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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 14 December 2018

Year of Zayed: we still have much to learn about the Father of the Nation's achievements

There should be a determined effort this year to talk about his passionate dedication to this country, writes Peter Hellyer

The two telecoms companies are paying tribute to the UAE's Founding Father on Sheikh Zayed Humanitarian Work Day. Courtesy Al Ittihad
The two telecoms companies are paying tribute to the UAE's Founding Father on Sheikh Zayed Humanitarian Work Day. Courtesy Al Ittihad

With 2018 well under way, we’re now learning more about the plans to celebrate this Year of Zayed, marking the 100th anniversary of the birth of the man who, rightly, is remembered as the Father of the Nation or, more affectionately, as Baba Zayed.

Many of us will recall when he was our President, from the founding of the federation in 1971 to his death in 2004. There’s much, though, that needs to be taught to those born since then or who were only children at the time of his passing. For anyone under 25, he is a near-legendary figure, however vivid he may be in the memories of those who can remember him as a leader, a father and a guide.

Since 2004, moreover, the country’s population has increased by several millions, not just those born here but also those expatriates who have come to take part in the building of the country of today and tomorrow. It’s important that they, too, learn something about the man, his achievements and his legacy. Only then can they begin to understand why he remains in the hearts and minds of those Emiratis and expatriates who enjoyed living in, and who benefited from, the modern society which he did so much to create.

The media has a major role to play in talking about his achievements. It’s now taking up that task. There’s an important role too for our schools, colleges and universities, in terms of educating the new generation. I hope that in that process due attention will be paid to the need to record and to disseminate the memories of those fortunate enough to have worked closely with him and of those whose lives, without public notice or fanfare, were changed for the better by passing encounters with him and with his generosity.

The physical legacy of Sheikh Zayed is no secret: it’s visible for all to see. His philosophical legacy, of a determined commitment to work for the benefit of all, of a passionate dedication to tolerance and co-existence, pervades our daily life.

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A few weeks ago, I expressed the view that one key aspect of this Year of Zayed should be an effort to communicate something of the essence of Zayed as a person. Why was it that, when he passed away, there was such a widespread outpouring of sorrow, such a deep-felt sense of loss? Most people living here never engaged with him directly, yet the sense of loss was, nonetheless, personal.

Yet every stall-holder or shopper who encountered him when he made his inspection tours of the Mina Zayed market will have told dozens of how approachable he was, his smile, his interest in everything that was going on. Anyone who saw him, in life or on the television, grabbing a camel stick and plunging into the dancing at a wedding ceremony will have told that tale many times over. Those who witnessed the joy and, yes, the love and affection, with which he engaged with little children will have recognised that this was not a public relations exercise by a political figure seeking to promote his image as a leader but, rather, a genuine expression of a good and caring heart. These are among the stories that need to be told.

When Sheikh Zayed died, I, along with thousands of others, of all ages and nationalities, queued patiently to pay our condolences. It didn’t matter who we were. The grief was shared.

A couple of days later, I had the opportunity to talk privately with one of his sons. “In all the years I have been here,” I said, “I have heard criticisms of Ministers, of other Sheikhs, even of other Rulers. I have never heard such criticism of your father, from citizens or from expatriates. He was respected and loved by all.”

In this Year of Zayed, that respect and love lives on.