'UAE will grow': When Sheikh Zayed insisted on building wider roads in Abu Dhabi's deserts

Back in the 1960s, when there were no roads or highways, the leader laid the foundation to create a modern-day capital city with world-class infrastructure

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Ashwani Kumar

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Published: Tue 30 Jan 2024, 6:00 AM

Last updated: Wed 31 Jan 2024, 3:07 PM

Roads are a lifeline for any country to develop and prosper. No one in the UAE knew its significance more than the founding father, the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan.

Back in the 1960s, when there were no roads or highways but just deserts everywhere, the visionary Emirati leader laid the foundation to create a modern-day capital city with a world-class infrastructure. Following his visits abroad, Sheikh Zayed wanted something similar to the Champs-Elysees — one of the most beautiful avenues of the world with wide roads, being built back home.

At an event in Abu Dhabi, eminent Emirati businessman, author, and historian Mohammed Abdul Jalil Al Fahim narrated a fascinating conversation he witnessed where Sheikh Zayed urged town planners from a British firm to build wider roads like those he saw in Bombay (now Mumbai) and Paris.

From the personal collection of Zaki Nusseibeh, Cultural Adviser to the UAE President (KT Photo: Ashwani Kumar)
From the personal collection of Zaki Nusseibeh, Cultural Adviser to the UAE President (KT Photo: Ashwani Kumar)

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Back in the day, Al Fahim’s father used to be Sheikh Zayed’s close confidant. They travelled together to India for the first time, which turned out to be a new learning curve for them.

“I remember when my father went to India for the first time in 1959 with Sheikh Zayed, both of them were carrying British passports. I still have my father’s old passport,” Al Fahim said in his address during the annual seminar of the Abu Dhabi chapter of the Institute of Chartered Accountants of India (ICAI).

Mohammed Abdul Jalil Al Fahim (supplied)
Mohammed Abdul Jalil Al Fahim (supplied)

“In 1959, there was nothing except desert in Abu Dhabi. And having seen India, they came back with such beautiful memories that they talked about it for 10 years. They saw things that they never even thought about,” said Al Fahim, chairman of Al Fahim Family Council and Al Fahim supervisory board member.

In the 1950s and 60s, Sheikh Zayed visited European cities, including Paris. Such trips motivated him to create similar facilities for his people. In August 1966, when Sheikh Zayed became the Ruler of Abu Dhabi, he aimed to expedite development without making any compromises.

“He was so inspired by what he had seen in India and Europe that he inspired everyone around him. He was determined to build the country like he had seen it to the extent that one day, I was sitting with him in his Majlis full of people, and town planners came up with the plans to build the roads in Abu Dhabi, and then...”

KT Photo: Ashwani Kumar
KT Photo: Ashwani Kumar

Al Fahim narrated the animated conversation that Sheikh Zayed had with town planners from a British company over the width and design of the roads to be built in Abu Dhabi.

Sheikh Zayed: “The roads are too small.”

Architects: “Your Highness, we are talking about Abu Dhabi. The roads shouldn’t be more than 10 metres for both ways.”

Sheikh Zayed: “We hope that in the future this country will grow, and we need wider roads.”

Architects: “Your Highness, the number of cars you have in Abu Dhabi now in 1967 does not exceed about 1,200. How much can you grow? You don’t need bigger roads. Plus, you’re living on an island, you don’t need to take it up by building only roads, you need to leave space for others like residential and institution.”

Sheikh Zayed: “Still, we need bigger roads.”

Architects: “You don’t need it. This is the width we always had in England. Why should you have bigger roads?”

Sheikh Zayed: “I’ve seen it in Bombay, and I’ve seen it in Paris. I saw the Champs-Elysees. I want all our roads to be even bigger than the Champs-Elysees.”

Architects: “Look, we can build you roads as wide as the Park Lane in London.”

Sheikh Zayed: “No, I want them to be like the Champs-Elysees.”

Architects: “Your Highness, these are the designs. If you don’t like it, you can always get somebody else.”

KT Photo: Ashwani Kumar
KT Photo: Ashwani Kumar

Al Fahim revealed he was surprised by the assertiveness and determination of Sheikh Zayed to have wider roads.

“Here was a Bedouin who came from the desert. I couldn’t believe that he was dictating his will to the architects from a very reputable British company. And the next morning, Sheikh Zayed got the best American and Canadian companies. And now our roads in Abu Dhabi, in the middle of town, do look like Champs-Elysees because Sheikh Zayed insisted on having wider roads,” Al Fahim said to thunderous applause at the seminar.

Today, Abu Dhabi is a sought-after world-class capital city to live, work, do business and invest.

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