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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 21 July 2018

In recognition of the humble foreigners who gave a piece of themselves to help build this country

Coming to this country in the 1960s and 1980s required determination, courage and no small measure of good humour. Many who did so left their mark on the UAE, writes James Langton

Dr Abdulrahman Makhlouf and Sheikh Zayed in 1974, planning how Abu Dhabi should look as it develops from a small coastal settlement into the UAE capital. Photo: Courtesy National Centre for Documentation and Research
Dr Abdulrahman Makhlouf and Sheikh Zayed in 1974, planning how Abu Dhabi should look as it develops from a small coastal settlement into the UAE capital. Photo: Courtesy National Centre for Documentation and Research

What made this country as it is today? Some of the answers are obvious. The political will and determination of leaders like Sheikh Zayed and Sheikh Rashid. The bounty of natural resources such as oil and gas. The ability to think big, with projects like Dubai Dry Docks and Louvre Abu Dhabi.

Alone, though, this does not explain the success of the UAE. Like a photograph that, on close inspection, is formed from many thousands of pixels, so the true portrait of the nation is formed from the multitude of those who live there.

This week, Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed, the Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Co-operation, travelled to India to meet an elderly woman many know only as “Mama Zulekha”.

Dr Zulekha Daud, as she is more formally called, came to Dubai in 1964, when the emirate was still part of what were known as the Trucial States, and its internal and external affairs were largely controlled by Britain.

In a 50-year connection with the UAE, the daughter of a construction worker was to found two hospitals, several medical centres and a chain of pharmacies.

For more than 10,000 people there is an even deeper connection with Dr Daud – she delivered them as new-born babies. Hence “Mama Zulekha”.

In another, similar, ceremony in April, Sheikh Abdullah honoured the family of Katsuhiko Takahashi. You are forgiven if the name is not familiar, but if you live in Abu Dhabi, Takahashi literally shaped your daily life.

He was the city’s first town planner, arriving in 1967 to realise Sheikh Zayed’s grand vision. There is a story that the Ruler and the planner would walk the then empty sands of Abu Dhabi island as Sheikh Zayed sketched out his vision with a camel stick.

To Takahashi, who died last year, we owe the city’s wide roads, its green parks and the broad sweep of the Corniche.

It is one of the objectives of the Year of Zayed to honour those who made their mark in the development of the Emirates. There is no doubt Sheikh Zayed himself would have approved.

To build his country, first as Ruler of Abu Dhabi and then President of the UAE, Sheikh Zayed was well aware that it could not be accomplished without the skills and efforts of others, many from far flung lands.

Those who came here, first in the 1960s and increasingly in the 1980s, often did so as a leap of faith. This was a time before villas with swimming pools, five star hotels, brand laden shopping malls and long Friday brunches.

For diplomats and Western executives, the UAE then was often described as a hardship posting, although the length of time many have stayed suggests that was not their experience.

But coming to a place about which so little was known required determination, courage, tolerance and no small measure of good humour. Precisely the qualities needed to build a country.

One of those was Abdul Hafeez Khan Al Yousefi, a graduate in Agricultural Science from Karachi University. In the summer of 1962, he stepped off a plane on a sandy airstrip on the outskirts of Abu Dhabi.

Could there be more desolate and barren place, Mr Al Yousefi asked himself? And then a car arrived to drive him to Al Ain.

He had been hired by Sheikh Zayed, then the Ruler’s Representative in the Western Region, to green the desert, helping create what is now known as the Garden City.

Well past retirement age, Mr Al Yousefi stayed in Al Ain to retire in the house built for him by Sheikh Zayed. In an interview with The National in 2015, the gardener from Pakistan recalled the instructions he was first given: “Give me agriculture and I assure you of civilisation.”

Abdul Rahman Hassanein Makhlouf. Margrit Muller. Roger Upton. Adnan Pachachi. Dominic Vugrinec. All have been winners of the Abu Dhabi Awards, decided, in the words of the judges: “In the belief that every person is inherently selfless and capable to support and care for others and their community.”

Dr Makhlouf is a renowned Egyptian architect who managed the Department of Planning in the 1970s and had a hand in many of the city’s best loved buildings. Dr Muller founded the Falcon Hospital, saving the lives of countless birds and establishing a world-class research centre.

Mr Upton’s book on falconry preserves what was a way of life for Bedouin tribes. There is not enough space here to fully describe Dr Pachachi’s long and distinguished diplomatic career but it included a key role in establishing the first UAE mission to the UN.

Dominic Vugrinic is the odd one out, only that he was just 14 when he won a 2013 award for his work in identifying scoliosis, a spinal curvature that afflicted more than a dozen of his classmates.

All have something in common. They were born outside the UAE, but have each given a little of themselves to the country.

The roll call of those who made the UAE of course includes the expertise that drilled the first oil wells and built the first refineries that generated the income to bring prosperity.

They include civil engineers, architects, planners but also doctors, teachers, librarians, pilots, even, dare it be said journalists. Then there are those who toiled – and continue to toil – in the sun, literally laying the building blocks of a country.

When Louvre Abu Dhabi opened last year, among those thanked for their part in the ambitious cultural project by Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, was group of construction workers. Like his father, Sheikh Mohammed understood the part they played.

There are many more who could be named, many who would be embarrassed to be so identified. You can add humility as a characteristic of those who have best served the UAE.

It is sometimes said, although impossible to precisely tabulate, that 200 nationalities have made their home in the UAE. That is seven more than the number of nations that are members of the United Nations.

Their contributions individually are important, collectively they have been critical, not just in the role played in the country’s past but as it is now, and will be in the future.

The great 17th Century English scientist Sir Isaac Newton once put it this way. “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”