In the lives of men, 40 years is a time for reflection. A time to contemplate the maturity of years against departing youth, of lost opportunities balanced against achievements won. If we are fortunate, the balance sheet will be in our favour.
Nations are different. They are measured in millions of lives and over centuries and even millennia. A country at 40 is still young.
Still, the 40th birthday of the United Arab Emirates represents an important landmark. All but the most recently born or the very newest to arrive can measure themselves in some way against its history.
Such is the pace of life here, and the rapidity of change, that a conversation about the way we were even a decade ago can feel like a trip in a time machine. To talk to someone who was present on December 2, 1971, is to visit the dawn of history.
To present the fast track history of the UAE in a single publication turns out to be impossible. Each of the four decades would need its own volume, all rather weightier than this one. So we have chosen instead to highlight aspects of the past 40 years. This magazine is not an encyclopaedia, nor a work of reference. Instead we mark four chapters in the national story, each of which illuminates the path to December 2, 2011. This is not the whole story, but rather they are stories that tell us something about the journey.
We begin with oil and a small island off the coast of Abu Dhabi called Das. It was from here that the first oil exports left the country, transforming the fortunes of an impoverished Arab people beyond the imagination of almost everyone. Almost, but not quite all. Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan had long grasped both the potential of oil and of a federation of united emirates. In the 1970s, this vision accelerated at an astonishing pace. The modern city of Abu Dhabi, the nation's capital, literally rose, in a decade, out of the sands. Many of the photographs in this chapter have never been published before and the story of oil and Das is perhaps not fully appreciated. For without it, this would be a very different country. Indeed it might well be unrecognisable.
Chapter 2 deals with the creation of the Gulf Cooperation Council, an organisation that was born in Abu Dhabi - in a ceremony at the InterContinental hotel, in fact - on May 25, 1981. It had been Sheikh Zayed's intention that the original federation would be wider than just the seven emirates, to include both Qatar and Bahrain. The creation of the GCC took that idea a step further. It gave the countries of the Arabian Gulf a unified voice in times of political and economic uncertainty and created a powerful sense of regional purpose and identity in world affairs.
Chapter 3 sees Dubai take centre stage with the audacious plan for the world's most luxurious hotel. The Burj Al Arab signalled the arrival of the emirate as a leading tourist destination and was the start of a new direction in economic diversification for the UAE that would continue with the Atlantis, the Emirates Palace and a concentration of five-star hotels that few other countries can equal.
Finally, we assess the legacy of four decades through the outpouring of grief that accompanied the death of Sheikh Zayed in 2004. The universal mourning, with the sense that the entire nation had lost not just a president but a father figure, remains the greatest tribute to Zayed's influence. That legacy continues under his sons, Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed and Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, as well as under Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid and the other leaders; not just in new splendours such as the Burj Khalifa, the world's tallest building, or the Formula One track at Yas Marina, but in the knowledge that on December 2, 2011, we can celebrate our true unity.