The man who realised Sheikh Zayed’s dream of a desert turned green

In 1960s, only one man firmly believed it was possible to transform a barren land into a Garden of Eden. The sky was the limit for Sheikh Zayed's imagination.

Sheikh Zayed, for whom plants were ‘like children’, was determined to see his land bloom. Courtesy Al Ittihad
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Abdul Hafeez Khan Al Yousefi faced the daunting task of turning the desert green on his arrival in Abu Dhabi in 1962. But Sheikh Zayed's friendship and passion for the project led him to stay well beyond his one-year contract.

Could you really turn the desert into a lush green land? Fifty years ago, one man firmly believed it was possible. For Sheikh Zayed the only limit was your imagination.

To turn his vision into reality, the Founding Father summoned prominent agricultural experts from around the world to the oasis at Buraimi. After seeing the barren land, most decided to return home.

Except for a 25-year-old graduate in agricultural science from Karachi in Pakistan.

But even Abdul Hafeez Khan Al Yousefi had his doubts in the beginning. He remembers what people said: “God created this place a desert, and it will remain a desert.”

What stopped him from going back to Pakistan? It was, he says, the love and affection of Sheikh Zayed and the look in his eyes when he spoke of his plans.

Now 77, Mr Al Yousefi recalls one of his most moving moments with Sheikh Zayed. Grasping his arms one day, Sheikh Zayed said: “You will not leave me, will you now?”

Sitting in the shade in his garden in Al Ain, surrounded by his children and grandchildren, Mr Al Yousefi remembers the years of companionship with the Founding Father.

Those memories have been collected in a new book dedicated to Sheikh Zayed called 50 Years in Al Ain Oasis: Memoirs of Abdul Hafeez Khan.

Just asking Mr Al Yousefi about his first memory of Abu Dhabi is enough to take him back to the summer of 1962. “The story I am about to reveal is of a Dark Age,” says the father of seven. “In 1962, I was pursuing my graduate studies in agriculture sciences at the American University of Beirut.”

Sheikh Zayed, then Ruler’s Representative for the Eastern Region, had turned to international diplomacy in his efforts to find someone to develop Al Ain’s agriculture.

Sir Hugh Boustead, the British political agent in Abu Dhabi, contacted Dr Jack Eyre, an agriculture adviser to the Middle East development division at the British Embassy in Beirut, requesting a candidate.

Mr Al Yousefi got the job but remembers that he was preoccupied with one question: “Where is this Abu Dhabi? I couldn’t find it in an atlas. Does it even exist?”

Having said goodbye to his family and friends, he landed in Abu Dhabi on September 7, 1962 for what he thought was a one-year contract.

And at that moment, his plans came to a sudden halt. There was no river gushing with water – just sand dunes that blurred the line between Earth and sky.

“But I knew Allah had sent me here for a purpose,” he says.

Mr Al Yousefi had no idea that he was being sent inland, to the oasis village of Buraimi.

“You see, it’s all an adventure. Then the news spread that a ‘big’ agriculture adviser is coming to help with the plantation,” he says pointing to himself with a chuckle.

“This house was especially built for me by Sheikh Zayed. It is the first properly built house in the history of the UAE.”

The building was also used by a young Sheikh Khalifa, the President, for his private lessons.

Even today the exterior of the house remains the same, as a reminder to Mr Al Yousefi of more than 40 years of friendship.

Sheikh Zayed visited him two days after his arrival in Buraimi, and in the days and weeks that followed, a deep companionship developed between a leader and an adviser striving for a common cause.

“Give me agriculture and I assure you of civilisation,” was the deal between Sheikh Zayed and Mr Al Yousefi.

To work together, the two men had to find a way to communicate.

“An interpreter named Mohammed Zain from southern India was hired to ease communication between me and Sheikh Zayed,” says Mr Al Yousefi.

But it emerged that Sheikh Zayed was uncomfortable conveying his thoughts and ideas through another person.

“One day, I was told Sheikh Zayed gave him a huge amount of money and gently convinced him to go,” he recalls.

“Sheikh Zayed gestured that Zain had left, and that we would communicate through English or Urdu. Both of us knew we couldn’t.”

Mr Al Yousefi was left with no choice but to learn Arabic.

“Sheikh Zayed was after cultivation,” he says. “He had the money to built a modern city, but he wanted greenery before modernity.”

Gradually, the dream began to take shape.

Among the plants imported were 12 crates of eucalyptus from Australia. A tall eucalyptus still stands at one end of Mr Al Yousefi’s garden.

“This plant was among the first batch of the imported exotic trees. Sheikh Zayed chose the location,” he says. A plaque on the tree reads: “Planted by H.H. Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan in 1962.”

The leader wanted to see greenery everywhere, Mr Al Yousefi says. So one morning, Sheikh Zayed asked him to select a plant that would survive the harsh environment and not be uprooted by a sandstorm.

“I thought and thought for days,” he says.

“While passing by my area, I came across a palm tree – yes, date palm,” he exclaims.

He recalls rushing to tell Sheikh Zayed and finding him having breakfast at Hili village.

“Zayed, you have made me mad,” he recalls saying. “The past 10 days, I have been thinking of a plant that would survive and not vanish. How about we plant palm trees?”

The idea excited Sheikh Zayed, who insisted that they start work at once.

“Sheikh Zayed would be holding one end of the measuring tape and I the other,” Mr Al Yousefi says. “We were like friends. I called him Zayed.

“Do you think the palm trees in the middle of Al Ain Road was a coincidence? It was an effort by me and Zayed. Zayed couldn’t have done it alone, nor could have I done it without him.”

For Sheikh Zayed plants were like his children. “Always thinking about work, work and work,” Mr Al Yousefi says. “He always ran from one place to another, relying only on himself.”

As to why he stayed for so long, Mr Al Yousefi says: “I signed a one-year contract at the beginning and I should have left a long, long time ago, but I couldn’t. I just couldn’t.

“How can I explain through words? Sheikh Zayed had a magnetic personality that stopped me. His love and affection are indescribable.

“His determination and conviction to see this land bloom instilled confidence in me.”