Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 8 April 2020

How a gardener from Pakistan became Sheikh Zayed's green fingers

Abdul Hafeez Khan, who transformed Al Ain, has died aged 83

Abdul Hafeez Khan Al Yousefiat his home in Al Ain. Duncan Chard / The National
Abdul Hafeez Khan Al Yousefiat his home in Al Ain. Duncan Chard / The National

In his book 50 Years in Al Ain Oasis, Abdul Hafeez Khan Al Yousefi wrote of his shared mission with the late Sheikh Zayed to turn the desert green.

In the end, the devoted horticulturist, who has died at the age of 83, spent most of his life dedicated to a love of all things growing, and the creation of what is rightfully known as the Garden City of the Emirates.

At just 25 years old, Al Yousefi was summoned to the task by Sheikh Zayed, although it is fair to say he was unaware of what lay ahead when he arrived first in Abu Dhabi in 1962.

At that time he was a recent graduate in agricultural science from the American University of Beirut. Soon, however, he was hired as an agricultural adviser by Sheikh Zayed, then the Ruler’s Representative in the Eastern Region.

Born in what was British India, Al Yousefi's family had migrated to Karachi in Pakistan after partition in 1947. But all his travels had not prepared him for the extent of the challenge that became clear as soon as he set foot in Abu Dhabi.

Abdul Hafeez Khan Al Yousefi at his home in Al Ain. Duncan Chard / The National
Abdul Hafeez Khan Al Yousefi at his home in Al Ain. Duncan Chard / The National

The sand and sparse scrub that was the city in the early 60s, gave way to barren mountains and huge dunes as he travelled to the collection of villages around the Buraimi oasis.

As he recalled in an interview with The National in 2015 to mark the publication of his book by the National Archives, the opinion of most people was “God created this place a desert, and it will remain a desert”.

It was not a view shared by Sheikh Zayed. The future first President of the UAE had a vision that included hospitals and schools for his people, but also a city of trees and green spaces, as expressed in his words “give me agriculture and I shall guarantee civilisation”.

It was Al Yousefi who would help turn this vision to reality. And what started as a working relationship between Sheikh Zayed and his new employee would grow to become a friendship over many decades.

The most immediate obstacle to the pair's partnership was the language barrier, but after the translator employed by Sheikh Zayed proved inadequate to express his ideas, Al Yousefi set about mastering Arabic.

“Where is this Abu Dhabi? I couldn’t find it in an atlas. Does it even exist?”, the young Pakistani horticulturist recalled asking himself after accepting the appointment.

Sheikh Zayed also worried that his young assistant might be tempted to return home.

Al Yousefi remembered the Ruler once grasping his arms with the words “You will not leave me, will you now?”

He did not. One challenge was to find trees that might shade the new roads planned for Al Ain but could survive the sand storms and the harsh climate.

The solution, Al Yousefi realised, was the date palm. In his interview with The National, he recalled rushing to find his employer to share the idea, and finding him taking breakfast in the village of Hilli.

The idea excited Sheikh Zayed so much that he insisted they begin plotting the palms' location at once, each man holding one end of a tape measure.

With a modern house - the first of its kind in Al Ain - built for him, Al Yousefi stayed to grow not just plants but a family, eventually raising seven children.

Sheikh Zayed's agriculture advisor Abdul Hafeez Khan Al Yousefi at his home in Al Ain. Duncan Chard / The National
Sheikh Zayed's agriculture advisor Abdul Hafeez Khan Al Yousefi at his home in Al Ain. Duncan Chard / The National

Asked why he remained in the UAE, he replied “How can I explain through words? Sheikh Zayed had a magnetic personality that stopped me. His love and affection are indescribable.

“His determination and conviction to see this land bloom instilled confidence in me.”

After retiring, Al Yousefi continued to tend his garden until the last months of his life. He was shaded by a giant eucalyptus, imported in one of 12 crates of the trees from Australia.

The eucalyptus carries a plaque “Planted by H.H. Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan in 1962” and now serves as a living, growing memorial to both men.

Updated: March 2, 2020 10:44 AM

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