Remembering Sheikh Zayed: How the founding father introduced the UAE to the world

Images chart the ruler's many meetings with global leaders

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Sheikh Zayed had long impressed outsiders who travelled to Abu Dhabi, from British diplomats, to oilmen and even desert explorers such as Wilfred Thesiger.

“A strong intelligent face with steady, observant eyes ... his manner was quiet but masterful,” was Thesiger’s first impression after his historic crossing of the Empty Quarter in 1945.

For Archie Lamb, the British political agent in Abu Dhabi in 1965 “his bisht always seemed to be filled with the wind of heaven”.

This was a year before Sheikh Zayed became Ruler of Abu Dhabi. Chosen as the founding President of the UAE 50 years ago, he would become a familiar figure on the world stage until his death on the 19th day of Ramadan in 2004.

The anniversary of his birth is next month, on May 6 – he would have been 104 – and it is an appropriate milestone on which to reflect on how Sheikh Zayed introduced this new country to the world.

His bisht always seemed to be filled with the wind of heaven
Archie Lamb

A full 20 years before the creation of the UAE in December 1971, Sheikh Zayed was already representing the interests of his people abroad.

In the summer of 1951, he travelled to Paris with his brother, then Ruler, Sheikh Shakhbut, for a case at the International Court of Arbitration. The result went in favour of Abu Dhabi, awarding the emirate the rights to oil found under the sea as well as on land.

Photographs of that first trip to Europe survive, one of which shows the group taking a break in a Parisian park and another of Sheikh Zayed taking in the view from the Eiffel Tower.

On the return home, there was a stopover in Rome and the first visit by a Ruler of Abu Dhabi to Vatican City. It would be followed, nearly 70 years later, by the Pope’s arrival in the UAE.

There are other glimpses of the future in that trip. After visiting the Louvre in Paris, it is reported, Sheikh Zayed expressed the hope there would one day be such a museum in Abu Dhabi.

Six years later, Sheikh Zayed paid his first visit to New York, accompanying his uncle, Sheikh Hazza bin Sultan, for treatment for cancer, and the party returned via London on the Queen Mary liner.

Increasingly, Sheikh Zayed would be the international face of the country. Within a year of becoming Ruler in 1966, he visited King Faisal bin Abdulaziz in Saudi Arabia, a gesture of friendship to settle past disputes over the border between the two countries.

85-year-old Emirati recalls how British forces respected Sheikh Zayed

85-year-old Emirati recalls how British forces respected Sheikh Zayed

Two years later, Sheikh Zayed made his first official visit as Ruler to London, where he was the UK prime minister’s guest of honour at Trooping of the Colour ceremony.

The visit in 1969 was more than ceremonial, for by that time Britain had announced its plan to pull out of the Arabian Gulf, and preparation was advancing for the new country Sheikh Zayed would soon lead.

The Founding President, Sheikh Zayed, during his tour of Taj Mahal in Agra, India, in 1975. Courtesy National Archives
The Founding President, Sheikh Zayed, during his tour of Taj Mahal in Agra, India, in 1975. Courtesy National Archives

There was no time for a meeting with the Queen then but, in 1989, he returned for a full state visit and banquet at Buckingham Palace.

It came a decade after the Queen paid the first of her two visits to the UAE, in February 1979.

Deepening the bonds with the British royal family, Prince Charles and Diana, Princess of Wales were welcomed to Abu Dhabi by Sheikh Zayed in March 1989.

Sheikh Zayed’s first visit abroad as President was to Sudan in February 1972, where he was received by Sudanese President Jaafar Nimeiri.

That was followed by trips to Syria, Oman, Pakistan, Yemen and London, again, this time to meet prime minister Edward Heath in his first year of office.

In only three weeks in 1981, Sheikh Zayed received separately the German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt and King Baudouin of Belgium, while preparing for the first summit of the Gulf Co-operation Council.

Over the 33 years of his Presidency, Sheikh Zayed would meet many world leaders. He was received by Indira Gandhi on a visit to India in 1975 and welcomed her to Abu Dhabi in 1981.

Other world leaders who came to the UAE included French president Valery Giscard D’Estaing in 1980, British prime minister Margaret Thatcher a year later, King Hussein of Jordan, Algeria’s president Houari Boumedienne and Canadian prime minister Pierre Trudeau. He also met his son, Justin, who would go on to become prime minister himself.

Zaki Nusseibeh: How I met Sheikh Zayed

Zaki Nusseibeh: How I met Sheikh Zayed

Two of the most famous images of Sheikh Zayed are of him greeting Nelson Mandela, who paid a state visit to the UAE in 1995, and with former US president Jimmy Carter.

Mr Carter came to Abu Dhabi to win support for the Carter Centre, which he set up to fight neglected tropical diseases.

Equally memorable was the sight of Sheikh Zayed walking along the Great Wall of China in 1990, and at the inauguration in 1986 of the rebuilt Marib dam in Yemen, which last held water more than a thousand years earlier.

All but forgotten is a visit to Jerusalem and Al Aqsa Mosque in April 1966, made with his brother Sheikh Shakhbut when the old city was still held by Jordan.

The years of Sheikh Zayed’s Presidency read like a modern history book in which he was frequently on the pages. The 1967 and 1973 Middle East wars with Israel and the 1991 Gulf War, the break-up of the Soviet Union, and the Oslo Accords.

He outlasted seven US presidents, from Richard Nixon to George W Bush. The current US president, Joe Biden, had just won his first election as a county councillor in Delaware when the UAE was formed.

Sheikh Zayed’s skills as a leader and a diplomat were honed in the desert, says his former translator, cultural adviser and later Minister of State, Zaki Nusseibeh.

"He had what is known as Al Ferasa, a skill where the person can read the other person's facial and body language and understand and know the truth about their character and intention," he told The National in 2015.

“It is a survival skill in the desert, as one meets wandering strangers all the time. And so when Sheikh Zayed used to meet anyone, and even if he didn’t understand their language, he knew. He just knew what their real intention and character was.”

Sheikh Zayed died on Ramadan 19 in 1425 on the Islamic calendar, which fell on November 2, 2004. Among those travelling to Abu Dhabi for the day of his funeral were presidents, princes and prime ministers, paying tribute to the man who had led the UAE to such a prominent role in the community of nations.

Sheikh Zayed in his words, part 1

Sheikh Zayed in his words, part 1

*This story first appeared in The National in 2021