The first memory I have of Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak was in Ajman many years ago, when I asked my late father who was the charismatic person being repeatedly greeted at the wedding of the son of a prominent personality there. Little did I know that the person who so impressed me then would have one of the strongest positive impacts on both UAE society and my life personally.
It isn’t surprising that the Al Nahyan branch of the Bani Yas tribe of the Arabian Peninsula would produce such a powerful personality. After all, it has given us the resolute Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed, the country’s current President, as well as Abu Dhabi’s visionary Crown Prince, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, but most of all it gave us the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan, the founder of the UAE and the person who steered it effectively from a sparsely populated, illiterate, desperately poor and defenceless group of entities known as the Trucial States, to a respected world economic powerhouse proudly called the United Arab Emirates.
At the outset, it is important to highlight the role that Sheikh Nahyan’s father, Mubarak bin Mohammed, a close adviser to Sheikh Zayed and the UAE’s first Minister of the Interior, played in the formation of his personality as well as the nation. Next November, Abu Dhabi will be hosting the most glamorous Formula 1 Grand Prix in the world, an honour that we have won partly due to the advanced road network in Abu Dhabi – laid under the supervision of Sheikh Mubarak in the 1970s.
Sheikh Mubarak, upon the instructions of Sheikh Zayed, adopted the New York-style grid system for the capital, and even named the streets and neighbourhoods. It was also Sheikh Mubarak who, early on in UAE history, eliminated the inspection of vehicles entering the capital from the northern Emirates to solidify the federation. Sadly, a personal injury prompted Sheikh Mubarak to retire from the civil service in 1979; fortunately he has continued to implement his values through his sons – especially Sheikh Nahyan.
Among the many hats that Sheikh Nahyan wears are Minister of Higher Education, close adviser to the rulers of Abu Dhabi, and successful private businessman. According to the Zawya.com portal, Sheikh Nahyan’s interests span areas as diverse as property development, banking, telecoms, automobiles, manufacturing, pharmaceuticals and tourism. The one thing that isn’t mentioned is his greatest interest: educating the younger generations of Emiratis.
Sheikh Nahyan makes it a point to personally attend the graduation ceremonies of the educational institutions that he heads, including the women-only Zayed University, the Higher Colleges of Technology, and the oldest centre for higher learning in the country, UAE University. At a time when the world is becoming more and more impersonal, Sheikh Nahyan makes a point of looking each student in the eyes as he hands them their well-earned degrees.
His vision for education is constantly stressed in his numerous speeches at various conferences, for example the topic of his speech at a recent BusinessWeek forum revolved around building human capital.
Sheikh Nahyan is a man who believes that “spending in education is the most feasible investment in the future” and is known to say to parents: “We will work together to serve and develop the country and its sons.” His enthusiasm for education is evident in his surprise inspections of schools right across the UAE; with such a prominent advocate for academic reform, it isn’t surprising that the UAE Government has allocated close to a quarter of the Dh42 billion ($11 billion) 2009 budget for education.
Sheikh Nahyan also exemplifies the Emirati tradition of reaching across to other, less fortunate, people, as well as to statesmen, academics and leaders of various religious faiths. Earlier this year on Easter Sunday, he inaugurated the new Anglican church in Abu Dhabi, personifying the tolerance of the UAE.
His belief in interfaith relations was clear in a hand written note to Giovanni Bernardo Gremoli, the Apostolic Vicar of Arabia at the end of his 29 years of service, in which he wrote: “To my dear Bernardo. It has been a pleasure knowing you as a friend and man of peace and tolerance and real fine human being and man of God. I wish you all the best.” It is in times like these that the world most needs personalities such as Sheikh Nahyan.
And yet despite all the hard work Sheikh Nahyan does for young Emiratis, it is something that he continues to do closer to home that outshines everything else. Since his father’s retirement from public life, Sheikh Nahyan has exemplified the notion of a fine son raised by a fine man. Sheikh Nahyan continues to involve his much respected father in his daily life, visiting him several times a day, first before heading to work, then again in the afternoon and another visit in the evening. In their Ramadan majlis this September, no fewer than 50 leading sheikhs visited Sheikh Mubarak at his home – including the Prime Minister of the UAE and ruler of Dubai, the rulers of Sharjah, Ajman, Fujairah, and all the crown princes and deputy rulers without exception. Absolutely no one else, save the ruler of the UAE and the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, gets awarded such high respect.
And standing by Sheikh Mubarak’s side, day after day throughout the last three decades, has been Sheikh Nahyan.
My most vivid recent memory of Sheikh Nahyan is in the Ramadan tent he hosted where people from all sections of UAE society came together as guests of his legendary hospitality. Sheikh Nahyan’s modesty was evident; he treated all visitors with the same respect, standing up and greeting them one after the other – in their dozens – with his customary smile.
It is rare to find a personality that can match Sheikh Nahyan’s. He seldom grants interviews, embodying the adage that actions speak louder than words. In truth, the letter in which he referred to Bishop Gremoli as a “man of peace and tolerance, and a real fine human being” could easily be applied to its author.
He truly is the Emirati Sheikh of Hearts.
This article was originally published in The National on November 1, 2008.