He was also passionate about Arabic poetry and wrote many poems that depicted life, love, and patriotism.

"He was a powerfully-built man of about 30 with a brown beard. He had a strong, intelligent face, with steady, observant eyes, and his manner was quiet but masterful" was how the British adventurer and travel writer Wilfred Thesiger said of the young Sheikh Zayed when he met him for the first time in 1948. "He was dressed very simply in a beige-coloured shirt of Omani cloth, and a waistcoat which he wore unbuttoned…He wore a dagger and cartridge-belt; his rifle lay on the sand beside him."

Sheikh Zayed's good reputation preceded him, the writer said, adding that he was well-known among bedouins who lived in that area.

Even after he became the leader of the UAE, he continued to live a humble lifestyle; he dressed simply and lived modestly. His door was always open for his people who enjoyed his company and his good manners. His guests would always praise his generous hospitality.

My father used to visit Sheikh Zayed's majlis in Qasr Al Hosn in the 1970s with my grandfather, sit in his majlis and listen to what he said. He remembers Sheikh Zayed being cheerful when telling stories, wise when discussing issues, and fair when solving disputes. My mother told me stories of how he used to visit people at their homes, sit with them, chat and joke, ask about their concerns and give them what they wished for.

He had both an open mind and an open heart. He was open to people, ideas, challenges and opportunities. He worked hard to improve the lives of his people.

Our generation grew up in houses and villas, living indoors in cool and comfortable conditions. We have not faced the hardships he and our forefathers faced and have not experienced such tough and harsh realities. But each of us could learn something from him. He was not only a leader of a country but also a teacher and a father, as we always say.

It is character that distinguishes an individual. One can be a character or possess a character - Sheikh Zayed was the latter. He had a unique personality that made him memorable to all. He was a charismatic leader who earned everything he had and everything he got. Above all, he earned our love and respect.

Nine years have passed since our father Zayed's passing. He will always be remembered not only as a visionary and successful leader, but also as a rare and great character.

On Twitter: @AyeshaAlmazroui