top of page

A man of the people

You can’t go far in Abu Dhabi without seeing a mention of Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan. As the country’s first president, and a notable figure in history, he is recalled everywhere you look, in the names of roads, mosques, universities and bridges. But it’s not just the tributes of his people that entrench the charismatic leader in national memory. Evidence of his influence is woven into the very fabric of the country, in the quality of life enjoyed by its residents and the groundbreaking structures admired by the world.

This year marks 100 years since the birth of Sheikh Zayed, who passed away in 2004, and to commemorate this national occasion, His Highness Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, President of the United Arab Emirates, declared that 2018 will officially be known in the UAE as the Year of Zayed. It’s a momentous tribute that is befitting of the nation’s founding father.

Early years

The youngest of four sons, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan was born in 1918. His father, Sheikh Sultan bin Zayed Al Nahyan, was the ruler of Abu Dhabi from 1922 to 1926. In those days, the capital was a far cry from the wealthy emirate it is today and its people, even those who belonged to the ruling family, lived by simple means. A time before the discovery of oil, the mainstays of the economy were fishing, pearl diving and agriculture, which produced enough to live on but meant that there was little extra, and so the country remained undeveloped.

Evidence of his influence is woven into the very fabric of the country. He quickly established himself as a capable leader, who was willing to lead by example

At the time, formal schooling was rare and the young sheikh took basic lessons in reading and writing, in addition to classes on Islam. Much of his time was spent in the desert with the Bedouin tribes learning about their way of life and the environment. He was taught the traditional practice of falconry, which remained a passion for the rest of his life, and developed a love and respect for Arabian horses.

In 1946, Sheikh Zayed became the ruler’s representative in the Eastern Region, where the city of Al Ain is located. He quickly established himself as a capable leader, who was willing to lead by example. The sheikh wanted opportunities for the people of Al Ain and set up the first modern school in the emirate, which he funded with his own money. He also encouraged friends and relatives to contribute towards the development of the region.

A big believer in conservation and the environment, Sheikh Zayed had the falaj water transport system rebuilt, providing irrigation for the oases and other agricultural developments. As a result of his efforts, Al Ain is today often referred to as the ‘garden city’ and the ‘oasis city’.

Ruler of Abu Dhabi

Although oil exploration had continued in the Gulf for many years before it was discovered in Abu Dhabi in 1958, it didn’t bring immediate wealth to the emirate. The ruler at the time, Sheikh Shakhbut bin Sultan Al Nahyan, was unsure whether the revenue would continue and chose to be frugal rather than pour the money into the development of Abu Dhabi. However, his brother, Sheikh Zayed, believed that the money would offer great opportunities to the emirate and, inspired by his ideas, the ruling Al Nayhan family put him on the throne in 1966 to carry out his vision of developing the emirate. As Sheikh Zayed wisely said: “Real wealth is the hard work that benefits both the person and the community. It is immortal and eternal and becomes the value of the person and the nation.” He channelled vast sums into the construction of schools, healthcare services, an airport, seaport, housing, roads and a bridge linking Abu Dhabi island to the mainland.

Just a year later, the British announced that they would withdraw from their treaty with the Trucial States, which included the sheikhdoms of Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Sharjah, Ajman, Fujairah, Umm Al Quwain and Ras Al Khaimah. The agreement ended on December 1, 1971, and the next day, the United Arab Emirates was formed. Sheikh Zayed was appointed the president of the new country. Together with the ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum, he had been instrumental in establishing the federation.

President of the UAE

Sheikh Zayed continued to spread Abu Dhabi’s oil wealth not just within the emirate but also throughout the country. He invested heavily in education, believing it to be the key to a successful future. “Building good citizens is more difficult than building factories. Sophisticated nations are judged by the level of their population’s education,” he once said. He was also passionate about the environment and wildlife, and established not only the

Al Ain Zoo but also the Arabian Wildlife Park on Sir Bani Yas Island. The survival of the Arabian oryx, a species declared extinct in the early 1960s, can be attributed to the successful breeding programme here. Today, more than 500 Arabian oryx roam free on Sir Bani Yas Island. A firm believer in peace and stability, the sheikh showed that same compassion towards people. He exhibited a widespread tolerance of other religions and was greatly respected by expatriates in the UAE. He also sought to bring greater peace within the Arabian Gulf and the broader Arab world with his humanitarian and aid efforts throughout the region.

In his honour

A recently opened, permanent national tribute to the late Sheikh Zayed can now be found along Abu Dhabi Corniche. At the centrepiece of the Founder’s Memorial is The Constellation, a stunning artwork crafted in Sheikh Zayed’s image from a total of 1,327 geometric shapes suspended from 1,110 cables. Illuminated by more than 2,000 lights, this celestial display is a symbol of the founding father’s guiding presence over the nation. The lush gardens that border the memorial, with more than 100 million trees, also reflect the sheikh’s love of nature.

The legacy continues

Speaking at the Year of Zayed announcement, Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, President of the United Arab Emirates, said: “The Year of Zayed is a great national occasion when we proudly share memories of the life of the founding father, and his gift to us of deeply-rooted values, principles and traditions that have become part of our Emirati identity.”

“Real wealth is the hard work that benefits both the person and the community”

With this in mind, throughout the year, a series of events and initiatives are taking place across the emirates. From poetry readings, calligraphy competitions and photography exhibitions, to student street parades and commemorative art, such as that emblazoned upon Dubai’s Emirates airline, there is no shortage of creative ways to honour this great leader.

Accordingly, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE, followed the president’s declaration, by adding that the Zayed school of leadership and management had inspired the government to launch the UAE Centennial 2071 – an ambitious government strategy to be a world leader by the year 2071, in four main tenets – education, economy, government development and community cohesion.

Sheikh Zayed’s well-known spirit of generosity has also seen the launch of several humanitarian projects, from financial aid to medical donations and educational funding. In an effort to further improve working conditions, officials have said that over 100,000 workers will be provided with legal education this year by the Abu Dhabi Judicial Department.

Speaking at the inauguration of the Founder’s Memorial, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, said: “The Founding Father will continue to inspire current and future generations with his humanity, leadership and wisdom,” – an aspirational sentiment that rings true across the many fantastic projects taking place throughout the Year of Zayed, and no doubt for many years to come.


bottom of page