The Presidential Court adviser, interpreter and vice chairman of Adach, Dr Zaki Nusseibeh, speaks about the UAE's history, Sheikh Zayed's vision and the country's next ambitious goals.
Past, present, future
Dr Zaki Nusseibeh is as excited as a child with a new toy. The latest hi-tech audio equipment has just been installed in his elegant drawing room, giving him access to his massive collection of classical music at the touch of a button. Two space-age silver and black speakers stand like slimline Daleks, ready to pour out his beloved Wagner so perfectly that it sounds as if the Bayreuth Symphony Orchestra is in the room. For someone to whom music is almost as much of a necessity as breathing and whose life is inseparable from the cultural development of his adopted country, the new system is almost a symbolic and natural progression. The speed at which Nusseibeh can summon his favourites mirrors the pace of the UAE's ambitions to become a significant cultural hub. "I think it's very exciting," says the 62-year-old Nusseibeh, who came to Abu Dhabi in 1967. As translator to Sheikh Zayed, he is one of the most influential figures in shaping the leader's vision for the country. "What is happening in Abu Dhabi and the Emirates today is unparalleled in this region and in the Arab world," he says. "It's uniquely Emirati." Born in Jerusalem into a politically liberal political family, Nusseibeh was educated in the UK, first at Rugby School and then at Cambridge University, where he studied economics. When Jerusalem was occupied in 1967 his father, who knew Sheikh Zayed, suggested he come here. And although he started his career as a journalist, Nusseibeh's linguistic skills (he speaks Arabic, English, French, German, Italian, Spanish and Russian) soon made him an indispensable member of the court. Today, he serves as an adviser at the Presidential Court and interpreter for Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed, President of the UAE. He founded Abu Dhabi's two classical music festivals, serves as vice chairman of the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage and is a member of the board of the Sorbonne University. More than any other individual, he has been at the centre of political and cultural life for the past 40 years. He talks of the UAE's history as two revolutions, the first of which established the political state. Today, he says, is the beginning of the next phase. "Foreign observers looking at the Emirates 42 years ago didn't think that the seven small separate emirates would survive the 1970s. After the British withdrawal from the region east of Suez, there was no army, no police force, no infrastructure or government, and we had to survive in a region full of turmoil with big neighbours like Iran and Saudi Arabia. Most observers thought the emirates were doomed to disappear and be absorbed by their bigger neighbours. "Instead of all of this - and in a region that has seen very few success stories - we have witnessed the birth of a truly modern state that has brought prosperity to its people, opened its doors to the outside world and really grew with the ideals of Sheikh Zayed, such as: how can we be proud of our heritage and allow our people to grow up in these traditions but at the same time be open to the world and be a responsible member of a global community?" Nusseibeh speaks in the library of the home in Abu Dhabi that Sheikh Zayed gave him, a traditional Arab house that he has expanded over the years. Books line the walls from floor to ceiling, spilling into another room and on down a corridor. On every shelf there are photographs of Sheikh Zayed with monarchs, heads of state and political leaders; Nusseibeh stands at his side. Nusseibeh speaks of the UAE's early years as the solid foundation on which the country was built. He remembers when it was little more than a village without proper roads or infrastructure. His pride in the nation's achievements is clear. "When we talk about the Emirates today we take for granted that it's truly an advanced state with communications, ports, airports, services, hospitals, schools. So that was the first revolution and it was truly unparalleled in a region that was turbulent and continues to be turbulent. "We live in a very rough neighbourhood and many countries have not really made it. Oil isn't always a help. I don't want to mention specific countries but for some, oil brought nothing to the people except economic, political and social disaster. "We have established the state so where do we move next? This is where the young leadership comes in: Sheikh Khalifa, Sheikh Mohammad, Sheikh Mansour, Sheikh Hamdan. They want to take this state and move it into a truly global platform with the same school of thought that Sheikh Zayed established - in other words to be a responsible and moderating country, to do good to its neighbourhood and to countries that need help in the Third World." Culture and heritage are at the forefront of the thinking, and education is a priority. "We do not view culture only as a tool. It is critical for our survival. That is now what they are focusing on. We need to bring education to the young generations that can truly qualify them to be competitive in a global market. We need to revolutionise education because, quite frankly, education throughout the Arab world isn't working. An education has to be looked at as a complete process and not as a selective one." This means bringing in teachers and establishing and supporting top quality schools, setting up international monitoring standards and strengthening universities. "By establishing universities here like the Sorbonne, MIT and New York University, you slowly create a community of knowledge and education that is truly international and competitive but that focuses on national heritage and identity. It's important to keep the two together." He feels strongly that formal education has to go hand in hand with the development of the arts. "A classroom is not sufficient to make a young person an educated person. We need him to be able to go to museums and look at art, listen to music, study archaeology and make comparisons between cultures and civilisations that existed in this region 5,000 years ago, to develop a truly critical mindset that can pose the right questions and look for the right answers, to produce a truly educated person in the renaissance sense. This is a huge ambition." He says the leadership does not look at individual events as "products". It is important to view the wider picture. "People sometimes look at what is happening in Abu Dhabi and they see that there is going to be a Louvre museum or that Zubin Mehta is coming with the Vienna Philharmonic or there is going to be a concert of great oriental or Arab music. "As far as the leadership is concerned, everything falls together, so you have a child who goes to a classroom and is given the best international education and grows up proud of his national identity and heritage. This is why there is the authority for culture and heritage. It looks at the past as much as it looks at the future." In the spirit of Sheikh Zayed's vision for the nation, it is vital for the peace of the region to bring up children who are "open to the world" and not hostile to world civilisation. "A child needs to be fully aware and proud of his contribution as an Arab in Islamic civilisation and of his specific contribution in the Gulf region and the Abu Dhabi community. You don't only want it just for your own children, you want it to benefit the people around you," he says. "This is what is happening here. In the end everything is political. We all grew up on Sheikh Zayed's teachings and these were core beliefs he had by instinct. For example, you can't prosper in an area that is stuck in poverty or a region that is torn by strife. You can't be a full human being without extending the hand of friendship to other countries." Nusseibeh's influence can be found in almost all the cultural initiatives taking place within the Emirates but he is careful not to take credit or attribute the success of the various programmes to one individual. "There are many players and they are all bringing together one vision," he says. He believes that organisations bringing music, literature art and heritage to the UAE have now become fully professional. "Adach has been very active for three-and-a-half years with a strategic goal. Within this there are a wide range of products that comprise both wings of the vision: archaeology and heritage. You go to Al Ain and see the restoring of Jalili and the other forts in order to bring out the history of the country. "That's one wing. Associated with that are things like Millions Poet, which reinforces the local tradition of poetry, the Abu Dhabi Book Fair and initiatives such as the Kalima project, translating hundreds of books into Arabic. How can you bring to your people the knowledge of the world if you can't translate books? More than 500 books have been translated so far but the whole Arab world still does not translate as many books as Spain does in a single year. "Then there is the Abu Dhabi Classics programme and the festivals in Al Ain that are particularly close to my heart. Every single project has an educational programme with it." The Tourism Development & Investment Company's development of Saadiyat Island, with its Louvre and Guggenheim museums and Performing Arts Centre, is "one of the most ambitious and imaginative projects around", he says. "It will be the heart of this community." He insists that although the government has poured money into bringing world-class performers to Abu Dhabi, there is a solid business plan behind programmes such as Abu Dhabi Classics that will enable them to become self-financing through sponsorship, cultural tourism and local ticket sales. "Previously, people were used to not paying for this sort of thing. Most of it was financed by the Government and was offered free to the public. What is new is to make it self-financing. Look what happens everywhere else. Glyndebourne, for example, has sufficient associations with companies to make it successful and viable. "Compared to London, Paris and Salzburg we actually don't have very many choices but there is a population here that is hungry for this sort of thing and Abu Dhabi has established a certain standard that it won't deviate from. In the old days, you had to call people on the telephone to tell them to come to an event." Nusseibeh denies that such cultural innovations are elitist and points to the many student discounts and subscription plans that make concerts accessible. "Perhaps the price of tickets may have to go up but people are booking in advance now and the most expensive tickets are still only Dh100. In Salzburg I had to pay ?500 (Dh2,610) to hear the same thing. "Culture shouldn't be elitist. Culture is something that is human. While we want to bring Shakespeare in Arabic and Mozart and Beethoven, we also want to bring Womad and popular singers from the Arab world. "Listening to pop music is part of culture. The whole premise of contemporary art is that it's in tune with the world. This is why museums are so welcoming now. They must be places that are open to young families. You shouldn't have to walk around a museum as if you are walking around a mosque or a church." Nusseibeh is clearly proud of the strides Abu Dhabi has made in the past few years. "What is amazing is how quickly the changes have been absorbed, retaining what's good and discarding what's not so good and not being afraid to look outside. "There are mistakes made. The first issue that is always raised is how do we work out the equation of a majority of expats - a community that is vibrant and entrepreneurial and has undoubtedly brought great benefits - without disadvantaging your own people? "But when you look at what is happening here, what is remarkable is the rarity of such mistakes in comparison to everything else that is going right."