Abu Dhabi as a HUMANISTIC CITY Part 3 – Sheikh Zayed & Al Ain – A Prologue to Abu Dhabi’s Development

In the years leading up to Abu Dhabi’s transition of power in 1966, Sheikh Shakhbut’s reluctance towards development resulted in opposing voices among Abu Dhabians, the British government, and the ruling family.  On the other hand, Shakhbut’s youngest brother Sheikh Zayed was ambitious and open to change.  This, plus his previous achievements as governor of Al Ain, made him a more preferrable ruler of Abu Dhabi.  Therefore, Zayed was nominated as the new ruler of Abu Dhabi, and remained at the title for more than 30 years.  Nowadays, he is regarded as the founding father of Abu Dhabi and nicknamed Baba Zayed, Father of the Nation.

Before becoming the ruler of Abu Dhabi in 1966, Sheikh Zayed was the wali (Governor) of Al Ain, a city in the Eastern Region of the Emirate of Abu Dhabi.  The purpose of this blog entry is to provide an insight into how Zayed’s early achievements in Al Ain reflected his ideals in city planning, and how they might have inspired the ARABICON Plan – the first urban plan under his rule.  Please refer to the previous post – Common Vision: John Elliott’s Scandinavian Values and Sheikh Zayed’s Islamic Faith – for more details about Zayed’s socialistic ideals.


Foreign Influence

In the previous post, we discussed how Zayed collaborated with Elliott to incorporate Western methods and technologies into the ARABICON Plan.  While Zayed was keen on preserving local Bedouin cultures, he was also known to be open to foreign ideas.  His open-mindedness might have been sparked by his many travels when he was young.  He started travelling in the 1950s to modern cities such as Paris, Geneva and London, and brought his experiences back home, which was Al Ain at the time.  In regards to this, we could observe the close resemblance between the water fountain at Lake Geneva and the one built under Zayed’s instructions in the Green Mubazzarah lake at Al Ain.

Green Mubazzarah lake at Al Ain. (Source: Courtesy of santanu, 2019)
Jet d’eau at Lake Geneva, installed in 1951. (Source: Courtesy of Michel Bobillier aka athos99, 2005)

“[…] so he travelled, he saw what other cities looked like, what other countries looked like, and applied what he liked at home.” (Emirati citizen, 2013, interview quoted in Bani Hashim, 2015)

His travels might have given him a deeper understanding into Western urban planning principles at the time.  This familiarity could be the reason why Zayed did not turn away from foreign ideas like his brother Shakhbut did, but welcomed them instead.  As a result, the ARABICON Plan included reinventions of Baron Haussman’s boulevards in Paris, modernist multi-use superblocks, and roundabouts inspired by English planning.  This also shows Zayed’s growth in urban planning, from directly copying what he liked overseas, to changing them to adapt to the local urban fabric.

Zayed was influenced by not only Western countries, but neighbouring ones as well.  Another city that very much inspired Zayed was Lebanon, as he was quoted saying:

“I want Abu Dhabi as green as the mountains of Lebanon.” (Zayed, quoted in Zbal, 2001, translated by and cited in Bani Hashim, 2015, p. 123)

In his rule, Zayed had succeeded in turning Abu Dhabi from a land of sand dunes to a city of lush greenery.  In the ARABICON Plan, he had the vision of a green Abu Dhabi and accepted Elliott’s proposals of advanced urban planning methods and technologies from Europe, such as the wind-acceleration system.  The achievements in Abu Dhabi, however, are preceded by the environmental development in Al Ain.


Climate & Greenery: Falaj Irrigation System

Aerial view of the city of Al Ain from the top of the Sheikha Salama Mosque. (Source: Courtesy of Xalan Mustafa, 2012)
Aerial photograph of Al Ain Oasis taken in 1968 and 2002. (Source: Blue Sky and ADACH, as cited in Yildrim & El-Masri, 2010, p. 5)

Growing up in Al Ain after the family moved there in 1927, Zayed only received a basic Islamic education while observing the ancient living culture of Bedouin tribesmen in the extreme conditions of the desert.  This shaped his ambition on developing a self-sustaining city, as well as his vision of Al Ain as a garden in the desert.  Therefore, since his administration of Al Ain began in 1946, Zayed devotedly encouraged afforestation and agricultural development.  He restored and renovated water resources such as the falaj irrigation system, which greatly contributed to the agricultural boom in the region.  Meaning “split into parts” in native Arabic, the falaj irrigation system evenly divides water between farms to ensure water supply to the crops in the dry region.  It also provides an evaporative cooling effect in the warm climate.  Relying on wells and gravity, this indigenous water system functions without any mechanical intervention.  The falaj system in Al Ain is said to have existed since roughly 1000 B.C., and is now an important feature in Al Ain Oasis, the U.A.E.’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site.

A falaj in Al Ain/Buraimi taken between 1962 and 1964. (Source: Courtesy of David Riley, as cited in Dennehy, 2017)

“If it wasn’t for the aflaj (plural form of falaj), our ancestral farms and oases wouldn’t have survived,” said Mr al Daheri, whose family owns 10 gardens in the Hili Oasis in Al Ain. (quoted in Ghazal, 2011)

We can see below the comparison between the falaj irrigation system in Al Ain and the water distribution plan in the ARABICON Plan.

Al Ain Oasis and velocity field simulation of the falaj irrigation system. (Paleologos et al., 2018)
ARABICON water distribution plan. (Source: Courtesy of Abdelrahman Makhlouf, as cited in Bani Hashim, 2015, p. 148)


Social Welfare: Oasis Hospital

Oasis Hospital in Al Ain. (Source: Courtesy of haroon_tt, 2007)

Another element of city planning that Zayed valued the most was human development.  The Sheikh brothers both had a humanistic approach towards the development of Abu Dhabi, wanting to provide what is best for the people.  However, Zayed took it to another level by observing the social facilities in modernist cities and learning from them.

Until 1959, there were no schools or hospitals in Abu Dhabi.  At the time, the infant and maternal mortality rates were 50% and 35% respectively, and endemic diseases such as tuberculosis, malaria and intestinal parasites were haunting the small population of 1,800 in Al Ain.  After experiencing modern medical care in Muscat and Bahrain and seeing the public hospitals in Paris, Zayed decided that there should be a modern medical system at home as well.  As a result, he commissioned the Oasis Hospital at Al Ain as the first institution to offer modern medical care to the region.  It was converted from a mud-block guesthouse donated by Zayed, and founded by Pat and Marian Kennedy in 1960 at Zayed’s invitation.  Oasis Hospital had drastically improved the public health in the region as a maternity and pediatric hospital.

“The population of Al Ain in 1960 was 1,800 and decreasing. Many diseases were here and that has turned around remarkably when Sheikh Zayed opened his guest quarters and said, ‘Please Drs Kennedy, open a clinic,’ and made room for a hospital to be built on this land,” said David Printy, the president and chief executive of Oasis Hospital in 2009. (quoted in Al Ghalib, 2009)

Patients waiting to see a doctor at the Oasis Hospital around 1962. (Al Ghalib, 2010)

The husband-and-wife doctor team of Pat and Mirian Kennedy made a great contribution to the healthcare system in the region.  In the early 1960s, patients would trudge through the desert for days to see the pair of doctors who were called “Kenned” and “Miriam” by the local Bedus.  Patients would camp on the grounds to wait for their turn to be seen.  Those who lacked financial means would offer to pay with animals and eggs, and those bills would often be taken care of by the sheikhs.  The Kennedys were known to be caring and kind as they taught the uneducated locals basic knowledge about healthcare and motherhood.  “Consider me your mother,” Mirian said to Sharifa Um Hamad, a child bride at 14 who was in labour and convinced she would die from pregnancy.

“I thought the baby would come out of my mouth,” Um Hamad recalled. “I had no idea what labour pains were or what was happening to me. But Dr Mariam explained the birthing process to me, showed me how to look after the baby and taught me how to breastfeed. Even then I was scared because I thought the baby was trying to eat me.” (quoted in Yaqoob, 2010)

Dr. Pat Kennedy makes a house call to a village in the 1960s. (Yaqoob, 2010)
Dr. Pat Kennedy treats a woman in 1960 at the Oasis Hospital. (Al Ghalib, 2010)

The establishment of the Oasis Hospital evidently acted as an important first step in the medical development in the region.  Later, during his reign of Abu Dhabi, Zayed also contributed to the speedy completion of other hospitals in the city such as the Central Hospital (formerly “Abu Dhabi Hospital”) which opened in 1968.  In this we can clearly see Zayed’s focus on providing the best for his people and the impact he had made in this aspect.  His humanistic values would continue to be reflected in the social welfare policies he put in place during his reign of Abu Dhabi (see more in the previous post here).

The main entrance of the emergency department of Central Hospital, Abu Dhabi. (Beshyah, 2013)
The daily life at the old “Ward Huts” at Central Hospital around the 1970s. The old name of “Abu Dhabi Hospital” can be seen. (Source: Courtesy of Abu Rakan, as cited in Beshyah, 2013, p. 102)



“[Al Ain] became a model for what could be achieved in Abu Dhabi as a whole.” (ECSSR, 2013, as cited in Bani Hashim, 2015, p. 123)

Zayed’s accomplishments in Al Ain improved the health, education and housing standards in Al Ain, demonstrating his humanistic vision in city planning.  When he became the ruler of Abu Dhabi in 1966, he had the opportunity to concretize the urban planning skills he learned during his permanence in Al Ain.  In the end, he succeeded in designing the city based on the people’s needs.  Despite his lack of professional training, Zayed was admired for his good sense of space, scale, and orientation, so much so that he was considered the principal architect of Abu Dhabi.  In some sense, the development of Al Ain can be seen as the backstory of Zayed, providing us with an insight into his initial attempts at urban planning and how they started.



Abu Dhabi Mag. “Al Falaj Irrigation System.” Accessed December 20, 2020. https://abudhabimagazine.ae/18271/.

Al Ghalib, Essam. “Al Ain hospital’s next historic step.” The National, Sep 29, 2009. https://www.thenationalnews.com/uae/health/al-ain-hospital-s-next-historic-step-1.525942.

Al Ghalib, Essam. “Oasis Hospital celebrates 50 years of care for a community.” The National, June 27, 2010. https://www.thenationalnews.com/uae/health/oasis-hospital-celebrates-50-years-of-care-for-a-community-1.597031.

Bani Hashim, Alamira Reem. “Planning Abu Dhabi: From Arish Village to a Global, Sustainable, Arab Capital City.” PhD diss., University of California, Berkeley, 2015.

Beshyah, Salem A, and Beshyah, Anas S. “Central Hospital of Abu Dhabi: Forty Years of Service to the Community (1968-2008).” March 2013.

Caratelli, Paolo, Misuri, Alessandra, and El Amrousi, Mohamed. “Al-Ain’s Cultural Landscape: Identity, Innovation and Sustainability in a Challenging Economy.” International Review for Spatial Planning and Sustainable Development, July 2019.

Dennehy, John. “Timeframe: back in the falaj of Al Ain.” The National, October 7, 2017. https://www.thenationalnews.com/uae/heritage/timeframe-back-in-the-falaj-of-al-ain-1.664976.

Ghazal, Rym. “Al Ain oasis still watered by 200-year-old irrigation system.” The National, April 19, 2011. https://www.thenationalnews.com/uae/heritage/al-ain-oasis-still-watered-by-200-year-old-irrigation-system-1.427720.

Paleologos, Evan, Caratelli, Paolo, El Amrousi, Mohamed, and Elhakeem, Mohamed. “Are Garden Cities in the Desert Sustainable? The Oasis City of Al Ain in the Emirate of Abu Dhabi.” International Review for Spatial Planning and Sustainable Development, May 2018.

Yaqoob, Tahira. “How missionaries transformed Abu Dhabi healthcare.” The National, Nov 5, 2010. https://www.thenationalnews.com/uae/health/how-missionaries-transformed-abu-dhabi-healthcare-1.482263.

Yildrim, Ege, and El-Masri, Sami. “Master Planning for Conservation in Al Ain Oasis.” 46th ISOCARP Congress, 2010.


2 Comments on “Abu Dhabi as a HUMANISTIC CITY Part 3 – Sheikh Zayed & Al Ain – A Prologue to Abu Dhabi’s Development

  1. Hi Cheryl, I have learned a lot from your blog entry. The ideas of planning and accomplishments of Zayed in Al Ain are comprehensive and awe-inspiring. I love how he combined what he learned from the countries he traveled to into the city without losing the local culture and how he developed the city in such a sustainable way. For example, he would have to learn the more advanced irrigation methods such as sprinklers and drip irrigation from Western cities, but he focused on the renovation of the traditional Falaj irrigation system, which is more environmental-friendly and having a long history of development.

    • Thank you for your comment, Hayley. Indeed, it is now easier than ever to aspire to the Western cultures and technologies that are overtaking the world, and lose sight of local culture at the same time. I think one lesson we can all learn from Zayed is that instead of blindly copying from others, we should look at what we have and build up on that. After all, every city is different, just as every person is!

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