Seldom do newspapers in the UAE carry the very same photo on their front pages as they did last Wednesday. Arabic and English dailies across the Emirates featured what is already an iconic photo in the mind of the Emirati, featuring Sheikh Mohammed Bin Zayed, the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces, with the US president Barack Obama.
The photo, taken from behind the two leaders, shows them seated and leaning towards each other, looking one another in the eye during the US-sponsored Nuclear Security Summit in Washington last Tuesday. The UAE flag can also be seen on the table in front of Sheikh Mohammed, while the large meeting hall in front of them seems like a distant mirage. During a group photo at the end of the summit Sheikh Mohammed can be easily singled out in his brown kandorah and white ghutra.
By attending the Nuclear Security Summit upon the instructions of the UAE President Sheikh Khalifa, Sheikh Mohammed represented the UAE in front of world leaders from six continents. Effectively, it was the moment that the UAE declared its arrival on the international stage. After decades, the man wearing the Gulf national costume in a sea of suits was not the veteran Saudi foreign minister; it was an Emirati.
In fact, during the opening dinner, open only to world leaders and closed to their staff and ministers, Sheikh Mohammed had the best seat in the house. It was a testament to the UAE, to the development of our peaceful nuclear programme, and the stature of our relationship with the US.
The historic Nuclear Security Summit was the largest gathering of world leaders on US soil since the end of the Second World War since the summits that take place in the UN in New York are not considered as being hosted by the US government. While the UAE had among the smallest population of the nations represented at the summit in Washington, it was without a doubt a major force in discussions about nuclear security.
Last December, the UAE awarded a consortium of South Korean companies a $20.4 billion deal to construct four nuclear power plants by 2020 after a transparent and open bidding process. South Korea was also chosen to host the second Nuclear Security Summit in 2012.
According to an official statement released by the White House, Sheikh Mohammed and Mr Obama discussed “broadening co-operation between the US and UAE in areas like energy, science, and entrepreneurship” in addition to their conversations about nuclear security and the Middle East peace process. Under Sheikh Mohammed’s vision and in his capacity as the chairman of the Abu Dhabi Executive Council, entrepreneurship and science have played a major role. Last November the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania opened the Wharton Entrepreneurship and Family Business Research Centre in Abu Dhabi to promote that sector.
Sheikh Mohammed has also spearheaded the creation of what is arguably the most ambitious scientific research centre in the world. When completed, the $22 billion Masdar City will be a hub of research and lifestyle revolving around making the planet a greener place. Already, Emirati students are studying at the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology, which was developed along with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the leading American university in this field. When Sheikh Mohammed sets his mind on achieving a goal, only the best will do for Abu Dhabi and the UAE.
During his brief stay in Washington, Sheikh Mohammed and his brother Sheikh Abdullah, the Foreign Minister of the UAE, completed a year’s worth of diplomatic visits for the UAE. In addition to meeting the US vice president, Joe Biden, Sheikh Mohammed met the leaders of South Korea, Chile, France and Singapore for long discussions in addition to dozens of other meetings with world leaders on the sidelines of the summit.
Sheikh Mohammed’s international debut on the global political scene was chosen carefully. It was an international event hosted by the world’s superpower about issues in which he has taken a personal interest.
Within a few hours of its release, that iconic photo of Sheikh Mohammed was adopted by Emiratis on their social networking sites, mobile phones and circulated via e-mail. This organic movement was quite familiar to Emiratis.
After all, we’ve seen it before. Not too long ago we were summoned by a modest, dignified, kind man. His name was Sheikh Zayed and we miss him very dearly. In an instant, through that iconic photo, Sheikh Mohammed channelled Sheikh Zayed’s lasting image and personality into the heart of every Emirati.
This article was originally published in The National on April 18, 2010.