In 1999, the Middle East Policy Council organised a conference to celebrate the accomplishments of Sheikh Zayed, the founding president of the UAE. It was called A Century in Thirty Years the title alone encapsulating the rapid progress of the nation under his rule.
Since then, Sheikh Zayed's leadership, foreign policies and vision for the country have often been cited as reasons for the UAE's rise to prominence. Last month, his achievements were recognised by Newsweek magazine, which named Sheikh Zayed a "transformer", one of 10 post-war leaders who wrought drastic social, economic, or political change. "Although he was born in a tent at an isolated oasis on the Arabian Peninsula in 1918, Zayed created the blueprint for the United Arab Emirates as a modern, relatively tolerant, regional economic powerhouse," stated the article from the September 22 issue of the New York-based magazine.
He "liberalized policies on women's rights and religious tolerance, which still lagged behind much of the world but improved on other Persian Gulf countries and which laid the groundwork for the UAE's large population of western professionals and rise as an international business center." In 1949, Sheikh Zayed's fort in the Buraimi oasis in Al Ain was surrounded by rocky outcrops, barren desert and occasional pockets of green. The 160km road to Abu Dhabi was nothing more than a rut in the sand worn by camels and horses.
Fifty years later, the country boasted five international airports, a huge man-made deepwater port and a population of over one million in the capital alone. The sheikh, in gleaming white khandura and gold trimmed thobes, had been pictured with every major political leader of the Arab and western world, and the UAE had become one of the safest and most stable countries in the region. Another 10 years on and Abu Dhabi is now listed as one of the world's richest cities with the population expected to grow from 4.75 million last year to 5.07 million by the end of 2009. Soon there will be seven international airports, countless offshore developments and a calendar of cultural events designed to draw international audiences year-round.
This rapid and all encompassing transformation is one that only few leaders have managed to achieve. Newsweek listed Sheikh Zayed's achievements alongside those of Nelson Mandela, Margaret Thatcher and Gamal Abdel Nasser, who were all said to have had "influential vision" and to have left a lasting impression on this world. The article was prompted by the news that Barack Obama rated Brazil's Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva as the world's most popular leader for bringing socioeconomic equality to his country.
In his book From Rags to Riches: A Story of Abu Dhabi, Mohammed al Fahim charted Sheikh Zayed's "tireless" efforts to achieve a similar level of stability in the UAE. Writing about the sheikh's visions in 1968, when the British pulled out of the region after two centuries, Mr al Fahim said: "In addition to his own internal affairs, Sheikh Zayed took it upon himself to finalise the agreement between the neighbouring rulers including those of Qatar and Bahrain. He worked tirelessly, day and night, travelling from one end of the country to the other, meeting the rulers ... to find terms and conditions acceptable to everyone."
When he took over as president in 1971, Sheikh Zayed worked closely with rulers from other emirates to form the federal government. He then focused on expanding the country's economy beyond oil and gas to try to make the country self-sufficient. "We must not rely on oil alone as the main source of our national income," he once said. "We have to diversify the sources of our revenue and construct economic projects that will ensure a free, stable and dignified life for the people."
Sheikh Zayed took great interest in agriculture, building water channel systems in the 1960s and putting in pipelines through the 1970s. According to Mr al Fahim, there have been an estimated nine million trees planted in the UAE since 1966. Sheikh Zayed also put a lot of effort into the development of urban areas and was often pictured poring over maps. In the 1970s he distributed houses and land to locals in Al Ain, and consequently many nomadic Bedouins settled in the town.
He boosted domestic communications, international relations, environmental concerns and gave women a greater role in society. Perhaps his greatest asset was his ability to inspire the people,and that is why his legacy lives on. firstname.lastname@example.org