When many tribes joined as one
ABU DHABI // After ensuring everyone in his royal court had finished their coffee, Sheikh Zayed handed out passports to his trusted new circle of bodyguards and companions drawn from various tribes.
The UAE had only just been formed, and the members of this inner circle came from the farthest parts of the country. Among them was the tribesman Mohammed Al Gufly from a major tribe in Falaj Al Mu'alla, Umm Al Qaiwain.
"Sheikh Zayed was very wise and got all the tribes to send their representative to stay with him in his palace," said Mr Al Gufly, who is now in his late 80s.
The official number of tribes and their exact sizes are not known, but there are more than a few dozen coastal, desert and mountainous tribes. There are also sub-tribes known as the "wahat" tribes who live in oases and farm fertile parts of the land.
The head of Al Gufly tribe, a desert tribe, picked Mohammed along with two others to join Sheikh Zayed at his court. Their task was to defend him and maintain contact between their tribe and the head of Abu Dhabi.
That was back in 1960.
For 20 years, Mr Al Gufly went wherever the founding father of the UAE went.
"Old feuds and issues between tribes were put aside for the sake of the UAE and our founding fathers," said Mr Al Gufly.
"We are a branch from the Shammar tribe, and we, the Al Gufly, are known for being warriors and not fearing death.
"We never forget our roots and history, but we are also loyal to our sheikhs who brought us all together."
The Shehhuh mountain tribe gave their support to Sheikh Zayed's kin as early as the 1930s.
"This relationship was more than a hundred years old," said Ahmed Al Malek, 65, the leader of the Shehhuh, who number about 100,000 today.
"When Sheikh Zayed had the idea for a union he sought the support of the tribal rulers. Even before the union, we had agreements to give peace and family relationships but these treaties didn't give anything more than peace. Unity brought development."
The senior Habus tribesman Rashid Ahmed still remembers the journey he made to pledge his loyalty to Sheikh Zayed.
At age 25 he loaded a rented Land Rover with dates and water before setting off with friends for Al Ain. It was a journey of peace but they knew they might encounter unfriendly tribes along the way.
"We carried rifles and daggers because the land was not united," said Mr Ahmed, 70. "We didn't know what was in that country."
Hundreds made the journey at that time to show their support for Sheikh Zayed.
"We said we will invest [in unity] at that time," said Mr Ahmed. "Before union, before everything happened, there was Sheikh Zayed."
When they arrived in Al Ain, "it was palm houses and the guards took our weapons".
They were told weapons would not be needed. It was a new era of security.
"Everyone wanted to go to Sheikh Zayed," said Mr Ahmed. "From every place they came. We the Habus went, the Khawatar went, the Shemaili went. He got the whole country together, he loved the people and he was very generous."
In the coming years, Sheikh Zayed travelled the country and worked with various sheikhs to solve territorial disputes.
"The UAE united us all, we are all one big family," said Saeed Al Maharami, an elder of Al Maharam tribe of Abu Dhabi.
"We will all stand united and defend it always. We shall always protect our land and our leaders," he said.
Updated: November 28, 2011 04:00 AM