Sheikh Zayed was born a century back in 1918 to the Bani Yas tribe in Abu Dhabi, and became the president of the UAE in 1971, a role he maintained until he passed away in 2004. When he was growing up he had no access to traditional education, but he did learn about things like Bedouin survival skills from his elders.
Sheikh Zayed was an environmentalist long before it became fashionable to be one. Of all the excellent qualities of this multi-faceted leader, it is perhaps as an environmentalist that he will be remembered by most. He was a son of the desert but had a green dream, which he fulfilled in his lifetime and passed a glowing legacy to the next generation of rulers. Preservation and enhancement of the environment was his passion.
For five decades, Sheikh Zayed advocated and adopted the concept of what is known today as “Sustainable Development”. He once observed: “We cherish our environment because it is an integral part of our country, our history, and our heritage. On land and in the sea, our forefathers lived and survived in this environment. They were able to do so only because they recognized the need to conserve it, to take from it only what they needed to live and to preserve it for succeeding generations“.
As a ruler of Al Ain, the key task for Sheikh Zayed was to stimulate the local economy, which was largely based on agriculture. To do this, he ensured that the ancient subterranean water channels or falajes (aflaj) were cleaned out, and personally financed the construction of a new one, while taking part in the strenuous task that it entailed. He commenced the layout of a visionary city plan, and, in a foretaste of the massive forestation programme of today, he also ordered the planting of ornamental trees that, now grown to maturity, have made Al Ain one of the greenest cities in Arabia. More than 150 million trees were planted during his rule. Sheikh Zayed passionately created a “green belt” out of vast tracts of previously barren, arid land.
Sheikh Zayed was born into a world where the inter-relationship of Man and Nature was a crucial part of life itself. The time-honoured traditions and skills of nomads were still the key to survival for many people of Abu Dhabi. He was aware of the dangers posed by the non-sustainable exploitation of resources. Sheikh Zayed developed an understanding of the relationship between man and his environment and, in particular, the need to ensure that sustainable use was made of natural resources. He learned, too, about the coastal fishing communities, and the age-old offshore pearling industry, which had begun as long ago as 5000 B.C., and involved diving without artificial aids to the seabed to harvest the pearls that were to be found there in profusion.
On the island of Sir Bani Yas, he encouraged the captive breeding of rare indigenous species including the Arabian Oryx and gazelle. In the early 1960s, aware that the Arabian Oryx was on the verge of extinction in Oman, he arranged, just in time, for the capture of two breeding pairs for the nucleus of a captive-breeding programme. Today, 40 years later, there are well over 2,000 Arabian oryxes in captivity in the U.A.E., many on the island of Sir Bani Yas, which he turned into a private nature reserve.
In the late 1960s, when he became Ruler of Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Zayed created the Association for Animal Welfare, comprising a group of rangers who patrolled – and still patrol – the deserts to ensure that there is no unauthorised hunting of wildlife. He also pursued his interest in falconry and conservation, not just as an enthusiast, but also as the brain behind numerous, far-reaching conservation initiatives. Thus the 1st World Conference on Falconry and Conservation, held in Abu Dhabi at the end of 1976, for the first time, brought falconers from North America, Europe and the Far East together with falconers from Arabia, acting as the launch pad for a strategy devised by Sheikh Zayed to bring falconers into the mainstream of emerging conservation efforts. It was at this time that captive-bred falcons from Europe first began to appear in Arabia, launching a trend that today sees most U.A.E. falconers choosing captive-bred birds by preference. A few years later, on Sheikh Zayed’s instructions, the country’s first Hunting Law was promulgated, protecting virtually all of the U.A.E.’s wildlife.
A Change of Heart
“One day I set out on a hunting expedition in open country. My game was a large herd of gazelles spread over a wide area. I followed them and began shooting. Three hours later, I stopped to count my bag, and found I had shot fourteen gazelles. I pondered over this for a long time. I realised that hunting with a gun was no more than an outright attack on animals, and a cause of their rapid extinction. I changed my mind, and decided to restrict myself to falconry only“. –Sheikh Zayed
Indeed, heroes like Sheikh Zayed live in people’s heart for as long as goodness held any value.