He led his home state, Abu Dhabi, and the larger federation it is part of – the United Arab Emirates (UAE) – through 30 years of stability and prosperity.
Shaikh Zayid succeeded his brother as ruler of Abu Dhabi in 1966 and was elected by the supreme council – a body consisting of the seven leaders of the emirates – to the post of president of the UAE federation in 1971.
The federation comprises Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Ajman, Fujaira, Ras al-Khayma, Sharjah (Shariqah) and Um al-Quwayn.
Every five years since 1971, Shaikh Zayid has been re-elected by the supreme council.
Unique Arab unity
Shaikh Zayid worked to put into practice his vision of Arab unity, starting first on the home-front with the other emirates to create a federation of Arab states.
He lobbied and persuaded the ruler of Dubai – Shaikh Rashid al-Maktum – to forge a federation of nine emirates with Bahrain and Qatar included.
He engaged in persistent shuttle diplomacy between the states of the Arabian Gulf but when Bahrain and Qatar sought their independence, a federation of six states emerged in December 1971 to form the UAE.
The seventh emirate, Ras Al-Khayma, joined four months later.
In the 33 years since, Shaikh Zayid has transformed the UAE into a leading destination for business and tourism and a gateway to the Middle East for much of Europe, Asia and the United States.
Using diplomatic acumen, Shaikh Zayid mediated in regional conflicts to bring about a more pan-Arab approach to global politics.
Shaikh Zayid was born in 1918 and named after his grandfather, Shaikh Zayid bin Khalifa Al Nahyan known as Zayid al-Kabir (grand Zayid), who had played a significant role in strengthening ties and solving disagreements between the tribes of Oman and the leading Bani Yas tribe of the emirates.
After his father died in 1927, Shaikh Zayid moved to the oasis of Al-Ain, east of Abu Dhabi, where he spent most of his youth.
Shaikh Zayid Al Nahyan
– Born 1918
At the time, the seven emirates – known then as the Trucial States and under British control since 1820 – were mostly poor, undeveloped and aching under British occupation. Their economies were based on sea trade, fishing and pearl diving off the coast.
In 1946, Shaikh Zayid’s older brother, Shaikh Shakhbut gave him the role of governing Al-Ain, where he learned the daily practice of civil administration.
But when oil was discovered in Abu Dhabi in 1958, it began to radically transform the economies of the seven states – which also soon discovered oil deposits – and Shaikh Zayid was assigned the role of oversteering inter-emirate cooperation on economic development.
The first commercial oilfields entered production in 1962 from the offshore Um Shaif island. By 1966, Shaikh Shakhbut, impressed with his younger brother’s abilities, handed control of Abu Dhabi to him.
Governing Abu Dhabi
After assuming control of the emirate, Shaikh Zayid quickly moved to build basic housing, schools, health services, roads and the construction of new air and sea ports.
Shaikh Zayid began his plans for
Abu Dhabi spearheaded the modernisation of the UAE and two years later the British withdrew their last colonial military division from the Arab Gulf.
It quickly became apparent to the individual rulers of the seven states that a federation would better serve their interests and overall economic development.
Much of the transformation has been due to Shaikh Zayid’s leadership, through which he managed to establish a sophisticated governmental system, which in turn made proper use of the influx of foreign skills and workers from around the world and managed the modernisation of the nation’s infrastructure.
Shaikh Zayid is also credited with maintaining a stern, yet wise approach to the dispute with Iran over the latter’s seizure of the islands of Abu Musa, Tunb al-Kubra (Greater Tunb), and Tunb al-Sughra (Lesser Tunb) in the Arabian Gulf, all of which had been claimed by the UAE.