Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al Nahyan | Nathan Eckersley


In August 1951, a young Arab man made a journey to Europe which would change his life and the life of his people forever.  Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al Nahyan made the westward voyage as a member of the delegation from the Emirate of Abu Dhabi, part of a British protectorate of seven Emirates called the Trucial States, for negotiations on a new oil contract and the signing of the Treaty of Europe.  On the trip, the young Sheikh, born and raised in the vast deserts of Arabia, visited a number of cultural landmarks in Rome and Paris including the Vatican and Notre Dame Cathedral.  He was fascinated almost to the point of obsession with the rich history, art, music, and architecture of these European cities.

One place he visited on the trip was the catalyst for his drive to transform the Emirates’ from tribal desert to global powerhouse.  That place was the Louvre Museum.  Zayed was so astounded by the beauty of the artworks in the museum and the majesty of the opulent surroundings those works reside in that he told the other delegates that ‘one day, there will be a museum like this at home’.  66 years later, his vision was realised when French President Emmanuel Macron visited Abu Dhabi to open Louvre Abu Dhabi and sign a new cooperation treaty between France and the United Arab Emirates.

Born in the desert around 1918, Zayed was the youngest and brightest son of the Emir of Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Sultan bin Khalifa al Nahyan.  From very early on, Zayed was earmarked for greatness by all who knew him.  When Sheikh Sultan died, his eldest son, Shakhbut succeeded him.  Each Emirate is ruled by its own royal family and for centuries, the tribes were in constant tension and conflict with one another.  Shakhbut led Abu Dhabi in a very austere and traditional manner, but the tribal culture of the Emirati people meant that they were content because he was always accessible.  However, when the Emirate began oil drilling, Shakhbut, with his miserly tendencies, kept the multi-millions of dollars generated for himself and refused to use it to lift his people out of poverty.  This caused anger and frustration among the people who began protesting.  In 1966, Zayed, with the support of his family, staged a coup against his brother to become the Emir of Abu Dhabi.    

In 1968 as the British Empire was drawing to a close, UK Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, announced that the British forces would withdraw from the Trucial States and the territory would gain independence.  Wilson’s successor, Edward Heath, suddenly ended Britain’s formal relationship with the Trucial States, as well as with Qatar and Bahrain.  Zayed, fearing for the stability of the region as a result of the British announcement, held a secret meeting with the Emir of Dubai, Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed al Maktoum.  The al Nahyan and al Maktoum families were fierce rivals so for Zayed to even agree a meeting with a representative of the family, let alone the head, was an unprecedented achievement.  In the meeting, the two agreed to try and unite the remaining five Emirates plus Qatar and Bahrain under one nation. 

On the 2nd December 1971, an agreement was signed to coincide with the British withdrawal which would change the direction of the Middle East forever.  Sheikh Zayed and Sheikh Rashid managed to unite six of the seven Emirates.  Sheikh Zayed was declared President of the brand-new country called the United Arab Emirates with his partner, Sheikh Rashid, becoming his Vice President and Prime Minister.  To ensure there would be no power struggles which would destabilise the country and region, the UAE operates a federal government model which sees each ruling family retain control of their Emirate with the head of the al Nahyan family holding the Presidency and head of the al Maktoum family holding the offices of Vice President and Prime Minister.  The Emirate which didn’t join the Union initially, Ras Al Khaimah, did so a year later but Qatar and Bahrain chose to become sovereign, independent nations instead.  Zayed was known thereafter as the ‘Father of the Nation’ and ‘The Founding Father’ and a National Day is celebrated in the UAE and marked across the Gulf annually on the 2nd December.  Outside the Gulf, Zayed’s name is seldom mentioned.

Sheikh Zayed was an innovator who worked hard to ensure the poorest were cared for.  When travelling by car one day, Zayed saw a group of boys climbing a palm tree right next to the motorway to pick fruit to take home.  He ordered his driver to turn the car around so they could help the boys.  Upon discovering that the boys and their families were living in poverty, he found out that climbing the palm trees for dates was common practice for families in poorer areas.  When he heard this, Zayed immediately contacted his agriculture minister and ordered him to begin planting palm trees deep in the ground so that, once they had grown, anyone could pick the fruit without having to dangerously climb the trees as the palms would then be around waist height. 

Conservation was Zayed’s passion project and one idea which seemed outlandish at the time, ended up saving an endangered species.  The Arabian oryx was on the verge of extinction when the Emirates was in the process of rapid development in the late 1960s and early 1970s.  When he saw the projections of how much longer the oryx, which used to roam the deserts freely, had before extinction, he ordered the creation of a wildlife sanctuary on Sir Bani Yas Island just off the Emirates’ mainland.  The island was initially populated in 1978 with two males, two females and a few other endangered and near-extinct species.  In order to ensure all animals could survive, he created a plan which would introduce four cheetahs to the island so that the animals would learn survival techniques and ensure a natural balance.  Today, there are over 7,000 oryx and all other animals have since been taken off the endangered lists. 

When one reads about Sheikhs and Middle Eastern rulers, it is very easy to think of the poor human rights records of their countries and mistreatment of women, but Zayed was very liberal and much more radical than his conservative counterparts across the region.  He was an advocate of freedom of religion and of a private media as the main source of news and information.  He was the first Middle Eastern leader to allow women to receive a comprehensive education, even going so far as to encourage women to travel abroad alone to receive the best schooling.  He was also very liberal with the economy and understood that the only way for his nation to flourish was to open their economy to the world and rapidly expand the private sector.  He wouldn’t have been able to do anything without the multi-billion-dollar annual revenue from oil production and sales.  His first oil deal was with BP and the first major Western business to invest in Abu Dhabi was InterContinental Hotels, which opened a property in the city in 1980.  The hotel hosted the first meeting of the Gulf Cooperation Council in 1981.

When it came to foreign policy, Sheikh Zayed was an unwavering Anglophile.  Despite Anglo-Emirati relations being strained over the British withdrawal, he had a deep love of the UK and its history.  UK-UAE relations reached their height in the 1980s when Margaret Thatcher briefly visited the UAE as part of a trade mission to the Middle East and Asia in April 1981.  She arrived at Abu Dhabi Airport to a lavish reception.  The welcome party was led by Prime Minister Sheikh Rashid and included senior royals and ministers, as well as a convoy of machine gun filled Range Rovers.  The frail former Emir of Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Shakhbut, who Zayed ousted, was also in attendance, which was hugely symbolic for the fledgling Gulf nation, illustrating unity between old and new. 

The flying visit was a complete success for Zayed, who was positioning himself as a key player not just in the Middle East but around the world, and for Thatcher who had agreed a deal to sell Hawk jets to the UAE.  Sheikh Zayed stayed in close contact with Thatcher after this visit.  They regularly met and communicated about Middle Eastern conflicts, international affairs, business interests and the UK-UAE military alliance.  The culmination of their work together came when Zayed made a State Visit to the UK in 1989 where he received the full honours associated with a State Visit as well as another meeting with Thatcher in Downing Street.  Their work not only set the UAE on the path to prosperity but restored Britain’s reputation in the Gulf following decolonisation. 

Sheikh Zayed was also very close with The Queen.  They both shared a love of horses and bonded over their deep affinity with the animal.  For Zayed, growing up in the desert, horses were the fastest way to travel across the dunes.  The Queen first visited the UAE on a State Visit in 1979 at a time of great tension in the Middle East.  She travelled to the UAE from Kuwait on the Royal Yacht Britannia, two weeks after the Shah of Iran was overthrown which made the Visit all the more important to symbolise Britain’s commitment to preserving stability in the region.  The Queen was the first female head of state to visit the young country and Zayed pulled out all the stops. 

On the trip, she visited a university, met with business leaders, opened a new port, and attended the camel racing.  The Queen made another State Visit to the UAE in 2010 where she was given a guided tour of the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi by current President, Zayed’s son Sheikh Khalifa.  Sheikh Zayed is buried at the Grand Mosque and on a visit to his tomb, The Queen, as Supreme Governor of the Church of England, became the first leader of another religion to visit the Mosque.  Zayed cultivated strong relationships with other major Western powers including France and the United States which still endure today.  There is no question that the UAE’s strongest relationship is with the UK, to the point where academics and politicians refer to it as a ‘special relationship’, comparable to that between the UK and US.

Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al Nahyan changed the face of the Middle East.  He turned his country from several poor, tribal communities to an international hub for the mega rich.  Of course, the UAE has a number of problems and practices relating to its culture which we in the West disagree with, but Sheikh Zayed made the Emirates one of the most open and stable countries in the region.  Other countries in the Gulf like Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain have the glossy skyscrapers and high-quality infrastructure that the UAE does to create competition but culturally, they are decades behind.  Zayed is adored in the Middle East but almost unheard of in the West. 

Considering that it was a visit to an art gallery in France which put his nation on the path to prosperity, it is a great shame that Zayed isn’t even so much as mentioned in Western historical debate.  At a time when our history of colonialism is front and centre, we must expand the discussion to look at the key figures who sought to create a mutually beneficial relationship for all involved instead of concentrating on the negatives around our country’s past.  Sheikh Zayed, in my opinion, should be remembered as one of the greatest leaders of the 20th century.  Only through his vision and devotion to his land and people did the United Arab Emirates become one of the biggest players on the world stage in the phenomenally short time of 50 years.  Now it is our turn in the West to recognise those achievements.


This essay is an entry to the Mallard’s Rogues’ Gallery competition. You can find more information here.

Photo Credit.

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