It was as a young man in the deserts of Abu Dhabi that Sheikh Zayed refined the skills that would serve him and his country so well on the international stage.
“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,” explains Zaki Nusseibeh, cultural adviser at the UAE Ministry of Presidential Affairs.
“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.”
Combined with his other leadership talents and his natural presence, the UAE’s first President paved new diplomatic paths and built international relations for a small country that many in the international community doubted would survive long beyond its formation.
As Sheikh Zayed’s interpreter in 1968 as well as head of his press office, Nusseibeh witnessed first hand what went into building the UAE and its reputation on the international arena.
“Many of the diplomatic observers and international media back then were expecting the UAE to fall apart following the withdrawal of British power. Some British diplomats predicted failure. They wrote how it won’t work, but the UAE, with Sheikh Zayed as its President, proved them all wrong. Within 10 years, the UAE emerged as a strong and active player in the region and on the international arena,” he says.
And at the heart of this lasting success? “Friendships with everyone, everywhere, was the policy Sheikh Zayed followed all throughout his life.”
Well before the UAE was founded, Sheikh Zayed was travelling abroad and forging friendships with statesmen and officials.
“Abu Dhabi was known abroad as an aid-giver before [the UAE] became a country,” Nusseibeh says. “Sheikh Zayed had a way about him where he always looked for common ground wherever he went, and found ways to build a relationship where both sides were happy and helping each other in one way or another. He believed that for any country to prosper, its neighbour must be prosperous.”
“He also believed that each continent is dependent on the other, and so he put great effort on this front, mediating whenever there was conflict and instability.”
In the 1970s, barely a week went by without a visit from a foreign head of state or their representative. From Africa to Latin America to Asia, officials came to meet Sheikh Zayed and, in turn, he travelled to their countries.
“Because of the great efforts by His Highness, the UAE by the 1980s had established itself as a powerful country with a say in important regional and international issues,” Nusseibeh says.
On one of his first important trips, in 1969, Sheikh Zayed visited Arab countries including Iraq, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon before heading to the UK and Spain.
“He visited many sites in each country, from military bases to schools to museums to government buildings, to learn from them for his own country, and to understand how different nations work and what they offered their nationals,” says Nusseibeh.
While in Spain, he remembers learning something profound about Sheikh Zayed that would stay with him forever.
“We were walking the alleyways of Alhambra Palace in Granada, and it was filled with tourists. I started to push them away to make way for Sheikh Zayed and he stopped me. ‘You must not bother anyone – we are all equal as visiting tourists here, and I do not need any special path made for me among them’, he said to me.
“I understood him better that day. It was this confidence – this peaceful air about him and his modesty that helped make this country what it is.”
When Sheikh Zayed met the Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, in 1974, on a state trip to Iran, the Shah offered Sheikh Zayed his army as “protection” from attacks.
“The Shah said that since the UAE is small and doesn’t have a proper army, they could draw up an agreement between the two countries.
“You must remember Iran was occupying three of the UAE’s islands at the time. Sheikh Zayed with great poise simply thanked the Shah and said we will not need this because the UAE will have a powerful army soon that will be a major contributor to regional stability and peace that is vital to all our nations.
“And of course he would depend on his friends and allies to work together to achieve this,” says Nusseibeh.
Sheikh Zayed also knew how to stand firm when he believed the situation called for it. In 1973, he became “the champion of the Arabs” by reminding the world of their economic power.
“It was a turbulent time; it was following the 1967 Six-Day Arab-Israeli War, the October War of 1973 and pan-Arab sentiment was high.
“The Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries meeting in emergency session in Kuwait took a resolution to reduce their oil production by a blanket 5 per cent a month, impacting all oil importers until the international community applied pressure to bring an end to the Arab-Israeli conflict.
“Sheikh Zayed refused this logic, saying that oil exports should not be reduced indiscriminately to all nations, but that countries that opposed the UN Security resolutions calling for peace should be targeted with a total oil ban, while those encouraging the peace process should continue to receive their normal oil supplies.
“Saudi Arabia followed and did the same. This shocked the superpowers and oil supplies only returned when Egypt, embarking on a peace process, asked the Gulf oil producers to lift the boycott,” says Nusseibeh.
It was at this time Sheikh Zayed spoke these now immortal words: “Arab blood is far more valuable than Arab oil.”
Sheikh Zayed “was a vocal advocate for Palestine and any Arab nation that was in turmoil”, says Nusseibeh.
The President also had his own ways of showing warmth and hospitality.
Wherever he travelled, Sheikh Zayed would take Emirati dates, while developing his own special “Omani halwa”, using honey instead of sugar.
“Whoever came, no matter how high up, he would tell them to have three full spoons. He would tell them it is very healthy. No one refused; they all had three spoons of Sheikh Zayed’s special dish,” says Nusseibeh.
Another hallmark of his leadership was to ask in his majlis a question he already had an answer to, to note the responses. “His mind was always working, even if it appeared like he was just having a sip of coffee,” says Nusseibeh.
In a long and active life of travelling and meeting with world leaders, Nusseibeh remembers two particular men that left a great impression on Sheikh Zayed.
Nelson Mandela “for his deep humanity and wisdom” and Senegal’s Léopold Sédar Senghor, for “his intellect and literature”.
At the same time, it was Sheikh Zayed’s mother, Sheikha Salamah, whom he always credited for instilling in him the “clear sightedness, the ambition and the vision” to see beyond.
“Sheikh Zayed never forgot where he started and where he came from. He learnt from the challenges and turned them into successes,” says Nusseibeh.