The country is still learning from the 'School of Zayed'

With National Day later this week, it is appropriate to recall some of the changes that have taken place over the years and to give due credit to the nation's founders.

During her brief, successful, visit to Abu Dhabi last week, Britain's Queen Elizabeth was reported by a British newspaper to have remarked to the Vice President and Prime Minister, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, how much the country had changed, and had progressed, since her last visit in 1979. Quite true, Ma'am. The nature of that change is something on which most people returning after a long absence comment favourably, as do those who can look back over the nearly 40 years since the United Arab Emirates was established.

The last time the Queen visited, the UAE was still a very young country, little more than eight years old, and the building blocks of the infrastructure of the nation of today were still being put in place, some of them, indeed, being officially inaugurated by the Queen during that visit. Now, of course, much has moved on. Approaching the completion of its fourth decade, the UAE has grown into a mature and confident player in the international community, with an internal political, economic and social structure that, despite the problems that undoubtedly still exist (in parts of the economy, for example), is much envied for its stability and achievements, both in the region and beyond.

With National Day later this week, it is appropriate to recall some of the changes that have taken place over the years, and to give due credit to the nation's founders, most importantly the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, for the success of the process that they put in place back in 1971.

As Queen Elizabeth may have remembered during her visit, many of her diplomats back in 1971 doubted whether the newly-created UAE federation would actually last very long. A superficially similar federation in Southern Arabia (now the southern part of Yemen) had collapsed in turmoil a few years earlier while a small but significant part of the new state, the islands of Abu Musa and Greater and Lesser Tunb, had been forcibly occupied by a large and overweening neighbour, Iran, only a couple of days before the federation's formal birth. There were, too, major disputes over the UAE's borders. The new ship of state that set sail on December 2 was embarking on stormy seas, and there were certainly many reasons that led foreign observers to feel that it could prove to be too fragile to survive the journey.

In fact, as we can see with hindsight, those fears were overstated. They failed to take into account not only that the people of the Emirates were, by and large, avid supporters of the idea of unity but also that the skipper of the vessel, who had himself played a major role in its construction, was a man of remarkable vision and determination.

Admittedly, of course, the UAE had particular advantages. Its people, albeit living in seven individual emirates, had much to bring them together, including a shared history, culture and social system. There were no deep divisions that might tear them asunder, such as there had been in many of the other new states that had emerged on the international scene over the previous decade or so.

The consultative process from which the federation itself emerged had been peaceful - fully supported by Britain, which was keen to ensure that the seven Trucial States should come together and that the new structure had at least a reasonable chance of working. Indeed, the Treaty of Friendship signed on December 2, 1971, and reaffirmed during last week's visit, was specifically intended, from the British side, at least, to make the point to covetous neighbours that Britain retained a deep interest in, and commitment to, the safety and progress of the new state. And, of course, the oil revenues that had already begun to flow, first in Abu Dhabi and then in Dubai, meant that the United Arab Emirates did not have to embark on its journey poverty-stricken and short of the resources essential for development.

All that, however, is insufficient to account for the way in which the country has evolved over the last 39 years, despite the fact - which is well worth remembering - that the Gulf region has, over the same period, passed through extraordinarily troubled times, such as those relating to the Iranian revolution, the Iran - Iraq War, the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990, the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 and then the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the internal conflict in Iraq that followed. With four major wars nearby and a revolution of regional, not simply local, significance, it has been remarkable that the UAE has been so relatively untroubled.

We are fortunate that the first captain of the ship of state, well-supported by his team of officers, the other rulers, was able not only to chart out his course, but also to hold to it despite tempestuous seas, making good use of the resources of his own emirate for the state as a whole. Fortunate, too, that the new captain and ship's officers who followed the founding fathers have continued to follow the same broad course, even if, naturally, they, like him, have had to adapt to the changing circumstances of the world around them.

At last week's unveiling of the design of the Zayed National Museum, the secretary-general of Abu Dhabi's Executive Council, Mohammed Al Bowardi, described Sheikh Zayed in a way that was new to me but encapsulates many of the lessons that the "Father of the Nation" still has to offer. "He was a school," Al Bowardi said, "the school we want all generations to learn from - to learn his thinking, to learn his sharing, to learn everything that was around him." If the UAE continues to study at the School of Zayed, it has a good chance of continuing to make progress on the course that he charted.

Peter Hellyer is a writer and consultant specialising in the UAE's history, heritage and environment