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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 19 June 2018

'This is all because of Zayed': Elderly Emirati men tell of lives before unification

The men meet at a Sharjah cafe to reminisce about how the UAE's Founding Father changed the course of the country's future

Ismail Al Zamani is one of many elderly Emirati men who meet in Sharjah to reminisce about old times. Chris Whiteoak / The National
Ismail Al Zamani is one of many elderly Emirati men who meet in Sharjah to reminisce about old times. Chris Whiteoak / The National

Exactly 50 years ago in a small tent in Dubai, a group of tribal leaders met under the leadership of one man to decide what their futures and that of their people would be like.

Most of these leaders have since passed away but what they leave behind is a generation of Emiratis that reap the fruits of a decision that took that one man, UAE Founding Father Sheikh Zayed, six years of negotiations to see it come to life - the decision to form a United Arab Emirates.

Today, a generation of Emiratis who were in their early 20’s at the time those leaders met half a century ago come together to reminisce.

“The federation is Zayed. The Union is Zayed. Everything is Zayed,” say a group of elderly Emiratis who have gathered in a coffee shop in Sharjah that is plastered with historical pictures of the rulers and the UAE.

“Have you heard of Sheikh Zayed?” Saeed Al Sajwani asks rhetorically.

“Why does everyone around the world know of him? Why does everyone still remember him and always speak of him even though there are many leaders who have come before and after him?

“It is because he built everything and his charity extends to the furthest country. There isn’t an area in the entire world where his charity hasn’t extended to,” he says.

Saeed Al Sajwani was studying in Kuwait when he heard that the UAE was forming. Chris Whiteoak / The National
Saeed Al Sajwani was studying in Kuwait when he heard that the UAE was forming. Chris Whiteoak / The National

When the formation of the UAE was first announced in 1971, Al Sajwani was studying in Kuwait.

“We were all convinced of the union. Even the old man in his home was looking forward to a union because there is strength in unity.

“On December 2 1971, we all heard about it and chanted ‘union, union, union’”, he says.

But what most don’t realise is that preparations for a United Arab Emirates began much earlier, he says.

“They didn’t just meet once but several times and it was the fathers of the current rulers who met, may God rest their souls.”

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Read more:

Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid remembers the day the dream of the UAE was born

How the Year of Zayed will pass on his story and values to a new generation

National Editorial: UAE dignitaries hail unveiling of Founder's Memorial in honour of Sheikh Zayed

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On February 18 1968, Sheikh Zayed, Ruler of Abu Dhabi, and Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed, Ruler of Dubai, met in Seih Al Sedira and reached a formal agreement that would bind the two emirates together and eventually lead to the formation of the UAE.

Ten days later, a much larger gathering took place in Dubai where all seven emirates were represented, along with Bahrain and Qatar.

After two days of intense meetings and discussions, a broader agreement was reached.

A new country would be created from the nine, to be called the Union of Arab Emirates, while preparations would begin for a draft constitution.

A statement was issued: “The Union of Arab Emirates comprises one people, and has one policy, one diplomatic representation, one army and one economic and social structure.”

“The organisational structure of the Union is democratic, its official religion is Islam, the source of its legislation is Islamic Law, its official language is Arabic and its people is part of the Arab nation.”

Bahrain and Qatar eventually decided to go their own ways and Ras Al Khaimah despite being initially hesitant about joining the new country, eventually did as the seventh emirate in early 1972.

Elderly men meet in Sharjah and discuss the lead up to the formation of the UAE. Chris Whiteoak / The National
Elderly men meet in Sharjah and discuss the lead up to the formation of the UAE. Chris Whiteoak / The National

Ali Al Qaseir, one of the elderly men who will meet with his compatriots on Wednesday, worked for the Ministry of Education for 35 years.

“Before the union, it was seven separate emirates each with its own ruler who was in charge of managing their own affairs,” Al Qaseir says.

“We were geographically close but every ruler was concerned with the affairs of their emirate and cannot interfere with the affairs of the other emirate.

“In 1971, the union was established and gradually all the emirates were brought together under one name and from then on, life began in the era of Sheikh Zayed.

“With petrol, development began and schools and hospitals were built.”

These existed before the federation but on a much smaller scale, Al Qaseir says.

“The union started with the rulers meeting in 1968 but the regular person in the street didn’t know what a union was but when they decided and announced on forming the union, then the people followed and rejoiced. They began raising flags and marches.”

Ismail Al Zamani worked on the UAE's first British Naval Base in Sharjah before the unification of the Emirates.

"I used to work there like most Emiratis but after the union there were better job opportunities for all us," he says.

"After the union, everything changed, we suddenly had salaries, pensions and widowers received financial support. Life became easier for everyone.

"While once I needed a passport to go from one emirate to another, now I dont need any documents to go anywhere in the UAE. This is all because of Zayed and his vision of a union."

Rashed Al Meheri, who knows his age because his birthday coincides with the day Apollo 11 landed the first two humans on the moon, says he was 15 when the union was announced.

“I remember that day,” he boasts.

“We don’t say Abu Dhabi before and Abu Dhabi now. Before Zayed ruled in 1966, there was no Abu Dhabi,” he says.

“And from the day he ruled he was actively negotiating for the formation of the union.”