‘Miraculous’ is a word first time visitors often use to describe this country’s rapid growth from desert to great nation. Their amazement is understandable. Just four decades ago, people here were living simply as fishermen, pearl divers, herders and traders while, today, they enjoy a standard of living that is second-to-none. That isn’t to say we are not proud of our roots. We had little in the materialistic sense but we did have so much in terms of family values, friendship, hospitality and an inherent stoicism.
Such a swift leap does seem miraculous but there was no magic wand involved. The Creator in his beneficence blessed us with two exceptional human beings, who used their God-given gifts wisely to bring disparate sheikhdoms together in the pursuit of the same goal.
The transformation of our villages into stunning metropolises is a direct result of aspirations shared by the late HH Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan and the HH Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum. They understood that the only way forward for the seven emirates that make-up this 38-year-old country was together.
They knew there was strength in unity at a time when local rivalries were common and when major powers had not yet abandoned colonialist ambitions that had, in the mid-to-late 19th century, prompted the area to accept Great Britain’s protection.
Our nation’s history has been written about extensively but you may not realise that when, in 1968, Britain announced its intention to withdraw from its Trucial treaties, there was a general feeling of apprehension and vulnerability. I recall vividly how haunted by uncertainty we were until the UAE flag was unfurled for the first time on December 2, 1971 heralding a new dawn. But little did we know then how much we would come to love that now familiar red, green, white and black standard or how high it would fly in the world’s eyes.
In retrospect, we needn’t have been concerned. Together and separately, Sheikh Zayed and Sheikh Rashid took care of their people in a way that a father ensures that no harm comes to his children. They infused us with enthusiasm and confidence. They made us believe that no dream was unachievable. They were role models of humility, forgiveness, self-discipline and humanitarianism. Certainly, my own interactions with them as a young man inspired me to become a better person.
Their achievements are many; so many that they would fill several weighty volumes. You only have to look around you to see their vision translated into reality through hard work. We derive so much pride and pleasure from our green spaces, world-beating infrastructure and airlines, centres of learning, an open business environment and diverse opportunities for leisure. Yet, without the determination of our nation’s fathers - later embraced by their sons - the UAE might have been internationally dismissed as an insignificant dot on the map.
I occasionally come across short-sighted individuals who say, “It’s easy to build a country on oil-wealth”. Not so! There are many wealthier places on earth which are unable to boast a tenth of this country’s achievements due either to poor leadership or corruption at the top. Our founders had an entirely different philosophy. Indeed, Sheikh Zayed once said that “Wealth is not money, wealth lies in our …” They viewed this land as a garden that was owned by the people who counted upon them as much as it belonged to them.
To make this precious garden bloom, they watered it unstintingly with every resource at their disposal. Therefore, we saw that all the wealth of our nation was directed towards building schools, hospitals and great infrastructures such as seaports, dry-docks and airports. Their approach was hands-on. Sheikh Zayed was often seen guiding oil executives around the desert in the early days, while Sheikh Rashid regularly drove himself around Dubai checking on projects and chatting with ordinary people.
They lead by consensus. “I am not imposing change on anyone,” Sheikh Zayed is quoted as saying. “That is tyranny. All of us have our opinions, and these opinions can change. Sometimes we put all our opinions together, and then extract from them a single point of view. This is our democracy.” In the days when nationals numbered less than 200,000, their respective majlis was open to anyone seeking advice, requiring help or eager to offer an opinion.
Their satisfaction was initially derived from the flowering of their own people but they were later to extend their caring principles to anyone in need. They offered a helping hand to all nations around the world. They did not think then of religion, race or colour. All they cared about was providing food, shelter, medicine and a decent living to the needy people around the globe.
Respected internationally for its balanced foreign policy, the UAE was regularly called upon to arbitrate regional disputes. It isn’t for nothing that Sheikh Zayed was considered “The Hakim, or ‘the Wise Man’ of the Arab World.
They believed in a peaceful world but they did not flinch from standing shoulder to shoulder with their fellow Arabs when they were aggressed, as the former Egyptian President Anwar El-Sadat was to acknowledge following the 1973 war with Israel. The UAE was – and is - often the first country to respond to man-made or natural crises, while its founders have been praised for their humanitarian concerns and philanthropy throughout the developing world.
Both were so genuinely loved at home and abroad that the tears shed when they left us for the last time could overflow a stream. When Sheikh Rashid departed on October 7, 1990 the United Nations General Assembly stood for a minute’s silence before individual member countries paid their tributes. On November 2nd 2004, the General Assembly called a rare special commemorative session to mark the death of Sheikh Zayed.
I know that I speak for all my compatriots when I say that we still miss them greatly as who threw their warmth around us when times were uncertain. But God has blessed us again with their sons HH Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan President of the UAE and Ruler of Abu Dhabi and HH Sheikh Mohamed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Prime Minister and Vice-President of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, who follow so superbly and seamlessly in their footsteps.
This country, my country, is now the home of more than five million from every corner of the globe, who live together harmoniously enjoying the fruits of an economy that is the second largest in the Arab World. It is stable, secure and open to people willing to share their talents in return for an enviable lifestyle.
It may be a world away from the environment that shaped our founders but we must always keep their values close. We, as nationals, must make certain that they are cherished and our traditions preserved so that they can be imbibed by coming generations. In this way, we will ensure that the spirit of our remarkable founding will forever lie at the heart of our country in the way that their dear faces, mannerisms and voices will always be indelibly etched on my own.