If you drive around Abu Dhabi today and gaze at its tall towers steepling into the sky or look its modern infrastructure, it is hard to imagine the hardships of just a few decades ago, when the city was beginning to awake from the slumber of the pre-oil days and starting the journey towards the confident metropolis it is today.
Dr Shaikha Al Maskari remembers that era, but they weren't so much hard times as simpler days, she says.
“As a young girl I remember waiting for low tide at Maqta Fort so we could wade across the water separating [Abu Dhabi] island from the mainland. There was just a narrow slip that was built up to allow for light traffic to cross. To pass the time, the children would run around chasing crabs on the beach,” she says.
“Certainly there were hardships,” she says in reference to those times, “but looking back now I see the experiences through a different lens. I see the faces of the family, friends, classmates, colleagues and leaders who helped shape me and made me better by their presence.”
If that seems a particularly reflective statement, it is delivered with good reason.
Dr Al Maskari is preparing to step away from the day-to-day running of her Al Maskari Holding group of companies after decades of service. She is doing so in the company’s golden jubilee year, it was established in 1968. She will remain as honorary chairwoman and the reins will be passed to Nabyl Al Maskari, her son, who is already vice-chairman and chief executive. Over the years, the company has diversified from its roots in oil and gas into a company with interests in power generation, financial services and even football.
She is regularly cited as a trailblazer – she was the first woman to work in the field in the country’s oil industry – and has been a regular fixture on the Forbes list of the 100 Most Powerful Arab Women, but the call of her charity work rather than commerce appears most urgent now.
“I am blessed to be in a position now to dedicate myself to giving back. Fifty years is a long time,” she says in reference to her years abroad and at home, in education and in industry, as well as her philanthropic work.
“With Ramadan upon us, it is a time to reflect and refocus. All of us should take time to help those who helped you along your personal journey and, if you are able, extend a hand to help those in need.”
Dr Al Maskari’s own journey and her career were helped in no small part by Sheikh Zayed, the UAE’s Founding Father.
“When I was preparing to leave for schooling overseas, he told me that wherever I went I was an ambassador of Abu Dhabi and that my actions reflected on our country. He reminded me to enjoy learning.”
Shaikha Al Maskari: A time to reflect and marvel at the strides the UAE has taken since 1971
She was educated in the UK and the US, completing her degree at the University of London and her doctorate at Indiana University.
“I never forgot Sheikh Zayed’s words of wisdom. I have always pushed myself to make my family and my country proud. When I selected a university programme, I never felt that geophysics was unsuited for a woman.
“I simply resolved that I would pursue engineering because I knew that serving in the oil industry was of strategic importance to my country and it was the best way I could repay Sheikh Zayed for his goodwill,” she says.
She began her career at the Abu Dhabi Department of Petroleum in 1974 and was initially tasked with reviewing and reporting on the studies and surveys of the oil and gas fields.
“While it was important work, I yearned to apply myself directly,” says Dr Al Maskari.
She was given the opportunity to work in the field under the Abu Dhabi Petroleum Company concessions and later transferred to Adnoc. When Adco formed in 1979, she shifted to onshore operations.
She left Adco when her husband died in 1990 and had to balance bringing up her family with the demands of steering the family business.
“To now pass on its leadership to my children is like closing a book that has been written over the past 50 years of my life,” she says.
With one chapter complete, she is free to concentrate on another: philanthropy.
“I cannot turn away from seeing the suffering of countless lives in different parts of the world. There are unprecedented humanitarian crises that require our collective attention and co-ordinated action.
“I am proud that the UAE is a world leader in foreign aid by sending supplies to those in need and those impacted by disaster,” a statement that is laced with particular significance given the havoc Cyclone Mekunu has wreaked in Socotra in recent days and the assistance this country is now providing to help the relief effort.
"I intend to honour the legacy of Sheikh Zayed and follow his example of benevolence and compassion,” she says of her retirement from commercial life and of her future work.