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|Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan
founder of the United Arab Emirates
Zayed bin Al Nahyan was born in 1918, the youngest of the four sons of Sheikh Sultan bin Zayed Al Nahyan, ruler of Abu Dhabi from 1922 to 1926. Sheikh Sultan's successor died in 1928, and Zayed's eldest brother, Sheikh Shakhbut, was elected to succeed him by the royal family.
At the time, Abu Dhabi was a poor emirate within the Trucial States, with an economy based around fishing and pearl diving on the coast and basic agriculture around the inland oases. Education was very limited, even for the royal family, with the only true education being provided by Islamic clerics. Zayed was instructed in the principles of Islam and memorized most of the Qur'an, but his desire for knowledge led him to accompany Bedouin tribesmen into the desert. It was during this period that he learned the sport of falconry, which became his lifelong passion. He also learned how to shoot, how to ride a camel, how to track, and how to find water under the desert sands. He also gained the trust and respect of the Bedouins, something which would serve him well in the years to come.
When oil surveyors first came into Abu Dhabi in the early 1930's, Zayed was the natural choice to be their guide due to his intimate knowledge of the country and its inhabitants. In 1946, Zayed was chosen by Sheikh Shakhbut to represent him in Al Ayn. Under his leadership, the nine villages comprising Al Ayn were developed into an integrated township. Zayed revised local water ownership to ensure more equitable distribution and therefore allow more land to be irrigated, and, as an example to others, surrendered the water rights of his own family. He also dealt with territorial disputes, including one with Saudi Arabia, which claimed the three Al Ayn villages under Omani rule.
Abu Dhabi began exporting crude oil in 1962, and the emirate's coffers began filling with oil revenue. The people believed that the money should be spent on developing the emirate, but Sheikh Shakhbut prefered to follow a conservative policy that focused on saving the money in case the revenues stopped. The royal family finally determined that the emirate's best interests would be served by having Sheikh Shakhbut step down in favor of Zayed, and Zayed was formally elected ruler of Abu Dhabi on August 6, 1966.
Within weeks of taking charge, Zayed had begun a massive development program and new schools, hospitals, roads, and housing complexes were being built across Abu Dhabi. He also spent part of Abu Dhabi's oil revenue to help develop neighboring emirates.
In 1968, Great Britain announced its intention of withdrawing from its interests in the region by the end of 1971. Almost immediately, Zayed began meeting with Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum of Dubai, and the two began calling for a federation of all the Arabian Peninsula emirates. It took four years, but on December 2, 1971, the rulers of Abu Dhabi, Ajman, Dubayy, al-Fujayrah, ash Shariyah, and Umm al Qaywayn signed agreements estblishing the United Arab Emirates; the emirate of Ra's al Khaymah joined the federation on February 11, 1972. Zayed was the natural choice to become President of the new nation, and he was subsequently elected to five consecutive five-year terms.
Zayed's health began deteriorating in the 1990's. He underwent spinal surgery in 1996, and a kidney transplant in 2000, and passed away on November 2, 2004.
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This page was last updated on June 11, 2017.