Sheikh Zayed – The Decision Maker of Abu Dhabi

Delving deeper into the topic of the “political influence of Abu Dhabi rulers”, understanding the ruler’s involvement in city planning of Abu Dhabi is impossible without understanding the life of Sheikh Zayed and his deep religious faith, his vision, his determination and hard work, his generosity at home and abroad, and the way in which he devoted his life to the service of his people and the creation of a better world.

Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan © UAE Local Directory


Simple Upbringing & Values, Understanding Poverty & Traditional Way of Life

Born poor in the Ras al-Khayma town of al-Ein in 1918, long before the discovery of oil, as a young man Zayed lived his life in a poor and undeveloped emirate, with an economy based primarily on fishing and pearl diving and on simple agriculture in scattered oases inland. This taught him the values of simplicity and lack of hypocrisy, which he practiced all his life. 

Sheikh Zayed himself received no formal education. When the young Zayed was growing up, there was not a single modern school anywhere along the coast. He received only a basic instruction in the principles of Islam from the local Islamic preacher. Through the late 1920s and 1930s, Sheikh Zayed’s thirst for knowledge took him into the desert with Bedouin tribesmen to learn all he could about the way of life of the people, their traditional skills and the environment. He later recalled with pleasure his experience of desert life. 

These early years not only taught Sheikh Zayed about his country, they also brought him into contact with the people. When the first geological survey teams from foreign oil companies arrived to carry out a preliminary surface survey of the trackless wastes of Abu Dhabi’s deserts, it was Sheikh Zayed who was assigned the task of guiding them.

Experience in Governing & Earning Respect, Curious in Western Ways

In 1946, shortly before the search for oil began after the end of the Second World War, he was the obvious choice to fill a vacancy as Ruler’s Representative in the Eastern Region of Abu Dhabi, centered on the oasis of Al Ain. He immersed himself in government affairs in Al Ain City, then a mere cluster of small villages. Within two years he was considered a powerful figure in the region by his strong will and determination to reform. In addition, he became well-known for his skills as a listener and effective dispute mediator, which earned him the greatest respect of those around him.

The task of Ruler’s Representative gave the young Zayed an opportunity to learn the practice of GovernmentIn addition to his involvement in administering Al Ain itself, the Buraimi dispute of the late 1940s and early 1950s gave him experience of the wider world. He also accompanied early oil prospectors around Abu Dhabi, an experience that made him so curious about western ways that he embarked on extensive tours of Europe and America in the 1950s.

Interest in Foreign Ideas

In 1953, accompanying his brother, Sheikh Zayed made his first trip to Europe, visiting Paris for legal hearings on an oil dispute, and being impressed by the Eiffel Tower, and going on to Britain. In interviews years later, he recalled how his first impressions had included the schools and the hospitals enjoyed by the people. He decided that when Abu Dhabi had money, such facilities should be provided for his own people.

Queen Elizabeth and Sheikh Zayed shared a long friendship. © Le Méridien Abu Dhabi

It is noted that Sheikh Zayed, strongly influenced by the British, began to display an attitude of tolerance towards foreigners, e.g. officially opening a church and accepting Christians. The freedom of worship for Christians, and allowances made for expatriates to follow western ways, attracted experts and entrepreneurs from across the world to the UAE and helped fuel the country’s development. Under Sheikh Zayed’s rule, the UAE enjoyed an easy atmosphere, one in which Westerners, Arabs and its many other nationalities live comfortably together. The ruler’s interest in foreign ideas is a potential reason why Sheikh Zayed hired non-locals, a Japanese man Katsuhiko Takahashi and an Egyptian man Abdulrahman Makhlouf, to be Abu Dhabi’s early city planners.



Bastaki, Eesa Mohammed. “Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan.” UAE: History, Present Day. UAE University, n.d. Web. 14 Dec. 2015.
“Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan, Founder of the UAE.” Embassy of the United Arab Emirates, n.d. Web. 13 Dec. 2015.
“Sheikh Zayed.” The Economist. The Economist Newspaper, 20 Nov. 2004. Web. 13 Dec. 2015.
“The Late Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahya.” The UAE. Crown Prince Court, n.d. Web. 14 Dec. 2015.

2 Comments on “Sheikh Zayed – The Decision Maker of Abu Dhabi

  1. The shift in the narrative is well-poised for a dramatic change. Is this a standard modernization story of bringing in expertise and technologies from the West? Or are there deeper processes of hybridization in the geography or climate of the place, cultural or theocratic practices of the leadership, technologies or other forms of restraints?

  2. The attitude of tolerance towards foreigners and foreign worship of the governor must result in some interesting urban realities already. Because as a multi-cultural country which has a Islamic tradition, it has been designed by foreign urban planners and at the same time developed by the local residents. The modern-look of the city as the key urban image and the vernacular part influenced by the climate and culture would present the city in completely different ways. And I am curious to know the key period when such collision between the two happened and the way how the two coexisted and influenced each other.

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