It was a cold January day in London in 1968 when the British prime minister, Harold Wilson, announced that his Labour government would end what he saw as his country’s security responsibilities east of the Suez canal, including the Arab Gulf states. The reaction of one Arab leader in particular to this remarkable news is instructive.
Having scaled back their military presence around the world, the British were adamant about leaving this region, and defined a short timeframe for the withdrawal. In the smaller Gulf emirates along what was then known as the Trucial Coast, worry spread quickly about the potential security repercussions of such a move. There were even futile offers to the British government to reconsider their departure in return for financial compensation.
But where others saw fear, a 50-year-old tribal sheikh called Zayed Al Nahyan saw opportunity and hope. Although at 67,340 sq km Abu Dhabi was by far the largest of the nine emirates that overlooked the Gulf, Sheikh Zayed decided to call upon his neighbours to join him in declaring an even larger, consolidated country rather than continue to exist as tiny emirates in the shadow of larger neighbours who maintained territorial claims.
The genius of Sheikh Zayed was possibly never as acutely displayed as during the tense negotiations to establish this consolidated stronger and larger state. There were internal issues and external issues to contend with, which could have acted in concert or independently to prevent this union from becoming a reality.
Psychologically there was a sense of fatigue in the Arab world after Gamal Abdel Nasser’s failed attempt to form a union with Syria in 1958 (the United Arab Republic lasting a mere three years), followed by a doomed attempt to resurrect the UAR in 1963, this time involving Iraq. Other examples abound within the Arab world of failed unions that tried to consolidate people who share the same religion, language and aspirations, but were all doomed because they were built on short-term vision. There was also the Naksa, or “setback”, the term the Arabs use to refer to the loss of Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza that loomed large in the Arab mind.
Regionally, three of our neighbours were making simultaneous territorial claims on lands that were to form part of the consolidated state. These claims went as deep as the oasis city of Al Ain and the three islands that Iran eventually occupied by force in 1971. Meanwhile, as Sheikh Zayed sent emissaries and letters to the various emirs of the Gulf to agree to a union before the British withdrew, tensions were ripe within the very states he was trying to bring together.
Differences re-emerged between Qatar and Bahrain over the Zubara Strip and the Hawar Islands, an issue that lead to both states declaring their own independence (fortunately the matter was resolved eventually, albeit more than three decades later). Also, within the current members of the UAE there was a diplomatic labyrinth, with certain sheikhs pushing for a closer relationship with certain neighbours and others pushing the other way. Negotiations were civil and familial throughout, but they were also sensitive and acquired a stronger sense of urgency as the deadline loomed. Had it not been for Sheikh Zayed, the UAE would have ended up as another UAR. His emirate had been exporting commercial quantities of oil since 1962, but he opted generously to share this newfound wealth with the other emirates.
Sheikh Zayed was our Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, our Muhammad Ali Jinnah and then some. To Emiratis he was George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin all rolled into one. These days we honour him by giving his name to various edifices such as the outstanding Zayed University and the Sheikh Zayed Mosque, as well as to boulevards and avenues: but this falls short of what is deserved.
Thousands of young men and women born in the past few years were not around to witness Sheikh Zayed’s wisdom first hand. They often resort to asking their parents and reading about him in various publications. The UAE should do away with political correctness and document exactly how Sheikh Zayed was able to manoeuvre and negotiate the diplomatic alleys of the various emirates. This needs to be taught in our national schools along with other aspects of his diplomatic prowess.
As noble as the establishment of the Lord Foster-designed Sheikh Zayed Museum in the capital is, I believe that the teaching of Sheikh Zayed’s vision and legacy requires more than a day visit to a museum. Young Emirati children must be taught in school, and at length, to identify with Sheikh Zayed’s history. It is the best way to maintain their identity and our federation, and to honour his achievements.
This article was originally published in The National on May 3, 2009.