Ibrahim Al Abed: A man who told the UAE’s story in a way few others could

Peter Hellyer reflects on his 45 years of friendship with a towering figure in the country's media landscape

ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES -  March 12, 2018: HH Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces (L), presents an Abu Dhabi Award to HE Ibrahim Abdulrahman Al Abed (R), during the awards ceremony at the Sea Palace.
( Ryan Carter for the Crown Prince Court - Abu Dhabi )

Ibrahim Abdul Rahman Al Abed, adviser and former director general of the National Media Council, former adviser to the Ministry of Information and Culture and founder and long-time director general of the Emirates News Agency, Wam, died earlier today. He was 78.

I met Ibrahim in January 1969 when I first visited the Middle East. One highlight of that trip was the opportunity to receive a briefing at the Palestine Research Centre in Beirut, where he was the deputy director. It was the beginning of a close friendship that has lasted for over half a century.

He was never one to miss an opportunity to try to help those in need

A few years later, in 1975, Ibrahim moved to the UAE to work with the Ministry of Information and Culture, where he was charged with the establishment of the Emirates News Agency, Wam. I arrived the same year, initially to make documentary films on the overseas state visits of the late Founding President, Sheikh Zayed. Our friendship swiftly developed into a close working relationship that has spanned 45 years. During that relationship, I worked with him to establish and run the English service of Wam in 1977, while, during my years as managing editor of the daily Emirates News from 1985 to 1999, he was a guide and a never-failing source of advice and assistance. Following the closure of the newspaper, Ibrahim and I had worked closely over the last two decades, discussing politics, both local and foreign, the media, our families, our concerns, our hopes and our disappointments.

We shared tales from our past and our views on the present. Sometimes we bickered. I tended to think that Ibrahim was, on occasion, over-careful in expressing an opinion, while he thought that I needed to learn a little bit more caution in offering to get engaged in matters that were none of my concern. He laughed at my passion for heritage and the environment. I teased him about his lack of knowledge of the wilder, more remote parts of the Emirates. Those who observed us were often rather surprised at how we engaged with each other – he the senior official and I a more junior employee. With decades of friendship behind us, such reactions amused us both.

This undated photo released by Emirates News Agency, WAM, shows Ibrahim al-Abed, the founder of the state-run news agency.  Ibrahim al-Abed, a pioneering media figure as the oil-rich nation grew into a regional power, has died. He was 78.  (WAM via AP)

In his work at the Ministry of Information and Culture and then at the National Media Council, Ibrahim was dedicated and passionate about his loyalty to the Emirates. His network of media contacts around the world, built up over 45 years, enabled him to tell the UAE’s story in a way that few others could hope to emulate. Some of those contacts, from leading international newspapers and news agencies, have been in touch with me today to tell me how much they respected him and valued his honest advice and assistance.

That respect was widely shared throughout the Emirates, not just among media colleagues but elsewhere. That is evident from the messages of condolences that I have received today, both from people at the very top of Government and from those of a less elevated status. Ibrahim Al Abed earned that respect as a professional par excellence. He earned it too, in a quiet discreet way, through his generosity, with his time and in other ways. He was never one to miss an opportunity to try to help those in need.

Despite his achievements, Ibrahim never thought that he was anything particularly special. When, in 2018, he received the Abu Dhabi Award, his response was one of shy self-deprecation. Innately modest, very rarely irritated, even when there was due cause, he offered wise advice to all, regardless of their nationality, origins or status.

Ibrahim Al Abed, my friend, was, to use a term that has gone out of fashion, a real gentleman. I will miss our morning coffees, our affectionate arguments and our half a century of friendship enormously.

Peter Hellyer is a UAE cultural historian and columnist for The National