Shaykh Zayid bin Sultan Al-Nahyan (born 1923) served for 18 years as the governor of the Buraimi Oasis and for five years as the ruler of the emirate of Abu Dhabi, one of the Trucial States, before becoming president of the United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.) upon its formation in 1971.
Shaykh (Sheik) Zayid bin Sultan Al-Nahyan was the president of the United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.), a federation of the seven former shaykhdoms, or states, of Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Sharjah, Ajman, Umm al-Qaiwain, Fujairah, and Ras al-Khaimah (the states are sometimes called "trucial," from a truce made with Great Britain). The federation was formed in December 1971, on the day before Great Britain terminated all of its treaty relations in the Persian Gulf. On December 8, 1971, the U.A.E. joined the Arab League and it became a member of the United Nations.
But even before the rise of the U.A.E., Shaykh Zayid was a noted figure in the emirate of Abu Dhabi: he had served for 18 years as the energetic governor of Buraimi Oasis. In August 1966 Shaykh Shakhbut bin Sultan, who had ruled Abu Dhabi since 1928, was deposed by members of his family (with British encouragement) and replaced by his younger brother, Shaykh Zayid. The new ruler therefore brought with him considerable experience in administration and an affinity he had established with the tribes of the country.
The peaceful transfer of power of Shaykh Zayid opened the possibility of growth and development, quickly changing the prevalent attitude toward progress from that of threat to one of opportunity.
With the increase of oil production in the late 1960s, Shaykh Zayid embarked on a program of reform and development. His great success in Abu Dhabi, together with his contributions to the development of neighboring emirates, increased his popularity in the Arab Gulf region. Moreover, Shaykh Zayid extended help in education to the other emirates in the lower Gulf; Abu Dhabi began to build schools and employ teachers, particularly in Ajman, Umm al-Qaiwain, and Ras al-Khaimah.
Modernization and urbanization brought about profound changes in political outlook and thinking. The construction of highways and modern airports and communication systems within the emirates themselves and the provision of links with both the Arab world and the outside put an end to the isolation experienced in that part of the Gulf.
It was in the late 1960s and early 1970s that Abu Dhabi emerged as the leading emirate among the seven Trucial States. This achievement was attributable to both its oil wealth and Shaykh Zayid's prominent role in cementing relationships between rival and competing, sometimes quarreling, rulers. It was here that he asserted himself as a great leader and statesman, seeking a true unity of the Trucial States.
Three factors—an unsettled Gulf situation, the Arab regional environment, and the British decision to withdraw from the Gulf—together induced him to sponsor the creation of a federation of the competing city-states. The rulers of the various lower shaykhdoms had, since the early part of 1962, been seeking some kind of cooperation for mutual security. The small size of their population, along with their strategic location and new found oil wealth, made them particularly vulnerable to outside threats. Their rulers were especially concerned with the threat of "radical" nationalist movements then active in the Federation of South Arabia which was due to become independent of Great Britain in January 1968. (It did become independent as the Marxist state of South Yemen, later a part of a united Yemen). It was fear of such "radical" movements that prompted Shaykh Zayid of Abu Dhabi to call for cooperation and unity of the shaykhdoms on the heels of the British announcement of withdrawal.
But it is to be remembered that the former Trucial States have more in common than a history of treaty relations with Great Britain. Their social structure and their social, geographical, and political characteristics all combine to link them together. The first time all the rulers of the Trucial Coast gathered together was in 1905, when Zayid bin Khalifah called a meeting in Abu Dhabi in order to solve outstanding territorial disputes. The meeting was not successful. But in 1968, with British announcement of complete withdrawal from the Gulf by the end of 1971, the need for unity became urgent. On February 18, 1968, Shaykh Zayid bin Sultan and Shaykh Rashid bin Said of Dubai met and the two rulers announced a union which they invited the other Shaykh of the Trucial States and the rulers of Qatar and Bahrain to join. But when, on December 2, 1971, the U.A.E. was proclaimed with Shaykh Zayid as president neither Qatar nor Bahrain were willing to join. On August 14, 1971, Bahrain declared its independence, and on September 1 of the same year, Qatar followed suit.
The document that was signed on February 11, 1972, by the seven Trucial States was entitled "Provisional Constitution of the United Arab Emirates." It was to be valid for five years only, during which period a permanent constitution was to be prepared. However, the initial constitution is still is force today.
In that constitution five central authorities are outlined: the Supreme Council of the union; the president of the union and his deputy; the Council of Ministers of the union; the National Assembly of the union; and the judiciary of the union. The Supreme Council is the highest political authority in the emirates: its members are the rulers of the seven emirates. It is vested with legislative as well as executive powers. Its executive power is to exercise supreme control over the affairs of the union in general. The constitution stipulates that procedural matters of the council shall be decided by majority vote. Should most members of the Supreme Council feel strongly about a particular issue, no decision would be taken without the agreement of the rulers of Abu Dhabi and Dubai.
The Council of Ministers is described as the executive authority of the union, and under the supreme control of the president of the union, it is responsible for all domestic and foreign affairs. As for the National Assembly of the union, the constitution stipulates that it is neither the exclusive nor the most prominent legislative authority in the union, but in reality has a predominantly consultative character. It may not initiate bills, but it discusses those which are submitted by the cabinet.
The members of the National Assembly do not have to be elected by popular vote: the nature of the tribal societies in each of the seven emirates and the absence of widespread formal education at the time, limited the choice of suitable representatives to the small number of leading families. The assembly's main role as a key link in strengthening the federation does not prevent it from developing certain characteristics of other assemblies and voicing the opinions of a progressively intellectual elite that is the backbone of the union.
When Iraq invaded Kuwait August 2, 1990, the U.A.E. joined in the United Nations coalition to oust Saddam Hussein's army from Kuwait. Under the leadership of Zayid, the U.A.E. continued to make serious efforts to develop alternatives to oil industries during the 1990s. Progress was made in land reclamation, development of industries and in development of ports into centers of trade. Zayid also focused on health and education with the U.A.E. enjoying a health care system better than many western countries and a compulsory school attendance for all children. In 1995 the U.A.E. received international attention when a Philippine maid, Sarah Balabagan, was found guilty of murdering her former employee and sentenced to death by an Islamic court. In an appeal, Balagagan's death sentence was reduced to 100 lashes and one year in jail.
Shaykh Zayid was the principal force behind the rise of the U.A.E. Personal reputation and kinship still play the legitimizing role in the union, but the setting is quite new. His authority is no longer just traditional or charismatic, it is also becoming increasingly legal-rational. Zayid is respected for his Bedouin (nomadic Arab) virtues of impressive generosity and strength of character; he has taken care to observe the conciliar ancient custom of tribal government, consulting with tribal notables and making himself accessible to ordinary people.
Further Reading on Shaykh Zayid bin Sultan Al-Nahyan
Additional information on Shaykh Zayid bin Sultan can be found in Wilfred Thesiger, Arabian Sands (1959); J.B. Kelly, Eastern Arabian Frontiers (1964); Frauk Heard-Bey, From Trucial States to United Arab Emirates (1982); Muhammad Morsy Abdullah, The United Arab Emirates: A Modern History (1978); Michael C. Hudson, Arab Politics: The Search for Legitimacy (1977); Rosemarie Said Zahlan, The Origins of the United Arab Emirates: A Political and Social History of the Trucial States (1978) and The Making of the Modern Gulf States (1989); and Ali Mohammed Khalifa, The United Arab Emirates: Unity in Fragmentation (1979). Information on the U.A.E. and Zayid can be found in the Enclopaedia Arabica