Turning the desert into green was quite a challenging task for the first qualified horticulturist in Al Ain, but because of Sheikh Zayed's great passion for agriculture, the job became easier and the dream was later achieved.
Abdul Hafeez Yawar Khan Al Yousefi, popularly known as Khan - the agriculturist, arrived in Abu Dhabi in 1962, on special invitation by the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, who was then serving as the Ruler's Representative in the Eastern Region.
Abdul Hafeez Khan Al Yousefi became the agricultral adviser to Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan in 1962. - Photo by Ryan Lim
With two degrees in agricultural science from Pakistan and Beirut, Al Yousefi, who was then 25, was tasked with extending his expertise in agriculture in the emirate and help transform Al Ain desert into greenery. He got the offer through the then British political agent in Abu Dhabi, Sir Hugh Boustead, who had contacted Dr Jack Eyre, agriculture advisor to the British Middle East Last Development Division in Beirut and asked if Al Yousefi was interested in taking up an assignment in Abu Dhabi.
"When I arrived here on September 7, 1962, there was nothing. It was just a vast desert. It took us almost seven hours from the Abu Dhabi Airport through the sandy and ragged road to reach Al Ain," the former agricultural advisor to Sheikh Zayed told Khaleej Times during an interview at his home in Al Ain on Tuesday.
Abdul Hafeez Khan Al Yousefi with Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan and other Sheikhs. - File photo
In the 'Year of Zayed,' Al Yousefi recalled the UAE's founding father's passion for agriculture, and how his vision helped transform the barren land into an oasis of green. "Looking at the barren land, the sand dunes and the hot weather, I was at first hesitant to take up on the job. But later I accepted," said Al Yousefi, who is now 80.
A naturalised UAE citizen of Pakistani origin, he had come to Al Ain for a one-year contract but continued to stay on. His wife, who was in Pakistan, joined him the following year and both became Al Ain residents.
"I came here for a short contract, but because of Sheikh Zayed's friendship, his charisma and passion for agriculture, I ended up making the UAE my permanent home."
"Sheikh Zayed never wanted to let me go and he insisted I shouldn't leave him either. He had become a great friend and we shared the same passion for agriculture."
But there was a hurdle Al Yousefi had to overcome to work with Sheikh Zayed - the Arabic language barrier. "I didn't know the Arabic and had to communicate to Sheikh Zayed through an interpreter, named Mohammed Zain from South India. But Sheikh Zayed didn't like it and wanted to communicate directly with me.
"Sheikh Zayed wasn't comfortable communicating to me his ideas and thoughts through another person. One day, when I came to meet him, he gestured to me that Zain had left. He told me that we would communicate through Urdu, English, Arabic, everything," said Al Yousefi.
But later, he learned that Sheikh Zayed gave Zain a huge amount of money and convinced him to leave.
"From that day I knew that Sheikh Zayed wanted me to learn the Arabic language and I was forced to learn it and this helped me fit into the society." The language skill was key as Al Yousefi's job was to give agricultural advise to Sheikh Zayed and also to educate the citizens about the modern agricultural practices he brought to the UAE.
Sheikh Zayed's love for greenery
Al Yousefi recalls that agriculture was an expensive and tiring task at that time as they had to fight the harsh climate. But Sheikh Zayed had a vision of transforming Al Ain into a green oasis and he had a clear-cut budget set aside for that purpose.
"I have never seen anyone with great affection for greenery and so passionate about agriculture like Sheikh Zayed," he said. "He surely believed that greening the desert was the only way to modern civilisation. And when it came to implementing agricultural projects, his imagination had no limits.
"Whenever I met him, he always talked about agricultural projects. He kept asking: 'What should we do next? What do you have on the agenda? I'm keen on seeing trees, flowers and vegetables everywhere'," said Al Yousefi.
Al Yousefi said Sheikh Zayed had many brilliant ideas that he wanted to implement and he trusted Al Yousefi. "Without him, I couldn't do anything, and without me he couldn't see horticulture flourishing."
He said Sheikh Zayed had money to build a modern city but he wanted greenery before modernity.
Sheikh Zayed was like an expert city planner, according to Al Yousefi. He still vividly remembers the task he got to come up with an idea of a tree that could survive long in the desert's hash conditions. It was on his advise that Sheikh Zayed ordered for planting of the palm trees on all roads, and now they are in centre reservations of all roads in Al Ain, Abu Dhabi and across the emirates.
Teaching people how to grow vegetables
Al Yousefi said he had started his job of planting trees, gardens and teaching people farming immediately after meeting Sheikh Zayed the next day after he arrived in Al Ain. But the biggest challenge was water as they had to dig deep into the sand - about 30ft to get water for irrigation.
He said by the time he reached Al Ain, Sheikh Zayed had allocated land about 2-3 acres to most of the people and helped them cover the necessary expenses because he wanted them to take up farming.
"I educated farmers how to cultivate the land and use the hand-dug wells to irrigate plants. I gave them advise on how to distribute seeds, fertilisers and other technical help for free," he said.
"I taught people how to grow vegetables and each family had small vegetable farm. We later taught them how to use them for a balanced diet after they had grown.
"Sheikh Zayed told me to seek help from Dr Pat Kennedy, a well-loved and trusted expat doctor, to make people eat the greens. The doctor started prescribing vegetables along with the necessary medicines to the patients and Sheikh Zayed's idea worked."
The tree planted by Sheikh Zayed
Among the first trees imported on Al Yousefi's advice when he had just arrived in Al Ain was the eucalyptus tree. Twelve crates of eucalyptus were imported from Australia.
"Sheikh Zayed planted one of the trees (the first tree) in the garden of my home. The tall tree is still here and whenever I look at it, I remember my longtime friend Sheikh Zayed," said Al Yousefi as he took us to the tree in front of his home with plaque on it that reads: "Planted by H.H Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan in 1962".
The horticulturist's simple old home located in the outskirts of Al Ain city is surrounded by exotic plants, fruits and flowers. "I have lived in this simple house since the 1962 and I have never changed anything on it. It has great memories of the former UAE ruler. My home is among the first concrete home built in the city on the instructions of Sheikh Zayed," he said. "All other houses were built of mud and other materials."
Al Yousefi recalled that during the early days of Al Ain, people lived in simple homes and used mainly donkeys and camels for transport. Al Yousefi has seven children four sons - Tareq, Khalid, Rashid and Hamid - and three daughters. They were all born in Al Ain and are now working in UAE government offices while others are doing business.
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