Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan

President of the United Arab Emirates
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The Independent Online

Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan, the President of the United Arab Emirates and Ruler of Abu Dhabi, moved, like his country, from poverty and obscurity to vast riches and a place on the international stage in the course of his life.

Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan: born Abu Dhabi 1918; Ruler of Abu Dhabi 1966-2004; President, United Arab Emirates 1971-2004; married; died 2 November 2004.

Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan, the President of the United Arab Emirates and Ruler of Abu Dhabi, moved, like his country, from poverty and obscurity to vast riches and a place on the international stage in the course of his life.

He was born a Bedouin, growing up just as Abu Dhabi was heading into a period of deep depression in the 1930s, when the Japanese manufacture of artificial pearls destroyed pearling in the Gulf, on which Abu Dhabi depended. He was born, too, into a traditional Bedouin family, which meant it was rent by suspicion and jealousy, with each man concerned for his own position and fearful of what might happen.

It was as a result of this that Zayed was sent, at the age of 38, to be the Ruler's representative at Al-Ain, then a group of villages far distant from the capital at Abu Dhabi, though it is now a sprawling city of 250,000. Zayed was, in effect, put into internal exile, not for anything he had done, but for anything he might do. It was clear that he was a bright young man, and the only likely threat to the Ruler, his brother Shakhbut, a man who held that he was put in charge to save money, not to spend it, and did his best to stop any kind of development, even after oil had begun to come on stream in the 1960s.

Zayed seemed quite happy at Al-Ain - when Wilfred Thesiger arrived there, he found him sitting outside his fort with a group of friends, idly picking his toenails with a pointed stick. But the people of Abu Dhabi did not like the lack of any progress, and began voting with their feet as they made off to other parts of the Gulf which offered prosperity. Nor did it suit the British, who since 1820 had been the only foreign power to show any interest in the place. A family conclave was arranged, without Shakhbut, and it was decided Zayed should take over. The message was given to the Ruler, significantly enough, by the British representative.

That was in 1966 and from that time on, the long-dammed tide of development was in full flood. With new oilfields being found year after year, the state coffers seemed inexhaustible, as deep as Zayed's commitment to transforming his desert state.

Roads, schools, hospitals and every other attribute of a modern state appeared almost daily, while Al-Ain, where Zayed had spent 20 years with cleaning and repairing the falaj system of irrigation as his major achievement, was rapidly made into a green city, with ornamental trees as well as the ubiquitous palms - today it also houses the UAE university.

Soon after Zayed took over, the British were preparing to pull out of the Gulf, and trying to arrange a Federation of the nine former Trucial States, despite the differences among them. Eventually, a union of seven was achieved, with Zayed becoming the most enthusiastic federalist of them all, despite the long tradition of rivalry between Abu Dhabi and Dubai - a rivalry which prevented either city being named the capital. Still, Zayed, who provided more money to the union than any other ruler, in 1971 was elected President of the United Arab Emirates, and re-elected every five years, just as the Ruler of Dubai became the Vice-President.

Safely in office, Zayed surrounded himself with good advisers and took a genuine personal interest in all that went on. The result was that Abu Dhabi became a clean modern city, and though it lacked the brashness of Dubai or the experience of Bahrain, it did somehow manage to give the clear impression that it was the heart of the UAE, and the cornerstone on which all rested.

Zayed himself, as the years went on, became more the statesman than the Bedouin, while retaining his early piety and commitment to the Bedouin way of governing by consent, and always seeking consensus. As head of one of the richest small countries in the world, he was a constant target of supplicants, but quickly learned to discriminate, always putting Muslim causes at the top of the list. The Palestinians, and in particular schemes for Jerusalem, were always given high priority.

Nor was he afraid to take sides, or to speak - and act - if he thought things were going wrong. He quickly supported Kuwait after the Iraq invasion in 1990, and sent a contingent of UAE troops to join the American-led coalition which restored Kuwaiti sovereignty. But as sanctions dragged on, he regularly sent ship-loads of supplies to Iraq, and it was an open secret that the UAE played a major and willing role in Iraqi sanction-busting.

Zayed's only schooling was the study of the Koran and the practical education gained from sitting in his father's majlis or going off on hunting expeditions. Yet he made the transition from penniless desert sheikh to fabulous riches and dominion over a modern country with no trouble, hardly putting a foot wrong.

It was a tribute not only to the man, but also to the family wisdom in choosing him - and the skill of that British political officer who pushed them in the right direction at the right time.

John Bulloch