From handshakes to a new state: How Sheikh Zayed built a nation
Sheikh Zayed, the UAE’s Founding Father, built a nation founded on oil revenues, trust in his kinsmen and the expertise of valued expatriates.
In August 1966, shortly after assuming the leadership of Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan held an open majlis for his new subjects at Qasr Al Hosn at which he shook hands with 637 people in a single day.
“This was at the height of the congratulation season, when the trees surrounding the Palace afforded shade to hundreds of bedu” who had come to greet their new leader, the British political agent in Abu Dhabi, Archie Lamb, later reported in a letter to Sir Stewart Crawford, the most senior UK diplomat then serving in the Arabian Gulf.
“If you consider Abu Dhabi’s position and the situation he had inherited, internally and externally, you can begin to comprehend the pressure Sheikh Zayed was under,” the late Sheikh Abdul Aziz bin Mohammed Al Qasimi, an adviser to Sheikh Zayed, explained in an interview with Graeme H Wilson, author of Zayed: Man Who Built a Nation.
“Everything was starting at once and his input was needed in most details of every new project.”
Of those challenges, one of the most pressing was the need to establish a new administration capable of establishing and rolling out the new economic base and infrastructure, both social and physical, that the emirate so desperately needed.
“And so Sheikh Zayed signed decrees to create departments from which government could grow and then he appointed the best and the brightest men around to run them,” Sheikh Saqr bin Mohammed Al Qasimi told Wilson in an interview.
One of the earliest decrees, which was issued only 12 days after Sheikh Zayed’s accession, not only appointed Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed, Sheikh Zayed’s eldest son and the current ruler of Abu Dhabi, as his replacement as ruler’s representative in the eastern region, but also appointed other members of the Al Nahyan family including the Bani Mohammed, the sons of Sheikh Zayed’s father-in-law Sheikh Mohammed bin Khalifa al Nahyan, to positions of responsibility and influence.
These included Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed, Sheikh Mubarak bin Mohammed, Sheikh Tahnoun bin Mohammed, Sheikh Saif bin Mohammed, Sheikh Khalifah bin Mohammed and Sheikh Suroor bin Mohammed as heads of newly created departments such as development, education, health, water and public works, police and public security, agriculture, electricity and justice.
Such was the shortage of qualified individuals at the time, however, that even filling all of the posts that were required in the new administration posed a significant challenge.
“There were so few people who knew anything about administration or management that those who had any experience at all were spread very thin,” Mohammed Al Fahim recounts in From Rags to Riches: a story of Abu Dhabi.
“Each Abu Dhabian had at least five different jobs or functions in which he played a central role. Members of the ruling family led the way, many of them heading several departments simultaneously.”
In addition, his appointment of a number of younger citizens and expats to strategically important roles was designed, as Jayanti Maitra has noted in Zayed: from Challenges to Union, to encourage “the youth of the emirate and of the neighbouring Arab countries to take part in the development of Abu Dhabi”.
These included Emiratis such as Ahmed bin Khalifa Al Suweidi, the first person to represent Abu Dhabi at international conferences on information, tourism and economic affairs, and Mana Saeed Al Otaiba, who although he was only 20 years old at the time, became Abu Dhabi’s first minister of oil.
They were joined by Arab expatriates from Iraq, Jordan, Egypt and Sudan, such as Saleh Farah Abdurrahman, who was appointed as Sheikh Zayed’s legal adviser and chief judge.
By the end of the administration’s first year, they were joined by appointees from the UK.
As Jayanti Maitra notes, Sheikh Zayed appointed a British director of finance on August 27, 1966, who was joined by a British public relations firm, Michael Rice & Partners, as consultants to the government of Abu Dhabi in the same month and a British director of health in December.
“British advisers and consultants who were entrusted with the task of outlining objectives and suggesting guidelines recognised the need of a comparatively large number of civil servants.”
Abu Dhabi’s booming population in the years following Sheikh Zayed’s accession is just one indication of the pace of change and development faced by the emirate’s first administration.
The population of the capital was estimated to have increased from 35,000 inhabitants to 47,000 between 1967 and 1968, the time of the emirate’s first census, and the number of civil servants employed grew from 200 in 1966 to 2,000 in 1968 and then doubled in a year, reaching 4,000 by 1969.
Given the requirements of the city and its booming economy, works were immediately started on a new runway and landing lights at Abu Dhabi’s makeshift airport, half a million Bahraini dinars were spent on the construction of schools during the first two years of Sheikh Zayed’s rule and 13.4 million dinars were allocated to the construction of an Arid and Semi-Arid Lands Research Station on Saadiyat Island.
The Government budget for 1967, the first to be publicly announced, stood at 37 million dinars against government revenues of 41 million dinars.
By the time Mohammed Al Fahim returned to Abu Dhabi from his studies in the UK in the autumn of 1967, Abu Dhabi’s new administration had been operating for only a year but even during that time the city and its fortunes had changed beyond all recognition.
“When I arrived, a little over a year after Sheikh Zayed had become Ruler, the town was changing at a dizzying pace,” Al Fahim explains in his bestselling memoir.
“Abu Dhabi was a hive of activity. There were labour camps everywhere to accommodate the large numbers of workers required for the countless construction projects. Commercial buildings, government buildings, housing, warehouses, shops – all were going up simultaneously. It was like a scene from the creation of a film set – a whole city was being erected from scratch.”
Updated: October 24, 2016 04:00 AM