Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, March 2005, page 41

In Memoriam

Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan (1918-2004)

By Andrew I. Killgore

An Emirati man kisses the picture of Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahayan during the sheikh’s funeral in Abu Dhabi Nov. 3, 2004. Nahayan, the president and founding father of the United Arab Emirates, died Nov. 2, 2004 after more than 30 years at the helm of his oil-rich country (AFP photo/Rabih Moghrabi).

SHEIKH ZAYED bin Sultan Al Nahyan, president of the United Arab Emirates, died Nov. 2, 2004. He was 86 years of age. In keeping with Arab tribal practice, Sheikh Zayed—who was well known for his statesmanship in welding seven constituent sheikhdoms, formerly known as the Trucial States, into the United Arab Emirates—was known simply as Zayed. His eldest son, Khalifa bin Zayed, succeeded him as president.

Born poor in the Ras al-Khayma town of al-Ein, long before the discovery of oil, as a young man Zayed lived the life of a bedouin. This taught him the values of simplicity and lack of pretense, which he practiced all his life. Even after oil was discovered in Abu Dhabi in 1958, and it became clear that the UAE possessed 10 percent of the world’s proved deposits of petroleum, Zayed remained the same unassuming man he had always been. In 1966 he succeeded his brother as ruler of Abu Dhabi.

When Britain pulled out of the Gulf in 1971, after having occupied the region since 1820, the nine Arab sheikhdoms negotiated for unity, but Qatar and Bahrain each opted instead for independence. The remaining seven sheikhdoms—Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Sharjah, Ajman, Ras al-Khayma, Um al-Quwayn and Fujaira—chose to join together, and in 1971 the seven emirate leaders elected Sheikh Zayed president of the UAE federation. He subsequently was re-elected to the post every five years.

As sheikh of Abu Dhabi, the largest and richest of the seven emirates, Zayed never threatened the other six but instead used persuasion to get his way. With patience and good sense, he saw to it that there was gain for everyone in unity and independence. Zayed established the UAE’s modern infrastructure, building state-of-the-art roads, housing, schools, health services, air- and sea ports, and even a bridge to link Abu Dhabi with the mainland.

He inspired a beautification campaign throughout the UAE, planting over 18 million palm trees and an additional 10 million other trees, now full-grown and lush, which line the emirates’ streets and highways. He built experimental farms and encouraged agricultural research in order to create plants capable of thriving despite the country’s heat and saline groundwater. As early as 1967, he built a popular zoo in Al Ain.

Sheikh Zayed’s wife, Sheikha Fatimah bint Mubarak, worked to improve education in the emirates. As chairperson of the UAE Women’s Federation, she helped advance the rights of her fellow countrywomen.

Under Sheikh Zayed’s rule, the UAE enjoyed an easy atmosphere, one in which Westerners, Arabs and its many other nationalities live comfortably together. Expatriates make up more than 85 percent of the population of 4.04 million, and the UAE has one of the world’s highest per capita incomes.

Making the most of oil revenues, Sheikh Zayed transformed the UAE into a modern glittering business and tourism center, the “gateway” to the Middle East for Europe, Asia and the United States. He also played a major role in the formation of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), which was launched in Abu Dhabi in 1981.

For 33 years Sheikh Zayed worked to advance a pan-Arab approach to solving conflicts. He used the UAE’s oil income for good purposes, abroad as well as at home—such as rebuilding the Palestinian refugee camp in Jenin after the Israelis destroyed it in 2002. He was also planning to finance a new housing project for Palestinians in Gaza.

According to the Khaleej Times, during a Jan. 14, 2002 meeting in Abu Dhabi with Assistant Secretary of State for Middle East Affairs William Burns—months before Israel re-invaded the West Bank—Sheikh Zayed called upon the United States to shoulder its responsibilities by ordering an immediate end to Israel’s aggression against the Palestinians. Sheikh Zayed warned that Israeli policies ”pose a threat to the security in the region.” He urged the United States and all world powers concerned with peace to send international observers to separate the Palestinians and Israelis and to provide protection for the Palestinian people against the brutality of the Israeli army. He concluded by noting that the international campaign against terrorism should not ignore Israeli terrorism.

In 2003, Sheikh Zayed tried to avert the impending U.S. war on Iraq by calling on Saddam Hussain to step down.

At a time when such qualities are urgently needed, Sheikh Zayed’s voice and vision will be deeply missed. 


Andrew I. Killgore, a former U.S. ambassador to Qatar, is publisher of the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs.

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