Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 6 April 2020

Portrait of a Nation: the botany manager of Sir Bani Yas Island

Nabil Saada moved to Sir Bani Yas in 1991, when he was made responsible for planting trees and caring for the animals brought to the island by Sheikh Zayed

Botany manager, Nabil Saada, has lived on Sir Bani Yas Island for 29 years. Reem Mohammed / The National
Botany manager, Nabil Saada, has lived on Sir Bani Yas Island for 29 years. Reem Mohammed / The National

Nabil Saada arrived in the UAE on a flight full of young men from Egypt. When the plane doors opened, some of his fellow passengers were so alarmed by the intensity of the heat that they returned to their seats, refused to disembark and returned directly to Cairo.

Mr Saada left the plane, still hopeful.

“At that time Abu Dhabi was very hot,” said Mr Saada. “But I loved this country. I was very young and I was looking for a job.”

It was April 19, 1983 and the height of summer was still to come.

When I look at the trees, I know my life. The trees are the same like my sons

Nabil Saada

Abu Dhabi was in the middle of a drive to turn the desert green and Egypt’s agricultural engineers were in demand.

Whenever an oil town would spring up, trees were planted. Greenery was synonymous with modernity and Mr Saada was one of the men tasked with turning sabkha, mountain and dune into farmland and forest.

Mr Saada’s first posting as an agricultural engineer was to an oil company in Ruwais, on the coast 230 kilometres west of Abu Dhabi city.

His next posting was to the Habshan gas fields in the desert interior. “Only camels there.”

In 1991, he got a job managing farmland on Sir Bani Yas, a remote desert island far west of Abu Dhabi city.

He has lived there ever since. Today, Mr Saada oversees care for more than a million trees on the island as its botany manager.

He first stepped foot on the island on May 5, 1991. “I had one suitcase, some clothes and I came,” he said.

Nabil Saada, offers frankincense to a group of visitors to Sir Bani Yas Island. Reem Mohammed / The National
Nabil Saada, offers frankincense to a group of visitors to Sir Bani Yas Island. Reem Mohammed / The National

The drive to turn the island had begun years earlier. The Founding President Sheikh Zayed had populated the island with oryx, gazelles and giraffes and had it planted with forests and fruit orchards.

Today, millions of gallons are piped in to serve cruise ships, resorts with luxurious pools, forests and grasslands and thousands of animals.

But in 1991, the island’s people, animals and trees used a million gallons of sweet water a day and all freshwater came by boat once a day from Abu Dhabi, a 12-hour trip.

Every drop mattered. Mr Saada’s first task was checking pipes for leaks.

“I needed to follow the water,” he said. “I needed to save the water.”

It was gratifying but hard work. “We watered those plants with our sweat.”

Today, he manages all landscaping and farming, tends grasslands for the island’s large deer and gazelle population, and monitors mangroves wetlands. He has spent years amassing a seed bank collected from the island’s trees and keeps his eyes open for anything that could spark the interest of archaeologists. His work begins at dawn.

“You have animals you need to feed, you have trees you need to irrigate,” said Mr Saada. “Sir Bani Yas is very hard work.”

Mr Saada grew up on farm between two branches of the Nile and believes he was born for this job.

“I work for my name and my country’s name also. I love my job. I am an agriculture guy. I’m from the farm, not the city.”

Mr Saada initially lived with agricultural engineers from Egypt and Syria, and farm labourers from Bangladesh and India. When winds were high and seas were rough, no food or water came for days, his Indian colleagues cooked chapattis for everyone.

Later, his family lived with him until his children reached school age. The family moved to Abu Dhabi city but returned to the island during school holidays.

“When I bring my family here, I tell my daughter, I tell my sons, your father planted this, your father planted that,” he said. “When I look at the trees, I know my life. The trees are the same like my sons.”

The question of retirement now looms for Mr Mr Saada and his wife.

“That’s big question. Now I am 58, no 59, years old. After one year, I’ll reach 60. I don’t know where I’m going because I love this country. I don’t know anything about Egypt.

"But, Alhamdullilah, I am still strong. It’s very difficult to leave Sir Bani Yas because I love this place. My full life I am living here, 28 years in this place.”

Updated: February 21, 2020 02:45 PM

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