A new book about the life of Sheikh Zayed chronicles his journey from 'the most fearless boy' to founder of a nation.
From desert prince to world leader
Sitting in a huddle on the ground, the tribal elders swap news and settle disputes in the same way they have done for hundreds of years. But this is no ordinary Bedouin gathering. Sitting in their midst is Sheikh Zayed, listening attentively to his people. The scene, immortalised in a rare photograph, is one of several published in a new book combining rare images and never-before-seen British documents dating back to Sheikh Zayed's youth. Zayed: From Challenges to Union is a painstakingly pieced together record of the founding father's early days by the historian Jayanti Maitra, who sifted through thousands of records held in British archives to build a unique and in-depth portrait of Sheikh Zayed's rise from desert prince to world statesman.
In the late 1940s and 1950s, there was no standing on ceremony as Sheikh Zayed, then a novice politician in his 20s, wrestled with the minutiae of tribal wrangles in Buraimi, a hotly disputed oasis on the Omani border over which Abu Dhabi and Saudi Arabia had been in dispute since the beginning of the 19th century. Appointed in 1946 as wali, or governor, of the Abu Dhabi sector of Buraimi, Skeikh Zayed underwent a crash course in law enforcement and politics in a region which had been long-accustomed to hardship and lawlessness.
As the 500-page book demonstrates, Skeikh Zayed rose to the challenge, proving as adept at empathising with and influencing the tribes as he was at dealing with international leaders and politicians. The book chronicles the years between 1946 and 1971, when the UAE was born, and cites Sheikh Zayed's extraordinary achievements not only in uniting historically divided tribes but also in imbuing them with a sense of nationhood. The book, available in stores this month, sheds light on Sheikh Zayed's vision for a unique federation and the astonishing transformation of the Emirates from British-controlled "desert backwater" into wealthy world player.
Key to the book's revelations are the first-person accounts of British political agents who worked alongside the Sheikh at a crucial period in the history of the region and formed lifelong friendships with him. One was the diplomat Julian Walker, who was posted to the area in the 1950s and, on his frequent visits to the oasis to collect census information, witnessed the Sheikh's interaction with his people.
As Walker worked on his research in the afternoons and evenings, he would find himself listening as Sheikh Zayed sat with the sheikhs and elders from the major tribes, discussing the intricacies of their daily lives and recalling the names of the heads of the households and their respective families. Walker found the oral stories handed down from generation to generation fascinating and, in his 1999 book, Tyro on the Trucial Coast, described how the discussions would often be interrupted by "old Bedu and villagers in rags but with a proud and independent mien" who would call on Sheikh Zayed by name and tell him their complaints about neighbours or grievances over camels or water.
"There was no Oriental splendour, only simple courtesy and dignity and this was enhanced by the diffidence of a poor man seeking to break into our conversation for help from his ever-available Shaikh [sic]," Walker recalled. Sheikh Zayed's decisions in disputes would "if necessary be recorded on a scrap of paper marked with his seal on the back ... his courtesy and the informality of his justice accorded well with the needs and the simple pride of the Arabs in the area".
Dr Maitra said: "The lovely thing about researching this book is that I found pictures of Sheikh Zayed sitting with locals in exactly the same way as his grandfather, Sheikh Zayed bin Khalifa, had done years earlier. "He really was a worthy successor of his illustrious grandfather. Not only do they have the same name but, more importantly, both Zayeds appear to be carved out of the same mould of outstanding leadership qualities and attributes of head and heart that have earned for them a memorable place in history."
The book, she said, "was a labour of love. The more I found out about Zayed, the more I felt there was still to learn." She added: "What shone through all the documents I pored over was the respect Zayed commanded. He occupies a place of prominence in these documents, which feature his leadership qualities from the early days and his emergence as one of the greatest leaders with the passage of time."
Dr Maitra's book forms the second part of a trilogy which began with Qasr al Hosn: the History of the Rulers of Abu Dhabi from 1793-1966 and will culminate later this year with Zayed: A Man Who Built a Nation, looking at his final years. What Dr Maitra found was a Sheikh whose ideals were formed at a young age, when the political turbulence in the region, then some four decades away from unity, forced him to take on the mantle of responsibility.
In August 1926, Sheikh Zayed was only eight years old when his father, Sheikh Sultan bin Zayed, was assassinated and the child was ushered into hiding by his mother, Sheikha Salamah bint Butti. According to the book, it was under the protection of Sheikh Rashid bin Hamad, the Sheikh of Hamasa, that he blossomed into the symbol of a desert sheikh. He showed a love of the outdoor life from an early age with a natural knack for hunting and falconry. He had rudimentary lessons in reading and writing, could recite from the Quran and composed his own nabati poems.
The book quotes Wilfred Thesiger, the British explorer and author of Arabian Sands, published in 1959, who once wrote: "Zaid [sic] is a Bedu. He knows about camels, can ride like one of us, can shoot and knows how to fight." His guide, Abdullah bin Mohammed bin Ghannoum, described him as a "jackdaw of a boy who never stopped his eager questions". Claud Morris, another British delegate posted to the region, found him "the most fearless boy" he had ever met, while Col Hugh Boustead, a political agent in Abu Dhabi in the early 1960s, wrote: "I will not easily forget my first visit to Buraimi and my first meeting with Sheikh Zaid.
"A most ebullient character, always laughing, cheerful and popular, easy to talk to, it is impossible to meet him without immediately being taken by him." It was little wonder the British government described him as "the most powerful and popular member of the family", who enjoyed "the respect of all the rulers in the trucial states and the Gulf". When the responsibility for dealing with Buraimi fell on his shoulders, shortly after he assumed administrative duties in the oasis, Sheikh Zayed rose to the challenge with calm authority.
According to David Holden, in his 1966 book Farewell to Arabia, Buraimi's "three-cornered contest for the allegiance of its people and the use of its wells between the Saudis, the Sultan of Muscat and the Sheikhs of the trucial coast went on through most of the 19th century". It escalated into an international crisis when exploration by oil companies reached as far as the oasis, but Dr Maitra describes in her book how "by dint of his charismatic leadership and determination", Sheikh Zayed "succeeded in bringing the situation under control within a short spell of time".
With Sheikh Zayed at the helm, Buraimi fell firmly into the hands of the trucial rulers in 1955; by 1962, William Luce, a British political officer, noted during a visit: "There is no Saudi influence now in Buraimi. The authority of Zaid and behind him, of Shakhbut, is unquestioned by the Abu Dhabi people." Sheikh Zayed immediately set about installing an underground water system in both Buraimi and Al Ain, where he also opened a souq at his own expense, refusing to charge rent for the 25 shops.
In fact, many of the changes he brought about, Morris noted, were done on a "very tight purse" from the Abu Dhabi government. Even donations from his mother could not prevent Sheikh Zayed getting "himself heavily into debt". But as frustrating as the financial situation was for Sheikh Zayed, there was a much more widespread discontent with the rule of his brother Sheikh Shakhbut, who was heading the Abu Dhabi government at the time.
Dr Maitra writes: "Despite the incoming oil revenues in the early 1960s, the emirate of Abu Dhabi hardly showed any signs of advancement and was described in the geography books as 'nothing but a desert'. "In a state with a huge development backlog, the expectations of the people spurred by the emirate's new-found wealth had been kept in abeyance." Col Boustead catalogued the extraordinary changes which saw "a population of about 15,000 people, brought up in the simplest Bedouin traditions, suddenly - via the ruler - disposing of an income of some £80 million a year, rising to £100 million in the near future".
In Aug 1966, the ruling Al Nahyan family, backed by the British administration, voted Sheikh Zayed in as the ruler of Abu Dhabi. The new era set into motion Sheikh Zayed's dream of seeing his land "catching up with the modern world". He began to distribute the new-found wealth among tribesmen and launched a range of reforms in agricultural development, housing, health, education and water supply. Those crucial years before the formation of the federation in 1971 were to mark him out as the leader of the fledging United Arab Emirates, according to the biography.
Dr Maitra concludes: "A far-sighted statesman, Sheikh Zayed found himself at the top with few to share or even comprehend his perceptions, especially his vision for the future, to establish a modern welfare state on the bedrock of Arab- Islamic traditions and heritage. "As the ruler of Abu Dhabi, he galvanised a traditional society and economy both at the moral and physical levels. Like his grandfather, Zayed the Great, a century ago, he continually grew in stature and emerged as a pre-eminent political figure in the region."
Zayed: From Challenges to Union is published by The Centre for Documentation and Research and is available from the centre's bookshop for Dh200. @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org