Memories of '71: 'People had nothing then, but today my son is a pilot'

Mohammed Al Shamsi becomes emotional when talking about how Sheikh Zayed transformed the country

When Sheikh Zayed, the Founding Father, sought to unite the emirates in 1971 the scale of the task was immense. And one of his biggest challenges was to unite the Bedouins.
It took a man such as Sheikh Zayed to convince tribes to abandon decades of nomadic living, commit to belonging to one place and believe in the dream of the UAE.

Although most had barely spoken to him, the first President of the UAE was such a formidable force that his ideas were enough to bring together camel herders, pearl divers and so many more from all corners of the emirates.

He built houses for them, schools to educate their children and hospitals to treat their sick.

Although many could barely read or write and were set in their ways, they believed in a man they barely knew.

He was younger than most of them but his strength of leadership made him instantly known as "Baba Zayed".

To mark the UAE's 49th National Day, and as the country enters its 50th year, The National interviewed six people who lived through those days of change.

Mohammed Al Shamsi was born in 1935 in Abu Dhabi. The pearl diving trade that sustained generations of people had collapsed. People eked out an existence through fishing, camel herding and date cultivation.

Hushed talk of oil was temporarily forgotten as war clouds descended from Germany. The future looked uncertain.

"The situation was bad,” says Mr Al Shamsi, 85. "Everyone was dependent on God foremost and on himself or herself.

“There was no country, no government and only tribes. The head of each tribe was a sheikh and people worked on raising their camels, tending their palm trees and in the summer we would go to cooler places.

"That is how we lived. If one of us wanted to build a house out of palm fronds, then all the neighbours and his loved ones would get together and help.”

When Mr Al Shamsi was 16, he joined the British armed forces. He worked for them from the late 1950s until 1962, when he moved to Abu Dhabi city for work.

He recalls the British having huge respect for Sheikh Zayed, the Founding Father, and his determination to unify the seven emirates.

Like so many other Bedouin, Mr Al Shamsi was in the desert when unification happened. It was, after all, an era when word still spread from person to person and village to village.

Mr Al Shamsi’s voice breaks when he remembers Sheikh Zayed and what he did for his people. Tears fall from his eyes.

“Sheikh Zayed brought us together under the light. When Zayed decided to be independent of the British, he didn’t do it with force – the British never harmed us, they supported us and stood by our side," he says.

"Zayed was also respected by the British forces. I worked with the British forces and I saw it first hand. They supported him."

Mr Al Shamsi recounts how Sheikh Zayed systematically improved the country, such as building a modern airport and establishing the Federal National Council.

He also remembers the actions of Sheikh Zayed during the 1973 Arab-Israeli war when an oil embargo was imposed on the West.

Sheikh Zayed said Arab petrol was not more precious than Arab blood.

Today, everything has changed for the people of the UAE. Sheikh Zayed led the country on the path to progress.

It is a modern country and the foundations Sheikh Zayed built are being strengthened by today's Rulers.

“And I swear to you his children are the same. Haven’t you seen Mohamed bin Zayed [Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces]. I have no personal gain apart from saying the truth," Mr Al Shamsi says.

"Today, as Emiratis, we are proud of the family, this government and this country. If you ask me how life was before, it was miserable.

"There was no country or government or anything. People had no education or knew anything about life. Today my son is a pilot when I didn't have anything as a child. This is a blessing.”

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Sheikh Zayed and the story of a nation

Our legal consultant

Name: Dr Hassan Mohsen Elhais

Position: legal consultant with Al Rowaad Advocates and Legal Consultants.

Our legal consultant

Name: Dr Hassan Mohsen Elhais

Position: legal consultant with Al Rowaad Advocates and Legal Consultants.

Our legal consultant

Name: Dr Hassan Mohsen Elhais

Position: legal consultant with Al Rowaad Advocates and Legal Consultants.

Our legal consultant

Name: Dr Hassan Mohsen Elhais

Position: legal consultant with Al Rowaad Advocates and Legal Consultants.

Our legal consultant

Name: Dr Hassan Mohsen Elhais

Position: legal consultant with Al Rowaad Advocates and Legal Consultants.

Our legal consultant

Name: Dr Hassan Mohsen Elhais

Position: legal consultant with Al Rowaad Advocates and Legal Consultants.

Our legal consultant

Name: Dr Hassan Mohsen Elhais

Position: legal consultant with Al Rowaad Advocates and Legal Consultants.

Our legal consultant

Name: Dr Hassan Mohsen Elhais

Position: legal consultant with Al Rowaad Advocates and Legal Consultants.

Our legal consultant

Name: Dr Hassan Mohsen Elhais

Position: legal consultant with Al Rowaad Advocates and Legal Consultants.

Our legal consultant

Name: Dr Hassan Mohsen Elhais

Position: legal consultant with Al Rowaad Advocates and Legal Consultants.

Our legal consultant

Name: Dr Hassan Mohsen Elhais

Position: legal consultant with Al Rowaad Advocates and Legal Consultants.

Our legal consultant

Name: Dr Hassan Mohsen Elhais

Position: legal consultant with Al Rowaad Advocates and Legal Consultants.

Our legal consultant

Name: Dr Hassan Mohsen Elhais

Position: legal consultant with Al Rowaad Advocates and Legal Consultants.

Our legal consultant

Name: Dr Hassan Mohsen Elhais

Position: legal consultant with Al Rowaad Advocates and Legal Consultants.

Our legal consultant

Name: Dr Hassan Mohsen Elhais

Position: legal consultant with Al Rowaad Advocates and Legal Consultants.

Our legal consultant

Name: Dr Hassan Mohsen Elhais

Position: legal consultant with Al Rowaad Advocates and Legal Consultants.