The man who accompanied Sheikh Zayed for 27 years

Hamad Hamdan bin Alsawed. — Photo by Ryan Lim
Hamad Hamdan bin Alsawed. — Photo by Ryan Lim

Abu Dhabi - Hamad Hamdan remembers how he bonded with the UAE's Founding Father over trees, poetry

By Rasha Abu Baker

Published: Thu 1 Jul 2021, 10:19 PM

Last updated: Fri 2 Jul 2021, 3:34 PM

One evening during Ramadan, a young Hamad Hamdan bin Alsawed accompanied his father to the sheikh’s arish — a traditional summer house — in Zahkir, Al Ain, where sheikhs and members of the community would gather to drink coffee and chat after Iftar. This was Abu Dhabi then under the rule of Sheikh Shakhbut bin Sultan Al Nahyan.

“I was 5 or 6 years old,” Hamad recalled. “I remember only a few things.”

And one of the moments he would never forget from that night was meeting a man who would not only become his boss and mentor, but an exceptional leader who would leave an eternal legacy and win the respect of people the world over. He was the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan.

“He gave me an apple and an orange; the smell of apples still reminds me of him.”

In 1975, when he was in his late teens, Hamad, now 64, began working as part of a small communications team that helped Sheikh Zayed stay connected with those around him in the country and abroad, before telephones became the normal mode of communication.

“Our job was to provide lines of communication for him with other leaders, ministers, and sheikhs.”

As part of his job, Hamad would accompany Sheikh Zayed on a regular, if not daily basis, often travelling through the vast desert as well as on trips abroad.

A tree lover

Working for Sheikh Zayed also gave Hamad an insight into the “intelligent and compassionate” leader who often shared his love of poetry and nature with those around him. It also gave him an insight into his passion to turn the desert green, which he succeeded to do, despite all the odds.

“Zayed was a tree lover. He loved trees and plants; whether they were fruit bearing or not, small or large,” Hamad said.

He added: “I remember when it came to planting palm trees on roadsides, Zayed said he wanted to plant not just any palm, but the fruit bearing date palm.”

Sheikh Zayed said that these trees would feed birds and travellers alike. “If someone’s car breaks down, they would find something to eat,” Hamad said.

When Sheikh Zayed brought in experts to support his dream of greening the land; they did not seem very positive.

“He [Zayed] asked them to try and see. And he succeeded, especially in growing trees,” Hamad said adding that he always kept gardening tools in all his vehicles.

“If while driving, he saw a plant or a tree with a broken branch, or it looked disorganised, he would stop and look at how to best improve it. He would stand under it and say cut here, clip that, trim there.

“So Zayed’s love for trees was like his love for people,” Hamad said.

Sheik Zayed, he says, was very mindful with plants. “I remember being in the desert driving in the convoy behind Sheikh Zayed’s car, and we could see that when a small plant or shrub came up in his path, he would try all he could to avoid and manoeuvre around it so he didn’t drive over it, and risk crushing it.”

Bonding over poetry

Hamad said that the late Sheikh Zayed had the compassion and desire to connect with those around him and sharing moments of poetry together was common.

“Zayed was a poet. I am also a poet, and have written more than 35 poems, which I had the honour to read to him. Those are the days that I consider the best in my life,” Hamad said.

He added: “I have never seen Zayed turn down anyone who wanted to present him a poem. Whether it was a famous poet or an amateur. He never every prevented a poet from reciting his poem in front of him.”

Hamad recalled a number of occasions where he was able to share his poetry with the late Sheikh Zayed.

“One day we were sitting in a rest area between Dubai and Abu Dhabi (Al Reef). We were a few people with Sheikh Zayed. In front of us was a patch of trees.

“And after lunch, Zayed asked for a pair of binoculars to look out at the trees. ‘Are these trees in front of us natural or cultivated?’,” he asked.

From the question, Hamad composed a short poem in where he said the trees were indeed natural, but regardless, all trees needed looking after or they won’t survive. Zayed confirmed the notion by telling him he was right.

Hamad then went on to read many of his poems to the late Sheikh Zayed who always complimented him and encouraged him.

Zayed’s trees

Hamad who now lives in Al Ain, still proudly and attentively cares for trees that Zayed gifted him in 1997. When he moved into his current house, Sheikh Zayed provided him seedlings from his own supply. Hamad’s garden prominently displays trees such as lemon, orange, and chikoo trees.

He savours the art of poetry and his fondness for trees, rooted in his earliest memories of Sheikh Zayed, and said that like the trees which will continue to bear fruit, the UAE shall continue the effort of the Founding Father to enrich the land and the creative soul of its people.

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