Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates
Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates
Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan Biography
Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan was the ruler of Abu Dhabi for more than 30 years (6 August 1966 – 2 November 2004). He was the founding father and the principal driving force behind the formation of the United Arab Emirates, becoming the Union's first Raʾīs (President), a post which he held for a period of almost 33 years (1971 until his death in 2004). He is popularly referred to in the UAE as the Father of the Nation.
Zayed was the youngest of four sons of Sheikh Sultan bin Khalifa Al Nahyan. His father was the ruler of Abu Dhabi from 1922 until his death in 1926. Zayed was the youngest of his four brothers. His eldest brother, Sheikh Shakhbut bin Sultan Al Nahyan, became ruler of Abu Dhabi after their uncle, Saqr bin Zayed Al Nahyan, His mother was Sheikha Salama bint Butti. She extracted a promise from her sons not to use violence against each other, a promise which they kept. Sheikh Zayed was named after his grandfather, Sheikh Zayed bin Khalifa Al Nahyan ("Zayed the Great"), who ruled the emirate from 1855 to 1909. At the time of Sheikh Zayed's birth, the sheikhdom of Abu Dhabi was one of seven Trucial States along the lower coast of the Persian Gulf. He also showed interest in falconry.
It is normally held that he was born at Qasr al-Hosn in Abu Dhabi, with some sources stating that he was born in Al Ain, particularly at Sultan Bin Zayed Fort on the edge of Al Ain Oasis.He is at least known to have moved from Abu Dhabi to Al Ain in 1927, after the death of his father. As Zayed was growing up in Al-Ain, there were no modern schools anywhere along the coast. He only received a basic instruction in the principles of Islam, and lived in the desert with Bedouin tribesmen, familiarising himself with the life of the people, their traditional skills and their ability to survive under the harsh climatic conditions.
Zayed was appointed the governor of the Eastern Region of Abu Dhabi in 1946, and was based in the Muwaiji fort in Al Ain. At this time, the area was poor and prone to outbreaks of disease. When parties from Petroleum Development (Trucial Coast) began exploring for oil in the area, Zayed assisted them.
In 1952, a small Saudi Arabian force led by Turki bin Abdullah Al-Otaishan occupied the village of Hamasa in the Buraimi Oasis (the 'Buraimi Dispute'). Zayed was prominent in his opposition to Saudi territorial claims and reportedly rejected a bribe of about £30 million to allow Aramco to explore for oil in the disputed territory. As part of this dispute, Zayed and his brother Hazza attended the Buraimi arbitration tribunal in Geneva in September 1955 and gave evidence to tribunal members. When the tribunal was abandoned amid allegations of Saudi bribery, the British initiated the reoccupation of the Buraimi Oasis through a local military force, the Trucial Oman Levies. A period of stability followed during which Zayed helped to develop the region and took a particular interest in the restoration of the falaj system, a network of water channels which kept the plantations of the Buraimi Oasis irrigated and fertile.
The discovery of oil in 1958, and the start of oil exports in 1962, led to frustration among members of the ruling family about the lack of progress under Sheikh Shakhbut’s rule. On 6 August 1966, Shakhbut was deposed in a bloodless palace coup. The move to replace Shakhbut with Zayed had the unanimous backing of the Al Nahyan family. The news was conveyed to Shakhbut by British Acting Resident Glen Balfour-Paul who added the support of the British to the consensus of the family. Shakhbut finally accepted the decision and, with the Trucial Oman Scouts providing safe transport, left for Bahrain. He subsequently lived in Korramshahr, Iran before returning to live in Buraimi.
In the late 1960s, Zayed hired Katsuhiko Takahashi, a Japanese architect, to design and plan the city.
Between 8–11 January 1968, the UK's Foreign Office Minister Goronwy Roberts visited the Trucial States and announced to its shocked rulers that the United Kingdom would abrogate its treaties with them and intended to withdraw from the area. In a seminal meeting on 18 February 1968 at a desert highland on the border between Dubai and Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Zayed and Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum of Dubai shook hands on the principle of founding a Federation and attempting to invite other trucial rulers to join in order that a viable nation be formed in the wake of the British withdrawal.
In 1971, after occasionally difficult negotiations with the other six rulers of the Trucial States, the United Arab Emirates was formed. Zayed was appointed to the presidency of the UAE in 1971 and was reappointed on four more occasions: 1976, 1981, 1986, and 1991.
In 1974, Zayed settled the outstanding border dispute with Saudi Arabia by the Treaty of Jeddah by which Saudi Arabia received the output of the Shaybah oilfield and access to the lower Persian Gulf in return for recognising the UAE.
Sheikh Zayed was determined to unite the Emirates into federation. His calls for cooperation extended across the Persian Gulf to Iran. He advocated dialogue as the means to settle the row with Tehran over three strategic Persian Gulf islands which Iran seized from the (future) UAE Emirate of Sharjah in 1971. The islands remain in Iranian hands, despite over three decades of UAE diplomatic initiatives.
The attitude of Zayed towards his neighbors can best be seen in his position regarding the "Umm al Zamul" dispute (1964), when he expressed a genuine wish that his brother Sheikh Shakhbut would accept "the Sultan's proposal for a neutral zone". He said in that regard: "... it was ridiculous to squabble over a [water] well so bitter that few bedouin could stomach its waters, or to split hairs over a tiny area of barren, almost totally unfrequented desert. And even if there happened to be oil in the area, Abu Dhabi had so much already that she could well afford to spare some for her less fortunate neighbours".
Furthermore, during the negotiations between Abu Dhabi and Dubai that resulted in forming the Abu Dhabi — Dubai Union (which preceded the formation of the United Arab Emirates), Sheikh Zayed was extremely generous with the Sheikh Rashid of Dubai. Kemal Hamza, Sheikh Rashid's envoy to the meeting between Sheikh Zayed and Sheikh Rashid in Sumeih remarked that "Zayed was extremely 'karim' (generous) throughout the negotiations and seemed prepared to give Rashid whatever he wanted". This amounted to Zayed giving Rashid "oil rights in the sea-bed that might be worth milions a year" even at the risk of criticism "at home for giving so much..." It also gave rise to comments that such concessions constituted "an alienation of territory by Abu Dhabi". But the future course of events proved, none of these arguments stood the test of judgment in light of the much higher goal that Sheikh Zayed had in mind, and which in the ultimate analysis amply justified the sacrifices incurred by him. Such concessions are rare in the records of history and news of this generosity travelled far and wide.
He was considered a relatively liberal ruler, and permitted private media. However, they were expected to practice self-censorship and avoid criticism of Zayed or the ruling families. Freedom of worship was permitted, and to a certain extent allowances were made for expatriate cultures, but this did not always sit comfortably in the eyes of the wider Arab world with Zayed's role as a Muslim head of state.
Zayed did not shy away from controversy when it came to expressing his opinions on current events in the Arab world. Troubled by the suffering of Iraqi civilians, he took the lead in calling for the lifting of economic sanctions on Iraq imposed by the United Nations in the aftermath of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990, despite Kuwaiti displeasure and opposition.
Zayed was one of the wealthiest men in the world. A Forbes estimate put his fortune at around US$20 billion in 2004. The source of this wealth was almost exclusively due 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. In 1988, he purchased, for £5m, Tittenhurst Park at Sunninghill, Berkshire as his English home.
At the time the British withdrew from the Persian Gulf in 1971, Zayed oversaw the establishment of the Abu Dhabi Fund for Arab Economic Development; some of its oil riches were channeled to some forty less fortunate Islamic nations in Asia and Africa during the decades that followed.
Using the country's enormous oil revenues, Zayed built institutions such as hospitals, schools and universities and made it possible for UAE citizens to enjoy free access to them. He was also known for making donations to the tune of millions [pounds sterling] for worthy causes around the Arab World as well as in the neighbouring countries and in the world at large.
When asked by The New York Times in April 1997 why there is no elected legislature, Zayed replied,
Why should we abandon a system that satisfies our people in order to introduce a system that seems to engender dissent and confrontation? Our system of government is based upon our religion and that is what our people want. Should they seek alternatives, we are ready to listen to them.
We have always said that our people should voice their demands openly. We are all in the same boat, and they are both the captain and the crew. Our doors are open for any opinion to be expressed, and this well known by all our citizens. It is our deep conviction that Allah has created people free, and has prescribed that each individual must enjoy freedom of choice. No one should act as if they own others.
Those in the position of leadership should deal with their subjects with compassion and understanding, because this is the duty enjoined upon them by Allah, who enjoins upon us to treat all living creatures with dignity. How can there be anything less for mankind, created as Allah's successors on earth? Our system of government does not derive its authority from man, but is enshrined in our religion and is based on Allah's Book, the Quran. What need have we of what others have conjured up? Its teachings are eternal and complete, while the systems conjured up by man are transitory and incomplete.
Land was also often distributed gratis. However, while 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. He allowed non-Muslim religious buildings, such as churches and a temple, to be built. Zayed was also in favour of certain rights for women, such as access to education and women's labour-rights, within traditional parameters. His views regarding women's rights were considerably more liberal than his counterparts in the GCC nations.
After floods ravaged Yemen's Ma'rib Governorate in 1982, Zayed financed the construction of the current dam of Ma'rib in 1984. This was to replace the historical one that was damaged in antiquity, and support the country's agriculture and economy. The area of Ma'rib is reportedly from where his ancestors migrated to what is now the UAE.
On 2 November 2004, Zayed died at the age of 86. He was buried in the courtyard of the new Sheikh Zayed Mosque in Abu Dhabi. His eldest son, Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, took an increasing role in government beginning in the 1980s. Directly after his father's death, he became the Ruler of Abu Dhabi, and was ratified as the President of the United Arab Emirates by his fellow rulers in the Supreme Council.