UAE: Leaderships that defined the nation

Zaki Nusseibeh, the Cultural Adviser and interpreter to the UAE President and Chancellor of the UAE University, looks back in wonder about the inspirational leadership of Sheikh Zayed, whose legacy lives in the vision of President His Highness Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan


Joydeep Sengupta

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Published: Thu 26 May 2022, 9:42 PM

Last updated: Thu 26 May 2022, 9:43 PM

Zaki Nusseibeh, 76, has been serving the Rulers of the UAE much before the young nation was formed on December 2, 1971.

Zaki reflected on his formative years and his tryst with the then Trucial States during an exclusive interview with Khaleej Times at his impressive study, which reflects his eclectic taste in books, music, and theology, in leafy Al Ain.

The early years

“I was born in Jerusalem in 1946, the Universal City that is a cosmopolitan cultural centre of the world. Yet soon after my birth, my family members were displaced, exiled by the geopolitical troubles of the 1940s,” said Zaki.

His tender years and early youth were spent in Europe.

“I spent my formative years in the United Kingdom at Rugby School and the University of Cambridge, and then went on to pursue higher studies in Europe.”

The intellectual grounding has stood him in good stead as he has translated Arabic poetry into English and promoted Middle Eastern culture to a wider audience across the world.

Tryst with Abu Dhabi

“I first came to Abu Dhabi as a tourist in the winter of 1964. I was still at school in the UK, and I had arrived in Kuwait to spend the Christmas holidays with my sister. Oil had just been discovered in Abu Dhabi, and everyone, including my family, who had registered a contracting company, was excited about the ensuing projects that might come up because of the discovery of hydrocarbons. My sister was trying to entertain me. Soon, she came up with the idea that I should go out for a few days ‘to this place called Abu Dhabi’. She said, ‘You could stay in our company flat, and there is a nice sea you can swim in, have fun, and come back. I followed her advice and did just that,” he reminisced.

“As luck would have it, the Arab-Israel war in the 1960s spelt trouble, and consequently, my return to Jerusalem was unfeasible. So, on my father’s (Anwar) advice, I set out for Abu Dhabi in 1967, and my initial plan was to work for the family-run company,” he said.

Meeting Sheikh Zayed

“I met Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan in Abu Dhabi in 1968 when there was a lot of upheaval and insecurity in the region owing to the rapid exit of the UK from its political and military role,” he said.

However, that wasn’t his first meeting with the visionary leader. “I had met him in 1966 at a dinner that my father had hosted at the Jordanian Embassy in 1966. I was still a student at Cambridge, and I became friends with some of the members of his entourage,” he said.

In retrospect, Zaki said, he had no idea that “my life and career would be inextricably tied to this visionary leader”.

In 1967, Abu Dhabi was nothing but a seaside village, which boasted a solitary hotel with an air-conditioned lobby that was the favourite haunt for visiting editors and reporters.

“The parachuting journalists were keen to employ a stringer on the cheap to keep their dailies and news agencies informed about the rapidly changing socio-economic and political landscape of the Arabian Gulf,” Zaki said.

“I met Sheikh Zayed almost immediately after I arrived in Abu Dhabi. In early 1968, a BBC TV crew wanted me to interview him and double up as his interpreter. He was sitting outside Qasr Al Hosn, and the interview was conducted in the Majlis,” he recalled.

Zaki’s initial impression of Sheikh Zayed is still etched in his memory after over five decades.

“He had an impressive personality — a magnetic presence. He started quizzing me after the interview: ‘What are you doing in Abu Dhabi?’ ” he said.

The BBC interview led to Zaki’s swift appointment as Sheikh Zayed’s official interpreter and Director of Research, Publications, and Information.

He was present with the Abu Dhabi Ruler during all his interactions with various world leaders, global media, and other international organisations,” he said.

“At a young age, I was entrusted with dual responsibilities — Sheikh Zayed’s official translator and his voice on the global stage, which was a huge honour for me, as his reputation even then was the stuff legends are made of. He had emerged as a fabled Bedouin leader, who had survived the vicissitudes of a harsh upbringing in an isolated part of the world,” he added.

The charismatic Founding Father

Zaki fondly remembered Sheikh Zayed “as a great leader of immense charismatic appeal, a dreamer and a doer who saw the hazards challenging his beloved country, the Emiratis and the Arabs from the wider region and was bent on changing the people’s lives”.

He added, “His worldview as a devout Muslim was clear and profoundly humanist. The Prophet was his role model. The true measure in his eyes was a proximity to an individual’s Creator, irrespective of creed. He firmly believed in good deeds bringing joy into the lives of those in and around you. He viewed all mankind as a single family created by the Almighty Allah to enjoy His blessings.”

Zaki cited the core of Sheikh Zayed’s motivations, which revolved around mercy, justice, tolerance, security, and universal peace. He understood the purpose of his leadership to be alleviation of human suffering and realising human potential to the fullest. “Sheikh Zayed believed that humanity carries the responsibility for ensuring peace, security, and wellbeing. His innate faith in humanity made him seek bonds of friendship and cooperation among people from all walks of life,” he added.

How Zaki, a Palestinian, became a naturalised Emirati

“Sheikh Zayed and those around him made me feel part of this place at once. He offered me nationality almost immediately, and so I became a citizen. I didn’t feel like a stranger here. I did not feel like an expatriate,” said Zaki, who had the honour to work with the Founding Father over four decades till he passed away in 2004.

“I experienced first-hand his distinctive style of leadership and his ease with all people, irrespective of their status or background. He was a good listener and conversationalist. He had an uncanny ability to figure out what ails an individual, find a ready solution and place that problem in the context of a larger worldview. This ability stemmed from his confidence in the potential of people. His behaviour was all along consistent with his beliefs, which led people to repose faith in him. Such rare attributes made him a transformative leader. He succeeded when few gave him a chance,” he added.

Sheikh Zayed’s human touch

Zaki recounted an incident that occurred in Alhambra in Granada, Spain, in 1969, when he had accompanied Sheikh Zayed as a tourist. (For the uninitiated, Alhambra was constructed on a plateau that overlooks Granada, which was built between 1238 and 1358 by the Moorish King Ibn Al-Ahmar, founder of the Nasrid dynasty, and his successors.)

“I distinctly remember the tourists were flocking towards Sheikh Zayed, and I tried to disperse them. But he pulled me aside and told me that there was no difference between them and him,” he said.

Zaki’s biggest takeaway from Sheikh Zayed is humility. He focused his life on three pillars: create a lasting federation, ensure prosperity for Emiratis and the wider region in the Arab world, and open bridges to global cultures, while preserving national heritage and tradition.

Sheikh Zayed was stoic in life and death, Zaki recalled, when accosted by a pesky New York Times journalist in 2001 — three years before he passed away. “What will happen to the UAE after you are no more?” the journalist asked him, much to the discomfort of Zaki, as he felt awkward and embarrassed in translating for his “beloved leader”.

He added, “Sheikh Zayed was unfazed as he responded to the ‘awkward question’ with humility and equanimity. He said the successor is in place and there would be a smooth and seamless transition of power. And that’s what proved to be the case.”

Sheikh Khalifa: Following in Sheikh Zayed’s footsteps

Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, 73, who passed away on May 13, followed his father’s footsteps. His ascension was a natural progression of Sheikh Zayed’s lofty vision. He focused on the development of Abu Dhabi’s economy and ensured, like his father, that oil didn’t become a curse like some of the countries in the region. He also worked closely with His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, to transform the country into a commercial, educational, and cultural powerhouse, Zaki said.

“Sheikh Khalifa, an epitome of kindness, perpetuated his father’s cherished beliefs, such as tolerance, pluralism and kindness that stemmed from his grandfather, Zayed the Great (1855-1909), who held the fledgling emirates (then known as the Trucial States) together when Emiratis’ primary source of livelihood — the pearl industry — was on the wane,” he added.

Zaki shared an anecdote about Sheikh Khalifa’s kindness. “For instance, translators like me, as per the protocol, are not expected to eat food during an official banquet. However, Sheikh Khalifa always insisted that a table was laid next to me, and I had to partake in what he ate. He learnt such kind traits from his father. He was mindful of the intrinsic value of the people for the work they did.

“No wonder, Sheikh Khalifa’s work is that of empowerment. Consider his first speech to the National Assembly, when he introduced elections. Young Emiratis benefited immensely from his vast investments from oil revenues in education and culture. He made sure young Emiratis occupied key positions in governance,” he added.

Shared culture and values

“Sheikh Khalifa and his brother, His Highness Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the third President of the UAE, inherited the humanitarian values from their father. They worked with Sheikh Zayed in proximity, which helped them to continue his legacy and the ethos he inculcated in the prosperity of the UAE. Successive Presidents have made enormous investments in healthcare, education, environmental protection, and culture, which led to tremendous development and emergence of a vibrant society.

They are ensuring that the UAE continues to play its international humanitarian role and help is always at hand for other nations for resources,” Zaki said.

Sheikh Mohamed’s mission

The UAE President is driven by a clear set of goals to transform the nation ready for the challenges of the future — to ensure its security, sustainability, and its leading economic, political, and social roles in the international arena.

“He is an epitome of pluralism and tolerance,” Zaki said. He cited the historic visit of Pope Francis in 2019 — the first time a sitting pontiff touched the soil in the Arabian Peninsula. Or take the case of signing the historic Abraham Accords with Israel in 2020. He has been a reassuring presence during international crises,” he added.

“It’s clear that in the 10 principles set for the next 50 years, or 2071, that humanitarian values will be the driving force,” Zaki said.

Women empowerment and education are at the heart of Sheikh Mohamed’s mission

“Sheikh Zayed always said that you could not develop any country without also focusing on women, because they are the mothers, wives and sisters who will raise the next generation and because they need to play an active role in society. His wish to support them confirms his belief in a woman’s unlimited potential to contribute to the sustainable development of the UAE.

Sheikh Zayed was helped with his strategies to empower women by his remarkable wife, Her Highness Sheikha Fatima bint Mubarak. She continues to do so to this day. Sheikha Fatima declared the theme of Emirati Women’s Day 2022 as ‘Women: Ambitions and Inspiration for Next 50 Years’, which shows her self-belief in the capabilities of Emirati women,” Zaki added.

Today, Emirati women are opening and exploring new horizons in all walks of life, including science, culture, diplomacy, politics, business, and healthcare.

Education enabled women to carve their role in society. Today a greater proportion of the nation’s university graduates are women, including several holding postgraduate and doctoral degrees.

Educational development has always been a longstanding feature of the UAE’s domestic policy. Sheikh Zayed would say, “The wealth of the country is its youth, and we must provide all young people with the means to develop their potential.”

Higher education was a key element of nation-building. It was necessary to the creation of our institutions and infrastructure, it was essential to our plans about the future, and it was vital to cultivating and preserving our heritage and culture.

His contributions towards nation-building

“I’m proud to work as the Chancellor of the UAEU, the nation’s first university. My role as the Cultural Advisor to the President is broad ranging. Sheikh Zayed believed that a vibrant cultural landscape was the sign of a healthy society and a source of critical thinking, reconciliation, and creativity. The cultural institutions were set up shortly after the formation of the federation and I have spent a major part of my career developing these entities and their programmes of work,” Zaki said.

“Over the last 50 years, the UAE has grown to be one of the world’s important centres of culture, and the nature of its cultural life is markedly global. The UAE’s cultural industries are an important part of the country’s socio-economic growth and development. Artistic talents are being constantly tapped and culture is used as a source of diplomacy. We believe that through cultural exchange we can build bridges with other nations and enable dialogue about diversity and pluralism,” he said.

Zaki said his “work in developing the UAE’s cultural and educational foundations has served the needs of a new nation”.

He is proud that these foundations have been the key to discuss, interpret and respond to contemporary affairs in an open-minded, intelligent, and creative manner. “We develop competence, integrity, and a strong, dignified identity, well prepared for the challenges of the future. Such foundations are important for any strong society, they underpin the humanist capacity, and they foster tolerance,” he added.

A tribute to the leadership

Zaki is all praise for the country’s visionary leadership, who has been consistent in their thoughts that people don’t live in a vacuum. “Such noble thoughts and deeds have ensured there is no polarisation,” he said.

He invoked Sheikh Zayed’s immortal thoughts after he became the Ruler of Abu Dhabi in 1966: “Emiratis must not live in an island of prosperity in a sea of hunger around us.”

Sheikh Mohamed is inspired by his father’s vision as he makes Emiratis future-ready for a post-oil economy.

“The UAE is a unique country because of its school of governance. It’s not based on ideology or an expansionist path. It’s the symbiotic relationship between the Rulers and their subjects,” Zaki said as he felt “incredibly blessed to have worked with three generations of Presidents, whose vision and humane approach has been the hallmark of the young nation occupying a seat at the global high table”.

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