'First ladies' of the UAE share personal memories of the country's 1971 union

Away from the public eye, the wives of the Rulers are responsible for embedding the family values on which the success of the Emirates is built

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Though the “first ladies” of the UAE’s emirates stay out of the spotlight, they remain steadfast in their support of their families and the nation.

Away from public view — to maintain their modesty and privacy — they quietly raise future rulers and lead charities to help communities both at home and abroad.

As the UAE celebrates the 51st year since unification, some of the Rulers’ wives spoke exclusively to The National about their hopes for the nation’s future under President Sheikh Mohamed and shared memories of the day the country was formed.

Sheikha Fatima bint Mubarak, wife of UAE Founding Father, the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan

President Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed with his mother, Sheikha Fatima, known across the Emirates as the Mother of the Nation 

Sheikha Fatima, Mother of the Nation, has been a symbol of strength and a guiding matriarchal figure for the UAE since her husband, Sheikh Zayed, united the country on December 2, 1971.

They married in 1960, while Sheikh Zayed was ruler's representative of the eastern region of Abu Dhabi.

The following year, she gave birth to Sheikh Mohamed in Al Ain. A decade later, Sheikh Zayed united the emirates as one nation.

It was an exciting time for the new country and the family, as Sheikha Fatima was four months pregnant with her fourth son, Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed, now Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Co-operation.

Though her face has never been seen in public, Sheikha Fatima works behind the scenes to promote women’s rights in the UAE and lead adult literacy, education and family development initiatives.

For Sheikha Fatima, every National Day is worth celebrating. But this year is particularly special, she told The National.

“This year acquires special importance, as it witnesses a new phase in the journey of our beloved country, under the leadership of Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed, may God protect him, who is the best successor to the best predecessor,” she said.

“We look forward to continuing with him as he carries out the approach of Zayed Al Khair [Sheikh Zayed of goodness], which emphasises the importance of ‘building the human before building the structure’.”

Another reason this year is extra special, she said, was because the world had overcome the worst of Covid-19. Sheikha Fatima said the UAE handled the pandemic exceptionally well.

“We also celebrate the return to normal life in the country following the receding effects of the pandemic, and the lifting of all precautionary measures relating to it,” she said.

She said the day the UAE was formed “marked the beginning of a lengthy process of establishing and laying the foundations of a strong modern state that Sheikh Zayed dreamt of and worked to achieve with his brothers, the founding fathers”.

Sheikha Fatima said each National Day was an opportunity to look back at how the UAE had built on those foundations.

As for her hopes for the future, Sheikha Fatima’s wish is for her family to continue Sheikh Zayed’s legacy and for his values to endure.

“My children and grandchildren, raised on Zayed’s approach and our authentic values, are encouraged to embrace his values and to take pride in them, as well as our heritage and customs, which keep our society cohesive and balanced,” she said.

“I would like to encourage them to be as diligent as possible in passing this approach to future generations and to reinforce the meanings of belonging and loyalty, as well as empowering them with knowledge, morals, and education that enable them to maintain and … accomplish new achievements that the country can be proud of.”

She also saluted “all daughters of the UAE, no matter where they are in the country, for their active contributions to their country’s development and for their service to society”.

Sheikha Hind bint Maktoum, wife of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President and Ruler of Dubai

Mohammed bin Rashid raises the flag of the UAE in the Union House. WAM

Sheikha Hind and Sheikh Mohammed were married after the UAE was formed, in one of the biggest celebrations the emirate had seen.

A stadium was built to host the occasion and a five-day holiday declared as celebrations spilt into the streets.

The couple have several children, including Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed, Crown Prince of Dubai, and Sheikh Maktoum bin Mohammed, Deputy Prime Minister, Minister of Finance and Deputy Ruler of Dubai.

Since the unification, the emirate has undergone a massive transformation, from a small trading port and pearling village to an international tourist destination and thriving metropolis.

Sheikha Hind recalls the early days of the union, and the feeling of excitement for the future.

“I remember the National Day celebrations we used to have at a time when the UAE was a young nation,” she said.

“Our founding leaders instilled much hope and pride in the nation, and we knew that the country and its people were destined for a bright and promising future.

“Sheikh Zayed’s vision for the UAE gave us the courage to dream big and set ambitious goals for the nation and ourselves.

“He inspired us to believe that the present does not limit what we can achieve in the future, and that no achievement or goal was beyond our reach.

“His bold vision touched us all and continues to inspire new generations.”

As for the future, Sheikha Hind is certain the UAE’s new President will carry on the legacy.

“Just like our founding fathers, Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed is passionate about making the UAE a leader among nations,” she said.

“Following in the footsteps of Sheikh Zayed and Sheikh Khalifa, he is committed to ensuring that the people of the UAE are not only dreamers, but achievers of those big dreams.

“Like Sheikh Zayed, he believes in the capabilities of the people of the country, and their ability to overcome challenges.

“While the UAE is on a path to achieve even greater goals, the human aspect rises above all else; the people’s happiness and prosperity are Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed’s first priority.”

Sheikha Hana bint Jumaa Al Majid, wife of Sheikh Saud bin Saqr Al Qasimi, Ruler of Ras Al Khaimah

Sheikh Saqr bin Mohammed Al Qasimi, Ras Al Khaimah's ruler at the time of the unification, pictured with some of the emirate's younger generations. Photo: Ras Al Khaimah Government Media Office

Sheikha Hana was just a child when six of the seven emirates agreed to become a nation in 1971. Ras Al Khaimah would join a few weeks later, under the leadership of Sheikh Saqr bin Mohammed Al Qasimi.

In 2003, his son Sheikh Saud bin Saqr Al Qasimi was named Crown Prince of the emirate. Sheikh Saud became the Ruler of Ras Al Khaimah, making Sheikha Hana the “first lady”.

In the 12 years since, Ras Al Khaimah has continued to develop its health, tourism, education and trade sectors. But Sheikha Hana remembers the emirate’s more humble beginnings and the day the unification was announced.

“As a child, I recall trying to understand what Union meant, how it would change our lives, how it would impact all that we knew,” she told The National.

“It was a time of change, a time of progress and I was acutely aware of how little I knew of the development to come. I overheard my parents’ excited conversations, the children at school asking probing questions of their teachers and wondering, what will the future hold?

“Riding on a wave of excitement and optimism, I was confident that this new formation, the United Arab Emirates, would lead us on a path to something new, something prosperous.

“With the wondrous imagination of a child, I visualised the moment when I held within my hands a passport that cemented this new reality, that stated that I was a citizen of the UAE.

“I anticipated telling whomever I met, near and far, that I am a proud citizen of the United Arab Emirates.”

UAE flags on display in Ras Al Khaimah in preparation for the 51st National Day. Antonie Robertson / The National

That moment would come the same year, when documents previously issued by individual emirates were replaced with the first UAE passports. They had a dark blue cover, bore a falcon and the new flag.

Today, as the UAE celebrates 51 years of unification, the nation also marks the start of another chapter under the leadership of Sheikh Mohamed.

Sheikha Hana said she had confidence the country would go from strength to strength with Sheikh Mohamed at the helm.

“Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed is a leader who places great emphasis on the development of his country and his people,” she said.

“His presence invokes emotions of devotion and a desire to improve every aspect of our country to ensure the UAE is among the most advanced and progressive nations in the world.

“Under his stewardship, I foresee a future that places the UAE at the forefront of global developments, at the vanguard of opportunity and at the heart of ensuring sustainable development for all.”

Sheikha Sumaya bint Saqr Al Qasimi, wife of Sheikh Saud bin Rashid Al Mualla, Ruler of Umm Al Quwain

Sheikh Saud bin Rashid Al Mualla, Ruler of Umm Al Quwain, stands with his grandchildren ahead of Flag Day in 2021. Photo: UAE Presidential Court

Sheikh Saud bin Rashid Al Mualla became Ruler of Umm Al Quwain after the country was formed.

Sheikh Ahmed bin Rashid Al Mualla, former ruler of the emirate, was almost 70 when the UAE was founded. He sent his son and Crown Prince, Sheikh Rashid bin Ahmed Al Mualla, to the sign the UAE Constitution at Union House in Dubai in his stead because of health reasons.

Sheikh Rashid became ruler of the emirate 10 years later. In 2009, Sheikh Saud succeeded his father.

As the ruler’s wife, some of Sheikha Sumaya’s official duties include supporting events held under her patronage, including the Mangroves Festival, and hosting the wives of diplomats.

She told The National that National Day holds great significance for her.

“National Day is an opportunity for us to teach our children the value of unity and co-operation, to create a better future for our honourable people and to establish a new approach based on hard work and giving,” she said.

“National Day is a good incentive for all of us to work together to advance the [country’s] development process.

“With our skilled population and promising minds, we can conquer the impossible, achieve our dreams and aspirations — that have no ceiling — and look forward to a promising future for future generations.”

Sheikha Sumaya said she was proud of Emirati women for cementing a key role in society.

She said this was made possible by the support of the country’s leadership, who believed in women “so that the daughter of the Emirates could carry the banner of creativity, innovation and excellence, and become distinguished with merit and competence in all sectors to contribute to building a more prosperous and advanced future”.

National Day, she said, was an invitation to all to continue their hard work to maintain the UAE’s position “at the forefront of the countries of the world”.

“[The UAE’s] loyal children are indicators of global competitiveness, and its name is now resonating in many international forums, which makes us proud of how far the nation has come,” she said.

“Now we look forward to a future full of achievements that enhance the position of our country and lead it towards horizons of prosperity.”

Sheikha Fatima bint Thani Al Maktoum, wife of Sheikh Hamad bin Mohammed Al Sharqi, Ruler of Fujairah

Sheikh Hamad bin Mohammed Al Sharqi, Ruler of Fujairah, with his grandchildren on flag day. Photo: Sheikha Fatima bint Thani Al Maktoum

Sheikha Fatima bint Thani and Sheikh Hamad bin Mohammed Al Sharqi, Ruler of Fujairah, married in the early 1980s, around 10 years after the union.

Sheikha Fatima bint Thani said National Day was an occasion to celebrate the UAE’s many achievements since its formation 51 years ago, made possible by the leadership’s “adoption of values of tolerance and coexistence”.

She said the foundations of a prosperous future had been laid by the “builders of the union” and strengthened by their loyal sons.

“National Day celebrates the nation’s unity and the cohesion between the leadership and Emirati citizens,” she said.

“[It also celebrates] the continuous efforts to elevate the country and raise its status among other nations.”

She said this elevation was achieved through “distinction and leadership in crucial areas that serve citizens and promote human values”.

“The celebration of our past is a vital part of our future prosperity,” she said.

She was certain the UAE would continue on it’s prosperous path under the leadership of Sheikh Mohamed, Sheikha Fatima bint Thani said.

“The journey of work and the civilised renaissance continues, under the leadership of Sheikh Mohammed, may God protect him, and the solidarity of his brothers, the rulers of the Emirates, to accomplish more honourable national achievements for the country on a global and Arab scale.”

Updated: December 01, 2022, 3:25 PM