Saturday, June 13, 2009

Desert Notes: Abu Dhabi weeps

Abu Dhabi weeps

This week (11 November 2004) saw the death of Shaikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan, President of the UAE and Ruler of Abu Dhabi. The outpouring of grief that has swept the United Arab Emirates has been phenomenal, and took me by surprise.

As a relative newcomer to Abu Dhabi, I haven’t really had much time to form an opinion on Shaikh Zayed, though I understood him to be a benevolent and forward-thinking leader.

To the people of the UAE, he was more than this. They called him the “Father of the Nation.” And he was. The UAE was formed in 1971, after the British withdrew from what had been known as the Trucial Coast. Shaikh Zayed was appointed President by the Supreme Council of Rulers, which is made up of the leaders of the seven emirates within the UAE.

Initially, there were numerous disputes, and at the end of his first 5-year stint as President, Shaikh Zayed threatened to resign if the emirs did not settle their disputes. Nobody dared call his bluff. The result was a much stronger federation, that has grown in thirty years from oil-rich but poorly managed and largely third-world country into a significant economic force in the Middle East.

Amongst his early achievements included providing low-cost housing to UAE nationals, establishing the first wildlife sanctuary and establishing the Abu Dhabi Fund for Arab Economic Development as a means of channelling aid to other developing countries. 28% of Abu Dhabi’s income is allocated to foreign aid.

He was instrumental in establishing the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) which is the region’s equivalent of the European Union.

Surprisingly for many, Shaikh Zayed was a champion of women’s rights, and although he recognised that according Islamic and traditional values, a woman's role is the upbringing of children but she should not be confined only to that role. His words were “Those who call themselves 'conservative Muslims' and object to a woman's rising to the highest ranks in the workplace are ignorant of the basic teachings of Islam. The religion grants both men and women the right to work and to contribute to the overall development of society. It is their duty to be participants in such a process.”

In fact, the day prior to his death, the country’s first women cabinet minister was appointed.

Shaikh Zayed also established the Marriage Fund, which initially was set up to help young couples bear the sometimes exorbitant marriage costs. The Marriage Fund’s role has expanded over the years, and now plays a major role in social services, including family counselling, and support for abused women.

And while he provided support and benefits for UAE nationals, he felt strongly that they needed make their own livings. He is quoted as saying “The most important of our duties as Rulers is to raise the standard of living of our people. To carry out one’s duty is a responsibility to God, and to follow up on work is the responsibility of everyone, both the old and the young.”

He ensured that the country maintained strong ties with the West, which included supporting the 1991 Gulf War, and the war in Afghanistan.

Shaikh Zayed promoted religious tolerance and condemned those who resorted to violence in the name of religion. In fact, it was Shaikh Zayed who ensured that land was made available for the building of Christian churches in Abu Dhabi.

There has been no problem with Islamic fundamentalists and radicals in the UAE, and the violent behaviour that often marks other Islamic states is simply not tolerated.

The reaction to his death has been unbelievable to me. There is no way that I can see South Africa ever reacting in this way to the death of Thabo Mbeki. The only equivalent would be if Nelson Mandela had to die.

After the announcement, people thronged together, often in tears. So many people tried to get to the palace that the police had to close off a number of streets. The night echoed with half-hourly prayers and the singing of the mullahs. Local TV stations stopped normal programming and switched to recitations of the Quran.

Businesses, shops, schools and government institutions have been closed. The flag is flying at half mast. All the coloured lights which decorate the cities many fountains have been turned off. The Ramadan signage has been covered in black cloth.

It is a nation in shock.

For me, the death of the Shaikh has prompted me to think about a number of things, which I’d like to hear your opinions on.

Firstly, how would our country react to the death of Nelson Mandela?

Secondly, can South Africa achieve in thirty years what the UAE did? From a patched together country with little to no infrastructure to an economic powerhouse?

And lastly, it makes me think of leadership. The Shaikh undoubtedly had an incredible vision for his country, and the leadership ability to get people to do what was needed. He inspired them, and got things done. Do we have the equivalent in South Africa?

I’m not sure. What do you think?

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