Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan (Arabic:الشيخ زايد بن سلطان أل نهيان), (1918 — 2 November 2004), the principal architect of the seven United Arab Emirates, was the moderate ruler of Abu Dhabi and president of the UAE for over 30 years (1971-2004).
Sheikh Zayed was the youngest son of Sheikh Sultan bin Zayed Al-Nahyan, the traditional ruler of Abu Dhabi from 1922 to 1926. He was named after his famous grandfather, Zayed bin Khalifa al Nahyan, who ruled the emirate from 1855 to 1909. On August 6, 1966 he succeeded his brother, Sheikh Shakhbut Bin-Sultan Al Nahyan, as emir of Abu Dhabi after the latter was deposed in a bloodless palace coup. Zayed was first elected to the presidency of the UAE in 1971 and was reelected on four further occasions: 1976, 1981, 1986, and 1991. These elections were not by popular vote, for no democratic institutions exist in the UAE. He was in fact appointed by the other six ruling Sheiks that sit with him on the Supreme Council. He was considered a relatively liberal ruler, and allowed private media, although they were strictly censored and were never allowed to criticize the government or the ruling families. His religious tolerance of Christians and the freedom given Western workers sojourning in the UAE was in marked contrast to most neighbors in the region and exposed him to criticism. Zayed was most respected around the world for his unifying influence and his drive to make the Emirates one nation. His calls for conciliation extended across the Gulf to Iran. Zayed advocated dialogue as the means to settle the row with Tehran over three strategic Gulf islands which Iran seized from the (future) UAE Emirate of Sharjah in 1971. This was hardly a magnanimous gesture however, for Iran's military dwarfs that of the UAE many times over, so there was no recourse but dialogue. It is also noteworthy that this approach has been thus far fruitless. The islands remain solidly in Iranian hands, despite over three decades of UAE diplomatic initiatives. Zayed also did not shy away from controversy when it came to expressing his opinion when it concerned current events in the Arab world. Troubled by the suffering of Iraqi civilians, he took the lead in calling for lifting sanctions on Iraq imposed by the United Nations in the aftermath of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990, despite Kuwaiti displeasure and opposition.
Sheikh Zayed was considered one of the wealthiest men in the world. A Forbes magazine estimate put his fortune at around USD $20 billion. The source of this wealth could be almost exclusively attributed to the immense oil wealth of Abu Dhabi and the Emirates, which sit on a pool of a tenth of the world's proven oil reserves. Nevertheless he chose to live a relatively modest and traditional lifestyle, riding and hunting with falcons, though he gave up hunting with firearms, a sport at which he excelled, to set an example for wildlife conservation in his fragile desert homeland.He was personally popular, and was regarded to be considerably pious in his religious observances.
The Sheikh on a 1967 postage stamp
At the time the British withdrew from the Persian Gulf, Zayed oversaw the establishment of the Abu Dhabi Fund for Arab Economic Development; through it oil riches were channeled to some forty less fortunate Islamic nations in Asia and Africa during the decades that followed. He is also remembered as "the man who turned the desert green," because he invested oil revenues into projects to improve the harsh desert environment. A major vehicle for his ideas and activities is the Zayed Center for Coordination and Follow-Up.
Using the country's enormous oil revenues, Sheikh Zayed built up institutions such as hospitals, schools and universities and made it possible for UAE citizens to enjoy free access to them. He also decreed that the State would undertake the cost of foreign health care for those families unable to afford it. Land was also often distributed gratis. However, whilst this policy benefited many landless families, enormously wealthy clans and individuals were given free land grants in proportion to their status and influence with the royal family. His majlis (a traditional Arab consultation council) was open to the public, and as well as discussing national and personal issues, he enjoyed hearing people's opinions on poetry, as well as recitals by new and young poets. His tolerance towards other people and their faiths was evident, and he allowed the building of religious buildings such as churches and temples. This is perhaps one of his most important attributes, which endeared him to the vast multitudes of expatriate workers who make up approximately three quarters of the population of the UAE. Zayed was also an advocate of women's rights and the education and participation of women in the work force, within traditional parameters. His views regarding this issue were considerably more liberal than his contemporaries in the GCC nations.
In 1999, while he was in a hospital for some tests, the people of the UAE wrote him a personal thank-you letter with 1.5 million signatures. He underwent a kidney transplant in 2000.
On November 2, 2004, Sheikh Zayed passed away, as announced by Abu Dhabi TV. He was believed to be 86 years old. No official cause of death was given; however he was in London recently undergoing hospital treatment.
His eldest son, Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahayan, born in 1948, took an increasing role in the government from the 1990s; he was ratified as president of the United Arab Emirates by his fellow rulers on the Supreme Council directly after his father's death.
Sheikh Zayed's critics point to the vast sums of the state's wealth that he accumulated for himself and his family, significantly dwarfing the amounts channeled to charitable contributions. Many poor Arabs regard with contempt what they insist is his wasteful extreavegance. One of his weddings landed in the Guinness Book of Records for being the most expensive in the world. They also point out that it was not his own wealth that he was distributing, but the nation's. Nevertheless, they were important contributions that affected countless lives. Some of his charitable acts included adopting hundreds of orphans and building several hospitals both in the UAE and abroad (in Europe, Asia and Africa). Zayed's supporters maintain that much of his charitable work went unadvertised, and was merely known through popular word-of-mouth. Some critics dispute this, saying that the state-run media enthusiastically publicized his philanthropy.
There was no denying his personal popularity in his native land, however, and his popularity stands independently of his generosity. He was admired as a relatively simple man who guarded his people's culture and traditions and presented a civilized image of the UAE to the rest of the world; he was the undisputed father of his nation. The flood of emotions at the news of his death was genuine, and felt all over the country, by nationals and non-nationals alike. He was a man respected across the globe, especially in the US and Europe due to his pro-western stance. Although he was opposed to democracy in any form, he nevertheless avoided virtually all taint of authoritarianism, and was in fact viewed as a moderate and gentle ruler. He shall be remembered as one of the most important leaders of the Arabian Peninsula in recent history.
- Sheikh Zayed's website (http://www.sheikhzayed.com/index_noflash.htm)
- UAE embassy obituary profile (http://uae-embassy.org/profile.htm)