Guiding the progress of the United Arab Emirates since it was established in 1971 has been President His Highness Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al Nahyan, who has also been Ruler of the Emirate of Abu Dhabi since 1966, and who played a major role in the conceiving of the concept of the federation.
Born in 1918, the son of a younger brother of the then Ruler of Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Zayed is the grandson of Sheikh Zayed bin Khalifa, (Sheikh Zayed the Great), who had ruled Abu Dhabi from 1855-1909, the longest reign in the Emirate's history. His father, Sheikh Sultan, was briefly Ruler between 1922 and 1926, and then, after a brief reign by an uncle, Sheikh Zayed's eldest brother, Sheikh Shakhbut, became Ruler at the beginning of 1928.
At the time, the Emirate of Abu Dhabi, like the other states along what was then known as the Trucial Coast, was in treaty relations with Britain, which had first established its presence in the region as early as 1820, signing a series of agreement on maritime truce with the local rulers that gave the area its name.
Abu Dhabi was poor and undeveloped, with an economy largely based upon the traditional combination of fishing and pearl-diving along the coast, and simple agriculture in the scattered oases, like those at Liwa and Al Ain inland. When the world market for the Gulf's high-quality pearls collapsed in the late nineteen twenties and early nineteen thirties, owing to the invention by the Japanese of the cultured pearl and the world economic depression, the already poor emirate suffered a catastrophic blow to its economy. Sheikh Zayed's family, like their people, fell upon hard times.
When the young Zayed was growing up, there was not a single modern school anywhere along the coast. He, like his fellows, received only a basic instruction in the principles of Islam from the local Islamic preacher, although an enthusiasm and a thirst for knowledge took him out into the desert with the Bedouin tribesmen, absorbing all he could about the way of life of the people, their traditional skills and their hard-won ability to survive under the harsh climatic conditions.
These early years not only taught Sheikh Zayed about his country, they also brought him into contact with the people, and by the nineteen thirties, when he was scarcely out of his teens, his brother Sheikh Shakhbut found that Zayed was well worthy of his trust. When the first geological survey teams from foreign oil companies arrived to carry out a preliminary surface survey of the trackless wastes of Abu Dhabi's deserts, it was Sheikh Zayed who was assigned the task of guiding them.
He performed well, living up to all the expectations placed in him, and in 1946, shortly before the search for oil began in earnest after the end of the Second World War, he was the obvious choice to fill a vacancy as Ruler's Representative in the inland oasis of Al Ain, then a mere cluster of small villages, although today a thriving city with a population nearing 200,000.
One early European visitor to Al Ain shortly after Sheikh Zayed took over was an oil company representative, Edward Henderson, who, more than forty years later, is now an Adviser in the Centre for Documentation and Research in Abu Dhabi. In his memoirs, he recalls the impression that Sheikh Zayed made upon him.
Zayed was then about thirty years old, Henderson recalls.
He was hand- some, with humorous and intelligent eyes, of fine presence and bearing, simply dressed, and clearly a man of action and resolution.
Although he was young, and had only been formally in charge of the Abu Dhabi sector of the oasis and its surrounding deserts for some two years, he was experienced in the politics of the region, and was already by far the most prominent personality in the area. He had a sure touch with the Bedouin.
Sheikh Zayed's task of Ruler's Representative not only involved the relatively simple job of administering Al Ain itself, but stretched over a far wider area, giving the young Zayed an opportunity to learn the practice of Government and also, during the Buraimi dispute of the late nineteen forties and early nineteen fifties, gave him experience of the wider world.
Tribes from throughout the desert region of the Emirate, and from far away deep into Inner Oman, grew to trust Sheikh Zayed as a conciliator and as a mediator in disputes, a man whose even-handed justice earned respect from all. The same patient and painstaking efforts to resolve arguments between brothers teamed in Al Ain can still be seen today in Sheikh Zayed's equally patient and painstaking efforts to solve the disputes between brotherly Arab countries.
Sheikh Zayed also had the task of guiding the development of Al Ain itself. Putting the scanty resources at his disposal to work, he ensured that the 'falajes' were cleaned out, and built a new one, helping to stimulate agriculture in the area. The process was aided by a decision from the Al Nahyan family that their own private shares of the water supply should be turned over to the public, setting an example that others were swift to follow.
This growth in agriculture in turn encouraged Al Ain to develop its traditional position as market centre for the whole region, bringing new business and prosperity - even if on a small scale. And, in a foretaste of the massive afforestation programme that has today changed the very face of the Emirate, Sheikh Zayed began the planting of ornamental and decorative trees that are today grown to maturity.
Working with scanty resources, but generating a new optimism among the people of the area, Sheikh Zayed was able to move ahead with the development of the Al Ain area faster than anyone, except perhaps himself, would have expected.
In 1953, accompanying his brother, Sheikh Zayed made his first trip to Europe, visiting Paris for legal hearings on an oil dispute, and being impressed by the Eiffel Tower, and going on to Britain. In interviews years later, he recalled how his first impressions had included the schools and the hospitals enjoyed by the people. When Abu Dhabi had money, he decided, such facilities should be provided for his own people.
The Paris legal hearings, where judgement was in favour of Abu Dhabi, were a sign of the change that was shortly to begin to sweep across the Emirate as oil exploration got under way.
The first exploration well in Abu Dhabi had been drilled at Ras Sadr in 1950, to be followed by others in what is now the Western Region, and then with other wells offshore. By 1958, the first commercial oil-fields were discovered, first onshore, in the Bab field, and then offshore, at Umm Shaif. The first export cargo of oil left Abu Dhabi in 1962.
With the oil revenues beginning to flow, the people of Abu Dhabi were eager to share in the development that they could see already taking place in other oil-producing emirates further up the Gulf. With the record of his achievements as Ruler's Representative in Al Ain, Sheikh Zayed was the natural choice to preside over this process, and, in August 1966, he succeeded as Ruler of the Emirate of Abu Dhabi.
He was a man in a hurry. The oil revenues were swelling year by year as new fields were discovered and brought on stream, while, at the same time, the rising expectations of the people meant that the development programme had to get under way equally fast. Moving quickly to establish the first formal Government structure for the Emirate, Sheikh Zayed embarked upon a large-scale construction programme, building roads and schools, housing and hospitals, not just in the capital of the Emirate, Abu Dhabi, and in Al Ain, but extending out to the Bedouin settlements in the desert, to ensure that the benefits of the new wealth taken out to the people.
At the same time, Sheikh Zayed also saw clearly that Britain would not forever maintain her presence in the Gulf, and that the Emirates of the region would need to come together in co-operation and partnership if they were to enjoy a stable and prosperous future.
Less than eighteen months after he became Ruler, in January 1968, Sheikh Zayed was visited by a British Minister who had come to inform him, and the other Sheikhs of the Trucial Coast, that the British military and political presence in the Arabian Gulf would cease at the end of 1971.
Sheikh Zayed was ready to react. In early February, Sheikh Zayed met at As Sameeh, half way between Abu Dhabi and Dubai, with the Ruler of Dubai, His Highness Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed al Maktoum. now the UAE's Vice President and Prime Minister. The two men agreed to establish a federation between their two emirates, and invited the other five Trucial States, as well as Qatar and Bahrain, to join them.
The wisdom of the move was widely recognised, although it took nearly four years, and some hard bargaining, before the seven Trucial States agreed to form a federation. Qatar and Bahrain chose to proceed to a separate independence, but are now closely linked with the UAE through the Gulf Co-Operation Council. Sheikh Zayed's own determination, powers of conciliation, and willingness to compromise for the common good were crucial in the eventual success of the negotiations, and when the federation of the United Arab Emirates was officially formed in 1971, Sheikh Zayed was the logical choice as the President of the new state.
After decades or centuries of a separate existence, the individual emirates moved into a new period of their history when the flag of the new state was raised on December 2nd 1971, facing the future as one.
During the eighteen years that have followed Sheikh Zayed has continued to preside over the fortunes of his people, now extending throughout the whole of the United Arab Emirates, rather than being confined simply to the Emirate of Abu Dhabi. Re-elected three times as President, in 1976, 1981 and 1986, he enjoys, and deserves, the confidence of fellow Rulers and citizens alike, for since the state was established, it has successfully passed through an utter transformation from a backward country to one of the fastest developing in the world, and has done so without the accompanying social, political and economic disruption that has marred the development process in so many other countries.
Abu Dhabi Cournish in the 1960s and 1970s.
In 1971, the United Arab Emirates had a population of only some 180,000, but, latest figures suggest, it has now risen ten-fold to around 1.8 million. Where there were only a few thousand children at school, mainly boys, now there are over 300,000 studying, boys and girls, in schools that extend to the smallest desert village and mountain settlement, as well as covering the main population centres. Abu Dhabi's first university graduates, educated abroad, returned home only in the mid-nineteen sixties. Now there are over 8,000 students at the Emirates University in the burgeoning green and pleasant oasis-city of Al Ain, while several hundred more are hard at work in the six Higher Colleges for Technology in Abu Dhabi, Al Ain and Dubai.
The youth of the country, 'the real wealth of the nation,' in Sheikh Zayed's words, now have the access to the opportunities they, and Sheikh Zayed himself, lacked. And they, in turn, are making use of those opportunities to contribute to the building of their country - in the oil industry, in business, in Government, and now in sport, with the UAE national soccer team qualifying in 1989 for the World Cup in Italy.
If Sheikh Zayed is a father to his people, he has made it clear that the responsibilities of parenthood apply to the UAE's women as well as to the men. He rejects the suggestion that women have no place at work. "Women have the right to work everywhere," he says.
"Islam", Sheikh Zayed notes, "gives women their rightful status, and encourages them to work in all sectors, as long as they are afforded the appropriate respect. 'Me basic role of women is the upbringing of children, but over and above that, we have to support and encourage any woman who chooses to perform other functions."
With around half of the country's potential workforce of nationals being women, and with thousands of young female as well as male University graduates now entering the job market, the UAE's women can be found playing an increasingly important role in commerce and the health services, in education and banking, in Government and administration.
Drawing upon the lessons during his days as Ruler's Representative in Al Ain, Sheikh Zayed has coaxed and encouraged the people of the Emirates over the course of the past eighteen years to work together to build the new state, and to realize that whatever differences may have divided their fathers in the past, these pale into insignificance against the common heritage, and common interests that unite, rather than divide.
That message has been put forward to in speeches to formal bodies like the Federal National Council, in interviews with the media, and, perhaps most telling of all, in the informal conversations with the people that are a feature of his rule.
Never happier than when he is able to slip away from the cares of office to visit the people in the desert, mountains and offshore islands, Sheikh Zayed ensures in this way that he preserves the traditional custom of unimpeded access to a tribal sheikh, and, at the same time, ensures that he can keep his finger firmly upon the pulse of public opinion.
Such a process is, inevitably, a two-way affair, as it always has been. Sheikh Zayed uses such occasions not only to listen, but to talk, to urge people to work together for the good of all. They also give him the opportunity to explain his own pre-occupations and concerns, such as his determination to realize his old dream of making the desert green, of fuming this and desert land into one of forests, parks and gardens.
The city of Al Ain, where he first had the opportunity to try to achieve this dream, is a city of greenery, while Abu Dhabi, which has won the accolade of Garden City of the Gulf, has dozens of parks and gardens, a far cry from the dusty coastal village it was when Sheikh Zayed became Ruler a little over twenty years ago.
In consultation and mediation, Sheikh Zayed now has more than forty years of experience upon which to draw, and it has become apparent in the years since the UAE was formed that those skills developed in the desert and honed in Al Ain have a relevance far beyond the borders of the Emirates.
Deeply and unshakably committed to the long term objective of Arab unity, Sheikh Zayed has spared no efforts in offering to mediate between his fellow Arabs and between his neighbours. An advocate of co-operation, he was the leading light in the formation of the six-member Gulf Co-Operation Council, which was established at a summit meeting in Abu Dhabi in May 1981.
Never happy at the division between Egypt and the rest of the Arab world , Sheikh Zayed took the lead in moves to reintegrate Egypt into the Arab fold a couple of years ago, while the UAE was one of the first Arab states to accord recognition to the new state of Palestine, in line with a consistent policy of support for the people of Palestine and their legitimate representative, the Palestine Liberation Organisation. He has also played a leading role in calling upon the Arab states to exert their influence to end the communal slaughter in Lebanon, which, as he has warned since it began nearly fifteen years ago, threatens not only the Lebanese, but the whole of the Arab world.
During the long conflict between Iraq and Iran, he used every channel open to him to urge the two warring parties to cease their senseless bloodshed, while he continues to urge both parties, the UAE's friends and neighbours, to make the moves necessary to end the deadlock in negotiations that has stymied international efforts to convert the August 1988 ceasefire into a permanent and just settlement.
Not just a committed Arab nationalist, but also a devout Muslim, Sheikh Zayed has also ensured that the United Arab Emirates has adopted a consistent policy of support for the poor and downtrodden world-wide. Countries throughout the developing world have been able to count upon a steady flow of concessionary aid, and more than five billion US dollars have now been provided through grants, loans and equity participation to more than forty countries in three continents.
Sheikh Zayed believes that the oil wealth with which the Emirates has been blessed is something that should be shared with other countries less fortunate not out of enlightened self-interest, however worthy such an attitude may be, but as a duty. Narrow particularism, he believes, serves neither man nor mankind in a increasingly inter-dependent world.
Like his people, Sheikh Zayed knows what it is to be poor, to be thirsty and to be hungry. It is, after all, only three decades since oil was first discovered in Abu Dhabi. Since then, and, more especially since the United Arab Emirates was established, progress has been so fast as to be almost unimaginable a generation ago. Only some-one with extra-ordinary vision could have conceived of the possibility of such changes - let alone to have worked to see them come true.
The people of UAE have been fortunate in having such a man as leader, who in more than forty years of Government, in Al Ain, then in Abu Dhabi, then in the UAE as a whole, has guided and presided over the change. In that task, he has been guided by his deeply-held faith of Islam. In Sheikh Zayed's eyes, Islam is not a fatalistic faith. It is one of submission to the will of God, but not of accepting one's lot without seeking to improve it; one that enjoins every believer to do what he can to help the less fortunate, and to treat every human being as equal.
"It is Islam that asks every Moslem to respect every person," Sheikh Zayed believes. "Not, I emphasize, special people, but every person, In short, to treat every person, no matter what his race or creed, as a special soul is a mark of Islam. It is just such a point, embodied in Islam's tenets, that makes us proud of Islam. To be together, to trust each other as human beings, to behave as equals."
That faith is the key to the man, and to an understanding of why he has succeeded so well.