x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

As the UAE remembers its founder, challenge is to live by his legacy

The nickname Baba Zayed was always more than just a popular way of describing the UAE's founder. It really felt as though he was a caring father looking after his children.

Today marks the ninth anniversary, on the Hijri calendar, of the passing of the UAE's founding father, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan. The occasion has been marked widely in the local media. It's remembered by UAE residents and those who knew him as a relative, a friend, an acquaintance, a guide or as the leader who presided over the country's development.

However remote a figure he was in reality, at least for the majority of the country's residents, he was, at the same time, somehow present almost everywhere, in spirit, if not in person. For many, the nickname of "Baba Zayed" (Father Zayed) was always more than just a popular way of describing the late President: it really did feel as though he was a caring father looking after his children.

Assessing Sheikh Zayed's contribution to the UAE is, in some ways, straightforward. It was his initiative, along with Sheikh Rashid of Dubai, that led to the formation of the federation. His decision that Abu Dhabi's oil revenues should be used for the good of all of the country allowed for the building of the infrastructure that underpins the state today, while his determination and hard work made it possible for his vision of a modern, developed and tolerant society to be achieved.

He devised the foreign policy of the state, based broadly on a philosophy of promoting consultation and collaboration, rather than confrontation, on respect for the rights of sovereign nations and on support for bodies such as the United Nations, while adopting a generous policy of development assistance and humanitarian aid for countries and communities in need.

Devout in his faith of Islam, he was a committed proponent of its fundamental elements of mercy and tolerance, a firm opponent of extremism and terrorism and an ardent advocate of dialogue with other faiths and cultures - an approach that is perhaps of even more relevance today than it was during his lifetime.

Some of his best-known sayings provide insights into his philosophy of leadership. Of those, three have particular resonance today.

One refers to the need for people to be aware of the nation's past if they are to be properly able to tackle the challenges of the present and the future. Another, defining his view of the way in which the country's revenues from oil should be used, states that "wealth is of no value unless it is used in the service of the people". A third singles out the people as being "the real wealth of the nation".

The first emphasises the importance of preserving national identity in a fast-changing world; the second exemplifies his belief that the country's extraordinary wealth is not something to be squandered but a gift to be used to facilitate development to all not just some of the people; the third, a logical derivation of the second, stresses that the country's future lies not in its riches per se but in the people, both men and women, who have a right to be provided with all that will enable them to live a good life, benefiting from education, health care, social services and access to employment, and to contribute to the state's future.

The way in which he implemented those beliefs is visible throughout the country, not just in the physical infrastructure but also in the way in which the leaders of today continue to cite and to implement his vision.

Many of the challenges that Sheikh Zayed himself faced during his decades as leader, first as Ruler of Abu Dhabi and then, concurrently, as President of the UAE, are no longer directly relevant. Illiteracy has now nearly disappeared. Access to health care is universal. Opportunities for education are open to all. The role of women in society has evolved in ways that would have been almost unimaginable a few decades ago.

It's appropriate to remember Sheikh Zayed for his achievements, with gratitude - the UAE was incredibly fortunate to have had him as its leader during its early years. Now, though, comes the task of ensuring that his legacy is not only remembered but is interpreted so as to ensure that it continues to develop.

Sheikh Zayed, for example, didn't see education as an end in itself - it was something to equip the people of the UAE to take on responsibilities for the country's future development.

His determination to provide for his people was not intended to create a culture of dependence on the state but to enable them to give back something to the country that had nurtured them.

His advocacy of cultural and religious tolerance was derived from his firm Muslim faith but also reflected his own recognition of the fact that the country's future development was something that could only be brought about with the involvement of both Emiratis and expatriates, working together to achieve a common goal.

Since the UAE was established in 1971, it has made enormous strides, thanks, to a large extent, to the efforts made by Sheikh Zayed. The best way of giving thanks for those efforts is by ensuring that the country and its people, citizens and expatriates alike, take on the tasks and shoulder the responsibilities for which he equipped them.


Peter Hellyer is a consultant specialising in the UAE's history and culture