As the UAE’s 50th anniversary approaches, I realise, to my surprise, that it is now nearly 17 years since the death of the country’s Founding Father, Sheikh Zayed. For many of us, his memory is still vivid, but how do the younger generation or foreign residents, who have arrived since his passing, think of him? A distant historical figure or someone who continues to have an impact?
I wonder, too, what Sheikh Zayed would make of the Emirates at 50. There has been so much change since his death in 2004. The population has increased. The infrastructure has grown. The economy is no longer under developed, largely dependent on a single source. Major scientific achievements have been made, such as the Mars mission. And now with Expo 2020 open, the eyes of the world are upon the country. People will, I am sure, be amazed by much of what they see.
All of this represents what was built upon the foundations laid down by Sheikh Zayed.
The world around us has evolved. Naturally, the way in which we engage with new challenges has changed too. Sheikh Zayed’s ways cannot provide detailed step-by-step guidance for everything we do today, but the underlying principles of governance and the philosophy of the state that he laid down remain at the heart of decisions taken in the country.
Addressing a Cabinet meeting nearly 45 years ago, Sheikh Zayed explained the role he sought to play in guiding the Emirates towards a developed and prosperous future. “I am like an old father who heads his family and takes care of his children,” he said. “He takes them by the hand and supports them until they have passed through adolescence.”
He was able, of course, to provide that support because of the natural resources of the country.
“The time has come for us,” he added, “through the ample blessings God has given us, to compensate our people for what they missed in the past.”
He was determined to make use of the oil revenues to develop Emirati society, not simply in a physical sense, but in terms of the people, who he described as "the real wealth of the nation". Without that, he felt, the revenues would be of little value in the long term. That drove his passion for education, both for men and for women.
Once educated and having “passed through adolescence,” as Sheikh Zayed phrased it, the people of the Emirates would be equipped to play their part in building society.
Recognising that Emiratis had been “deprived of the many services and amenities which others enjoyed,” he extended a hand to those who could come and play their part in the development of the country, from doctors and teachers to bankers and petroleum engineers. That process continues today, for the nature and scale of the UAE’s aspirations allows others to join in the process of building.
In welcoming those coming from abroad, Sheikh Zayed knew that the country could not achieve the progress he sought without taking from other countries and cultures those things which would be of benefit for the emerging Emirates. In a time before the world had become closely linked through modern communications and technology, Sheikh Zayed saw the need to reach out and to form partnerships with others.
As a corollary to that, in line with his own commitment to religious and cultural tolerance, he instilled a philosophy of tolerance that would come to be at the heart of how the UAE operated. He emphasised, too, the need to promote conservation of the country’s environment and a sustainable use of its resources. His initiatives for the protection of wildlife laid the groundwork for much that has followed.
I know from my own involvement with the Abu Dhabi Islands Archaeological Survey, ADIAS, which he personally funded for many years, how interested he was in promoting the study of the country’s history and heritage. I remember how pleased he was when it was reported to him that we had found an early Christian monastery on his own private island of Sir Bani Yas.
Sheikh Zayed devoted himself, as Ruler of Abu Dhabi and then as President of the UAE, to laying the foundations of a society where the wealth with which the country had been fortunately endowed, would be used to build a people who could then move forward with confidence to build for today and tomorrow.
Were he still to be amongst us, he would, I believe, find much that surprised him. The accelerating pace of development has introduced us to aspects of life that had not been envisaged during his lifetime. I believe, though, that he would recognise the continued commitment to the underlying principles which guided his own leadership as the country’s founding father. And he would have been satisfied by the way in which the people of the Emirates have passed through their "adolescence" to take the country forward.
That link between the recent, but fast-receding, past and today and tomorrow is exemplified in the description earlier this week by the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed, of the UAE Pavilion at Expo 2020. “It honours,” he said, “the early dreamers that built our nation and shines a light on the dreamers of today who are striving to ensure its future success.”
It is clear that even today, Sheikh Zayed’s legacy remains a vibrant inspiration.