The impact Sheikh Zayed had on the world is well-known in the UAE, but how was he perceived in the west?
'A man in a hurry': how western media assessed Sheikh Zayed's legacy
On November 3, 2004, thousands fill the streets of a city that only decades before was a collection of barasti huts around a stone fort.
They watch on, consumed by grief as a grey GMC van carrying the body of their country’s founding president moves towards the incomplete Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque. There Sheikh Zayed was buried and in a few hours, it was all over.
Sheikh Zayed was 86 when he died that November 2, which is the 19th day of Ramadan in the Islamic year 1425. A prolonged period of mourning enveloped the UAE.
But Sheikh Zayed was a global figure and the western press swiftly began to assess the legacy of the man that steered the UAE from desert to development. It was the UK’s Telegraph that noted the scale of the task Zayed would face.
“The years following the end of the 1939 to 1945 war were harsh and difficult, with food shortages and outbreaks of polio,” its obituary on November 4, 2004, said. “The Trucial States were far down the list of priorities for the [UK’s Clement] Attlee government.”
At this time, Abu Dhabi was ruled by Sheikh Zayed’s brother Sheikh Shakhbut, while Sheikh Zayed in 1946 became representative in the Eastern Region. No-one knew then that Abu Dhabi was sitting on a vast reservoir of oil but there were a few who suspected some would be found. Sheikh Zayed understood its importance and, in the late 1940s, was tasked with guiding geologists through the deserts of Al Ain.
Edward Henderson, who worked for a British oil company in the Trucial States then, recalls their first encounter. “He was handsome with humorous and intelligent eyes, of fine presence and bearing, simple dressed … clearly a man of action,” he wrote in his memoir, Arabian Destiny. “Although he was young … he was already by far the most prominent personality in the area.”
Oil was discovered in 1958 and the first shipment left Das Island in 1962. But poverty lingered and ordinary people had yet to feel any real benefit from oil revenues. When Sheikh Zayed took over as Ruler of Abu Dhabi in 1966, he understood what Martin Luther King had described three years earlier as the “fierce urgency of now”.
“Zayed was a man in a hurry,” The Telegraph noted. “With revenues growing year by year as oil production increased, a massive programme of construction of schools, housing, hospitals and roads got rapidly under way.”
The Guardian’s Lawrence Joffe developed this further. “Where other Gulf leaders squandered their wealth, Zayed reinvested oil profits … and planned for the day when the wells would run dry.”
But clouds of uncertainty soon drifted across the Trucial States with the news that Britain would withdraw from the Gulf by 1971.
“Sheikh Zayed’s statesmanship was tested by the tortuous and quarrelsome negotiations leading to the creation of the UAE. It was remarkable … that the federation survived with few stresses and strains after 1972 when Ras Al Khaimah joined,” The Telegraph wrote.
The role of Sheikh Zayed in overseeing this cannot be overstated and it was down to his discreet way of dealing with problems. Julia Wheeler, the BBC's Gulf correspondent described it as such: "[He was] seen as someone who led by example, he used consultation and consensus to deal with the tribes.”
Sheikh Zayed became president in 1971, a role he held until his death, and Abu Dhabi became the capital. “Abu Dhabi became a clean, modern city and though it lacked the brashness of Dubai or the experience of Bahrain, it did … manage to give the clear impression that it was the heart of the UAE,” the UK's Independent wrote.
Important too was his commitment to gender equality, with women to this day taking a leading role in the country. “Ninety-nine per cent of its girls are in school. Women serve in the armed forces and as police officers,” said Douglas Martin of the UAE in The New York Times. Mr Martin also underlined how Sheikh Zayed did not turn his back on other countries in need. “His generosity to various charities was extensive,” he said. “To causes from displaced Afghans and Palestinians to Iraqi war victims – and often the lowliest goat herder.”
It is well known that Zayed joined the US-led coalition against Saddam Hussein in 1991 but perhaps less familiar is the UAE role in Kosovo after the end of the Balkan wars. Emirati troops built refugee camps, constructed hospitals and provided medical services.
But Sheikh Zayed also clashed with the West. “He expressed serious concern about the impact of UN sanctions on Iraq and extended humanitarian aid to the Iraqi people,” The Telegraph reported.
Sheikh Zayed’s foreign policy was also examined by Mr Joffe, particularly his championing of the Palestinian cause. “In 1999 he led a pan-Arab campaign against the Disney organisation after it depicted Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in a global village exhibition,” he wrote. “Many Palestinian institutions bear his name, indicative of his largesse. Yet he never lost faith in a negotiated settlement.”
Arriving in Abu Dhabi today, one cannot but help be struck by the greenery. Forests sprouted across the emirate from the 1970s, providing shade, acting as windbreakers and helping to settling nomadic Bedouin. “He [Sheikh Zayed] planted millions of palms and fruit trees and undertook breeding programmes for 80 species of animals. He received a Golden Panda Award [a conservation award] from the Worldwide Fund for Nature in 1997,” said Mr Martin. Today the Arabian oryx is no longer listed as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
But it was the BBC's Wheeler that correctly summed up why Sheikh Zayed continues to be held in such high regard.
“This adoration goes beyond the sycophancy associated with many other Arab rulers. There is a real sense of gratitude,” she wrote.
“Emiratis will undoubtedly be mindful that a crucial era of their history is passing with the death of their first president.”