'Life goes on but the grief remains'

Everyone in the country remembers November 2, 2004, the day they heard the unbearable news that Sheikh Zayed was no longer with them.

Security arrives at the Sultan bin Zayed Mosque at Al Bateen before the funeral ceremony.
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Seven years have passed, but Ali Khalifa can recall every last detail of that night. He recalls the stream of increasingly agitated voicemail messages left on his mobile phone by his boss at the television station. It was the 19th day of Ramadan, and he had followed the routine that had shaped his every evening thus far. He had headed to his mosque for taraweeh just before the muezzin's call, switching off his phone and leaving it in his car.
He recalls how someone was ultimately dispatched from his home to fetch him, the anxiety he felt when told he was needed in Dubai TV's newsroom in just 10 minutes and the dread certainty that descended in that moment. Ali Khalifa was the station's senior newscaster. It was no secret in such circles that Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan had been in fragile health: by then well into his 80s, his public appearances had become rare. So on that particular evening, Khalifa remembers, "My mobile phone kept ringing, people telling me, 'Ali something big is happening.' Nobody wanted to circulate the hard news because people did not want to believe it had happened."
He recalls the 35km drive to Dubai TV headquarters and the penalties clocked up with each speed camera passed. Most of all, he recalls the terrible quiet of the studio after the producer delivered the words, "Ali, yallah, cue, stand by..."
Because by then he knew for sure what would come next. He knew that he was about to become a bit-player in a painful moment in the UAE's history. The next voice he heard was his own delivering the news that Sheikh Zayed, President of the UAE and Ruler of Abu Dhabi, the Father of the Nation, was dead.
Today Khalifa, 43, is executive director of Dubai Media Incorporated. His days of newscasting are long behind him, but he will never be able to remember that night without reliving it. He broke down on air. The clip is on YouTube, as many younger colleagues and friends have told him. But he cannot bring himself to watch those few minutes of footage. They are too real, too present. "No amount of professionalism," he says, "is there to help you repress your emotions or have control over the situation."
Some events are like that. Their significance is so instantly apparent that, even as they are experienced, some instinct recognises the need to bear witness and fix every detail in the mind. They already have a weight of history about them as they are happening, but it is never quite enough to anchor them entirely in the past. However many years go by, they remain, on some level, alive and felt.
As a fact, the death of Sheikh Zayed on November 2, 2004, (a date corresponding to Ramadan 19, 1425), is part of the history of the UAE.
But as an event experienced by the nation it remains as wrapped-up in its continuous present as his life and legacy - impossible simply to box up and file under "The Past". For that reason it is both a vital and a difficult inclusion in this publication. In the impact of his death, the importance of Sheikh Zayed's life is writ large. But in the emotion of its recounting, that important truth might so easily be lost.
As Khalifa puts it: "In my generation we grew up as children, embraced life and later started our careers and so on in a golden age, under the leadership of one exceptional man. That was Sheikh Zayed... Life goes on, but the grief remains and the memory remains and the prayers last. Sheikh Zayed must remain our road map to follow."
Official reports do not document the cause or circumstances of Sheikh Zayed's death. Earlier that year he had received medical treatment in London and in 2000 had undergone a kidney transplant, but when the moment came and the news was delivered to his nation, it was done with simple dignity and little detail. The leader was at his Al Bateen Palace in Abu Dhabi when he died and the news was relayed by the state news agency, Wakalat Anba'a Al Emarat (WAM), to the regional and world media that evening: "The presidential court announces to Arab and Islamic countries and the rest of the world the death of the leader of the nation Sheikh Zayed."
The following day, the newspaper Al Ittihad summed up both the story and the bereft nation's greatest hope and comfort with the words: "We belong to Allah and to Allah we shall return. Zayed returns to his Creator, content and gratified."
Sheikh Zayed's funeral and burial took place on November 3. During the day, the streets around Sultan bin Zayed Mosque in Al Bateen filled with mourners. Police were drafted in to control the crowds, which swelled to thousands. Sheikh Zayed's sons and close family were joined by presidents and rulers from around the region and beyond: Pakistan, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq, Morocco, Oman, Bahrain, Qatar, Syria, Jordan, Yemen and Kuwait . their heads of state prayed over the deceased leader shrouded in the flag of the UAE.
They stood over him as the salat al janaza, the funeral prayer, was recited - the only prayer for which the faithful stand rather than kneel.
Outside, on patches of grass near the mosque, Emiratis stood or sat offering silent prayer. Calling to mind, perhaps, their personal recollections of the man they regarded as a father. All traffic stopped as crowds filled the streets. Many held images of Sheikh Zayed. This was neither some hysterical, manufactured frenzy nor a dutifully appropriate demonstration of loss for the benefit of some wider audience. It was real and, as such, it was a reflection of the remarkable nature of the man and his achievements.
After the salat al janaza was completed, Sheikh Zayed's coffin was carried by his sons to the vehicle in which he would make his final journey on earth. There was no grand funeral cortege, just a silver mini-van to make the slow journey from central Abu Dhabi to the grounds of the still incomplete Grand Mosque - Sheikh Zayed's great project. He was buried in its grounds. By the evening it was all over and his grieving sons and members of the Federal Supreme Council returned to Al Bateen Palace where his eldest son, Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the outgoing Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, would receive condolences for the next three days.
Back in the Dubai TV studios, Ali Khalifa and his colleagues had worked through the night of November 2 until 3.30 the following morning then resumed at 10am, broadcasting jointly with the other emirates. He was the presenter throughout the day, documenting the funeral, the prayer over the deceased and the burial. "Our spirits were broken," he recalls. "The general mood was that of losing one's father. It's that grief that took its toll; the sorrow was very, very exhausting."
The presidential court proclaimed a 40-day period of national mourning. Flags flew at half mast across the Emirates as the condolences were sent from the Arab world and beyond.
Television stations began their cycle of extraordinary programming - Quran recitations, religious programmes and news bulletins - and continued this for seven to 10 days.
The atmosphere in Abu Dhabi was subdued. The town was suffused with genuine sadness. Looking back over the reports of the day and talking to those who remember it, what seemed to strike observers more than anything was the genuine love felt by Sheikh Zayed's people for their late leader. This was both state event and family affair. There was no clear division between the two, only levels of proximity. Speaking to Saad Al Silawi from the Abu Dhabi TV news channel some time after his father's death, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, now the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, explained it in this way: "There are two aspects to this matter; one that is private, and I want to keep it to myself, so excuse me for not going into it - that's the very personal part. The other aspect has to do with the moment of parting with the late [Sheikh Zayed], may Allah rest his soul in peace." He paused.
"For me, at that moment I was just one among, say, one million, or more, of Sheikh Zayed's children; so to me, all of us were there as his children, bidding him adieu that day."
The intensity and sincerity of the bond between Sheikh Zayed and his people proved a powerful testament to the late leader's character and a defining feature at the heart of the benevolent state he had shepherded into being.
For ordinary Emiratis, in the midst of their Ramadan observance, it was as if the world had come to a halt. Shops and restaurants that normally come alive at iftar now remained closed. The joy of the breaking of the fast was no longer part of that holy ritual. How could it be? The mourning ran as deep as the bond that had preceded it and it would take time for the cold fact of the grief to thaw.
Meera Mohammed Al Rumaithi, who lives in Al Ain, recalls the shock she felt as she watched Ali Khalifa's tearful delivery to the nation. "It was a feeling that captured my chest, to the extent I couldn't normally take a breath in or out," she says quietly. "My father had passed away four days before Eid Al Adha in 2003, just a year before Zayed's passing, and Zayed left us before Eid Al Fitr. I grieved for my father, but it was when Zayed died that I said: 'Only now the father is gone.'
"I remember there was a poem written on his Maqam Palace here in Al Ain... It's a poem addressed to Zayed after he passed away, telling him how even the stones and the trees cried for him along with all the people. It's true, everything grieved for his death. The trees and the palms that he planted with his hands grieved for him."
Sheikh Zayed was close to 90 years old when he died, and throughout his life there had simply been no distance between him and his people. He made regular visits acrossthe length and breadth of his country the better to understand the needs and living conditions of his people and to see for himself the progress of the considerable development programmes he initiated.
He firmly believed that "the success of any ruler depends on several factors, primarily on consultative democracy". He did not shutter himself away from his people or the traditions and values in which he was raised. He believed that holding true to those traditions enriched rather than hindered progress.
In his Abu Dhabi TV interview, Sheikh Mohammed remembered an occasion that seemed to him to demonstrate the extent of his late father's sense of the importance of all things - from the very grand to the apparently insignificant. He said: "From my modest experience with our father, may he rest in peace, I saw a leader who had a highly acute sense of perception in the way he went about things.
"We were on a trip abroad and there was a restaurant nearby. Birds would come around and start pecking for food. He was looking at them and saw that they would grow in numbers at a particular hour. So he asked to make an arrangement with the restaurant's manager to provide the birds with enough food to satisfy their hunger. You see, the man who makes decisive, bold and tough decisions is the same tender father, the same affectionate person who has compassion for the smallest things."
It was a trait apparent throughout his life and leadership. Sheikh Zayed was, as the British political agent CJ Treadwell observed back in 1968, "at his brilliant best . a natural leader both liked and admired by his own people . favoured with a personality and charm with which it is the fortune of few men to be blessed."
Jocelyn Henderson arrived in Abu Dhabi that same year, with her late husband Edward Henderson, who worked for oil companies in the 1940s and later became a prominent diplomat. It was in that capacity that the Hendersons grew to know Sheikh Zayed, visiting him at his simple home in Al Ain, the town of his birth, as well as in the more palatial surroundings of his Abu Dhabi residence. She continues to live in Abu Dhabi as a guest of the Al Nahyan family in the Royal Stables Complex in Al Mushrif.
Henderson remembers the shock that accompanied news of Sheikh Zayed's death. "There had been a lot of talk about his health," she says. "But when finally we heard that he had gone it was quite extraordinary. Everything, the whole place, just became terribly quiet. He was such a charismatic personality that everyone knew him - really knew him.
"The first seven or eight days of mourning was perhaps the worst part. It was total shock. It was as if people couldn't believe that life could go on."
But of course in the most practical ways it had to. In reality, within hours of Sheikh Zayed's burial the subject of his successor as President had been broached and settled. Dr Sheikh Sultan bin Mohammed Al Qasimi, Ruler of Sharjah, recalled the process some years after the fact.
Interviewed for a documentary screened on Al Arabiya TV, Sheikh Sultan described in detail how, three or four hours after the burial, courteous talk among rulers in Al Bateen Palace, where Sheikh Khalifa was receiving condolences, turned to the question of succession. Under UAE law, the Federal Supreme Council had 30 days to appoint a successor, during which time the Vice President, the late Sheikh Maktoum bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Ruler of Dubai, would act as president.
But, according to Sheikh Sultan, it was Sheikh Maktoum himself who approached him with the question. Sheikh Sultan said: "I was sitting next to Sheikh Khalifa and to my right was Sheikh Maktoum, who said to me: 'Sheikh Sultan, is it really reasonable to wait for 30 days [before the power transition]?' 'It's within 30 days,' I replied ... So he said, 'Why not do it now?'"
All the relevant parties were already there, gathered together. It seemed, Sheikh Sultan remembered, to make perfect sense. Sheikh Maktoum agreed to speak to Sheikh Khalifa while Sheikh Sultan elected to speak to the other rulers sitting close to him. It was decided that the meeting should be held in a room next to the main majlis where condolences were being received, in a quiet, more private location.
It all took about 10 minutes to organise. The rulers drew together even as the world's leaders were travelling to the UAE to convey personally their countries' shared sense of loss within the three-day period set aside for this process.
No announcement was made until November 8, but, as Sheikh Sultan recalled, the vote was swift and unanimous - carried out in a matter of minutes. Sheikh Khalifa was initially reticent about accepting the honour.
Sheikh Sultan said: "If you go back to the photograph of the scene you will see everybody was still standing; it doesn't look like a pre-planned meeting. Everyone agreed on Sheikh Khalifa.
"The first to speak was Sheikh Maktoum. He said to Sheikh Khalifa, 'All of us here vote for you to become President of the UAE.' Sheikh Khalifa told him, 'Sheikh Maktoum, you have experience and you are the UAE Vice President.' But we insisted. And so it was.
"What I told Sheikh Khalifa was the following: 'Rest assured, Sheikh Khalifa, in the same way we stood by your father's side all along, we will be standing by your side too.'"
The knowledge of the sheikhs' support must surely have come as a great comfort to Sheikh Khalifa, a grieving son taking on the task of carrying on and developing his father's legacy and fulfilling his country's promise. That spirit of endeavour did not end with Sheikh Zayed's passing - projects of which he had dreamt came to fruition (perhaps most poignantly the Grand Mosque, which bears his name) and new ambitions flourished. The following year the Emirates Palace hotel opened its doors to the public. Vast and burnished with gold, it represented Dh11 billion of investment in both the fabric of the building and the conviction that Abu Dhabi could be recognised as a world-class capital.
The dream of Saadiyat Island - 27 square kilometres of homes and cultural districts just 500 metres off the Abu Dhabi coastline - edges ever closer to realisation. Masdar, with its university, its research into new technologies and its encouragement of global enterprise and diversification, embodies a founding desire to move continually forward while never losing sight of the importance of nature, its resources and the heritage of the desert way of life. And year in, year out, iconic structures, such as Zaha Hadid's Sheikh Zayed Bridge, continue to rise.
According to Sheikh Mohammed, paying tribute to Sheikh Zayed one year after his death, comfort and inspiration can be taken from the knowledge that the personality and charm exuded by his father remain alive in the UAE today. He said: "Zayed the leader, the wise and the father of the nation, is still with us because he departed this world in form only; his soul, wisdom and achievements will endure forever...
"With the dawn of every new day, we wake up feeling that Sheikh Zayed is still with us. He will be remembered forever because his good deeds and great achievements are evidence of his rich legacy."
As are his people's love and respect, which endure to this day.