The first thing Jack Burlot noticed about Sheikh Zayed, the Founding Father, was his gaze. “The power of his eyes – I never saw that in any other man,” he recalls, digging through memories already more than four decades old. “He had a very, very strong stare – but in different ways. It could be strong and hard, or strong and soft. I was fascinated by him instantly, even though I couldn’t understand him.”
The French photographer is reliving the moment he first encountered Sheikh Zayed. Burlot has photographed countless world leaders and celebrities over a five-decade career – from Richard Nixon to Brigitte Bardot – but none left an impression on him quite like his multiple encounters with Sheikh Zayed, shortly after the UAE’s Founding Father had negotiated the historic union of its seven emirates.
Documenting early Abu Dhabi
The year was 1974 and Burlot, then a war-frazzled agency photojournalist, was shipped off on assignment to cover the first throes of the UAE’s oil boom. But despite snapping one of the transformative era’s most defining images – a stark blazing oil field that would be published around the world – Burlot wasn’t content with his brief.
So he set out to document this remarkable land in a moment of flux.
The precocious photographer spent days wandering the streets, shooting souks, farmers, fishermen – and festivities. Camped in Abu Dhabi during celebrations for the third National Day, he watched awestruck as hundreds of desert-dwelling Bedouins descended on the Corniche strip to enjoy food, dance, music and boat races.
Collected together in a new exhibition entitled Time of Zayed, which opens at Alliance Francaise Dubai on November 28, these images offer a compelling insight into everyday life in the embryonic nation. “While I was waiting for clearance to do the job, I was passing through the streets, spending most of my time just exploring this strange, fascinating land,” remembers the 72-year-old photographer. “I met so many nice people. I was a stranger to them – a French guy, shooting pictures – that was not really allowed. It was a very closed world.”
At this point Burlot was already well versed in Middle Eastern culture, having completed multiple jobs documenting conflict and current affairs in the Levant. But in the nine years that had passed since his first visit to Abu Dhabi, he noticed a profound change. “When I passed through in ’65 it was only bush,” says Burlot. “In 1974 it was just the beginning of buildings, people were still living in tents and working together.
“There was one main street, with the bank facing the ocean. No road, just sand, with a policeman standing on an oil barrel to direct the traffic, which was just a few cars. There was one fast food restaurant. No women in the street, nothing to do – if you wanted to see a movie there was an Indian theatre only. Flying in straight from New York, it felt like you had gone back in time.”
Burlot’s most enduring images of those days are the dozens of widely reprinted portraits that he shot of Sheikh Zayed, enjoying exceptional access to any head of state, after artfully ingratiating himself into the UAE leader’s entourage.
His introduction came through a fortuitous encounter at a camel race outside of Al Ain, held in honour of an official visit of the then president of Sudan, Gaafar Nimeiry. “I was there shooting the race as a photojournalist, and I began shooting photographs very close to him,” remembers Burlot. “If you grab a shot with someone, you just follow; you follow the people around, and bit by bit, I got a little bit closer to Sheikh Zayed.”
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As he tells it, the UAE leader became intrigued by the then-longhaired European documenting a national pastime, and beckoned him over, indicating his permission to take the first of many portraits. “Without using words, we stood there face to face, communicating,” says Burlot. “It was all in the eyes.”
After the race, the photographer was invited to lunch with the royals, where Burlot was again allowed to shoot the proceeding formalities, one of a string of engagements the photographer would be invited to document in coming days, including an official palace reception and city planning meetings, which would soon transform these bare streets.
“Zayed kept receiving high-level people, and I was always around him taking pictures,” adds Burlot. “He didn’t know exactly who I was or what I was doing, but he was totally relaxed.”
The only exception was an overnight trip to the desert with Sheikh Zayed’s delegation, where Burlot was told to leave his camera at home – perhaps the ultimate sign that he had been accepted into the inner sanctum.
Today, Burlot’s images are an invaluable document of a bygone era, and at least one of his portraits of Sheikh Zayed would go on to become widely reprinted. However, Burlot had no idea the resonance his images would have at the time, and much of the film he shot from those days has been lost.
However The National’s Timeframe feature – which shares a weekly snapshot of the emirates in different eras – helped revive interest in Burlot’s work, and in 2012 the photographer returned to the UAE for the first time in nearly 40 years. “So I took a plane and discovered a very different Abu Dhabi,” says Burlot. “It was crazy, crazy, you couldn’t even recognise the main street – it was completely different.
“When I came back I realised [Sheikh Zayed] had been the kind of man who could set up a country. I discovered he was a very, very bright man – someone exceptional. He was a chief of state, but close to the people at the same time, talking to different tribes, bringing people together. He was very close to his people.”
Burlot returns to the UAE again to open the Time of Zayed exhibition, which is hosted at Alliance Francaise Dubai in collaboration with Abu Dhabi Tourism and Culture Authority, in a fitting celebration of the Year of Zayed, UAE National Day and the Emirati-French Cultural Dialogue.
Time of Zayed opens today at Alliance Francaise Dubai, Oud Metha. The exhibition is on show until January 12