Fifty years ago this summer, Sheikh Zayed became the ruler of Abu Dhabi. He had spent 20 years as the Ruler’s Representative in the Eastern Region, developing Al Ain and the region during a period before oil. When he took over as Ruler in 1966, one of his first acts was to establish a five-year plan, guiding the development of the emirate as the initial oil revenues came in. By the time the plan was carried out, Abu Dhabi was a different place – the seven emirates had federated and Sheikh Zayed was not only the Ruler of Abu Dhabi, but the president of a new country.
Decades have passed, but that initial vision still finds its way into the emirate’s latest development blueprint. From today, an exhibition explaining the current policy agenda will take place at the Abu Dhabi National Exhibition Centre. At the heart of that vision is the desire to build a safe and secure society and a “sustainable, diversified and globally open economy”.
Go back half a century, and those themes can be detected in the very first five-year plan. As Dr Zaki Nusseibeh, a close adviser to Sheikh Zayed and now a cultural adviser at the Ministry of Presidential Affairs, recalled, the initial plan had ambitious goals: building schools and clinics, roads and an airport. Today, the current phase will focus on improving that infrastructure: ensuring higher quality in schools, increasing the number of hospital beds and growing the number of passengers passing through the capital’s main airport.
There will also be a focus on more intangible aspects of life in the emirate. In 2015, there was a 20 per cent increase in the number of cases handled by the courts, a reduction in the number of Emiratis dying from cardiovascular disease and a greater number of small and medium-sized businesses received funding from the Khalifa Fund. There was an increase in the number of sports clubs and number of heritage-related events. Taken together, these aspects improve the general quality of life and work across the emirate. They can be measured, but not observed in the way that new buildings and roads can be.
But at the heart of all of this is sustained and sustainable growth. The baseline of development in 1966 was low. In 2016, it is much higher, but the guiding principles of measured growth and ambitious outcomes remain. The world has changed much in half a century, but the founding father’s vision is still front and centre.