Sheikh Zayed's death on November 2, 2004 may have marked the end of an era, but his life was the foundation on which the future of the United Arab Emirates would be built. Although his death was felt as a personal loss by many, the phenomenal progress in the UAE since his passing serves as a reminder that, as he always maintained, the continuing successful development of the nation he founded four decades ago lay not in the hands of only one man, but in the hopes and ambitions of all those who call it home.
As Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, now the Minister of Foreign Affairs but then the Minister of Information and Culture, remarked in his foreword to the 2005 UAE Yearbook, which was dedicated to Sheikh Zayed's memory, "The voyage that Sheikh Zayed began so many years ago continues today. He has charted the waters well and has given us a well-founded vessel in which we can continue to travel safely on the same course, and with the same objectives in mind ... We will continue to work hard to honour his legacy."
The person charged with the guardianship of that legacy upon Sheikh Zayed's death was his son, Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, elected President by the Federal Supreme Council on November 3, the day of his father's funeral.
One month later, during his first National Day address as President, Sheikh Khalifa set his mind to the future. Sheikh Zayed's values and style of leadership would remain "the beacon which will continue to guide us as we strengthen our federation and maintain the achievements and gains that the country has made in various spheres of developments", he said. "As for us, we remain committed to serving this nation and to ensuring that even greater prosperity is achieved."
It was significant that two important - although, at first glance, apparently unrelated - milestones had been passed in 2004, in the evening of Sheikh Zayed's presidency. Sheikha Lubna Al Qasimi was appointed Minister of Economy and Planning, becoming the first woman to be appointed to the Council of Ministers, and the UAE earned its first Olympic medal - the shooting gold won in Athens by Sheikh Ahmed Al Maktoum, a member of Dubai's ruling family.
Together, Sheikh Abdullah noted in the 2005 Yearbook, the two achievements had neatly encapsulated Sheikh Zayed's vision of how the country should develop: "That women, like men, must contribute to the building of our nation and that each individual has a duty to strive for excellence."
This was the vision taken up by Sheikh Khalifa. "The training of all capable UAE nationals so that they may go into productive ventures is the country's major objective," he said, "and the one to which we give all our attention and concentrate all our efforts."
Like his father before him, Sheikh Khalifa was aware that the blessing of oil was not, by itself, enough to secure a prosperous future. As Sheikh Zayed had told university students in 1982, "the greatest use that can be made of wealth is to invest it in creating generations of educated and trained people."
Sheikh Khalifa, whose responsibilities during his father's reign had included the chairmanships of Abu Dhabi's Supreme Petroleum Council and Abu Dhabi Investment Authority, was especially placed to understand this. As a consequence, the central policies of Emiratisation and diversification away from reliance on fossil fuels have guided the UAE during the years since Sheikh Zayed's death - seven years that have seen the nation's physical, cultural, political and intellectual landscape transformed beyond all recognition.
The physical manifestations of progress are, of course, the most obvious. In Dubai, the Burj Al Arab - the city's original and still world-recognised symbol - has been joined since by the Palm Jumeirah, the city Metro and the Burj Khalifa, the world's tallest building, despite the impact of the global financial crisis. In Abu Dhabi, the determination to build upon Sheikh Zayed's vision found concrete form in the creation in 2007 of the Abu Dhabi Urban Planning Council, a strategic body chaired by Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, the Crown Prince, tasked with shaping the future of the emirate's urban environment.
The plan was vital because of the many challenges Abu Dhabi will face - challenges born of its development, but challenges nonetheless. Anticipating that the city's population could grow to anything from three to more than five million by 2030, the plan set out "a practical, flexible and sustainable view of the future". The council's brief was to "deliver upon the vision of His Highness Sheikh Khalifa ... for the continued fulfilment of the grand design envisaged by the late Sheikh Zayed ... and the ongoing evolution of Abu Dhabi as a global capital city".
Development now follows the road map laid down in Abu Dhabi's vision for 2030 and, as a result of this blueprint, the skyline has undergone dramatic transformation, from the creation of the still-evolving financial and business districts on the islands of Sowwah and Reem, and the Capital District, which will become the new seat of Government, to the unveiling of plans to transform Saadiyat Island into a world-class cultural destination.
Tough challenges have been met with bold solutions that will see the nation undergo an even greater transformation over the next decade. In 2008, for instance, the decision was taken that Abu Dhabi would seek to meet its imminent shortfall in electricity by turning to nuclear energy. To become the first Arab nation with nuclear capability was a daunting prospect. A huge task, both diplomatically and logistically, it was inaugurated on April 1, 2008, with the publication of the UAE Policy on the Peaceful Use of Nuclear Energy and in December 2009 the US and the UAE signed the historic "123 Agreement", formalising co-operation on nuclear energy.
The UAE has taken other significant steps to diversify its economy away from dependence on fossil fuels and to lead the way in developing alternative energy sources. Initiatives include the creation of Masdar, an incubator of alternative development and experimentation, a series of strategic investments in green-technology companies around the world and the hosting since 2008 of the influential World Future Energy Summit. Indeed, it was in recognition of Abu Dhabi's commitment to alternative energy that the International Renewable Energy Agency (Irena), founded in Bonn in January 2009, chose the capital for its headquarters.
Behind all of this, however, has remained the central tenet that Sheikh Zayed held so dear - the idea that the nation's greatest asset is its people. Over the past few years, in the belief that the future welfare of the country and its people depends on equipping Emiratis with the intellectual and practical tools they will need to continue the journey begun in 1971, Sheikh Khalifa has driven a programme of Emiratisation. It is the strategy at the heart of government policy, affecting thinking in every project, from Masdar to nuclear energy, and it is out of it that the future of the nation will take shape. "The strategy for the future," as Sheikh Khalifa said in his 2007 address to the nation, "will not depend on visions and ideas nor financial resources, but rather on the ability and commitment to implement the principles therein."
This, he said, could not be achieved "without a real programme to develop local young people who are able to shoulder responsibilities".
And, as they have been asked to take on more responsibility for their own futures, so in the past year have Emiratis been invited to shoulder responsibility for their nation. "We want to make the Federal National Council more effective so that it can deal effectively with issues that concern the country and to introduce our citizens to the concept of shura [consultation]," said Sheikh Khalifa in his 2005 National Day address. When the first FNC elections were held the following year, 6,595 voters were eligible to elect members of the council. On September 24 this year, almost 130,000 Emiratis were given the right to vote, while hundreds more submitted their candidacy for office.
For Sheikh Khalifa, this was the realisation of a vision he had spelled out at the inaugural session of the new FNC in 2007: "the road map on the path of shura, the sovereignty of law, accountability, prevalence of justice and the empowerment of all individuals in the community so that they may contribute effectively in building our future."
In much less than a lifetime, the UAE has progressed from being one of the poorest countries in the world to one of the richest. While holding true to the principles of the past - the qualities of endurance, loyalty and determination - its leaders have shown the way to a bright, modern future unimaginable in the difficult days before oil.
And, as the first generation of Emiratis born under the federal flag assume the responsibilities and grasp the opportunities now open to them, it is clear that, as it celebrates its 40th birthday, the UAE is a nation that has truly come of age.