Born in 1918, the son of a younger brother of the then Ruler of Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Zayed is the grandson of Sheikh Zayed bin Khalifa, (Sheikh Zayed the Great), who had ruled Abu Dhabi from 1855-1909, the longest reign in the Emirate's history. His father, Sheikh Sultan, was briefly Ruler between 1922 and 1926, and then, after a brief reign by an uncle, Sheikh Zayed's eldest brother, Sheikh Shakhbut, became Ruler at the beginning of 1928.
At the time, the Emirate of Abu Dhabi, like the other states along what was then known as the Trucial Coast, was in treaty relations with Britain, which had first established its presence in the region as early as 1820, signing a series of agreement on maritime truce with the local rulers that gave the area its name.
Abu Dhabi was poor and undeveloped, with an economy largely based upon the traditional combination of fishing and pearl-diving along the coast, and simple agriculture in the scattered oases, like those at Liwa and Al Ain inland. When the world market for the Gulf's high-quality pearls collapsed in the late nineteen twenties and early nineteen thirties, owing to the invention by the Japanese of the cultured pearl and the world economic depression, the already poor emirate suffered a catastrophic blow to its economy. Sheikh Zayed's family, like their people, fell upon hard times.
When the young Zayed was growing up, there was not a single modern school anywhere along the coast. He, like his fellows, received only a basic instruction in the principles of Islam from the local Islamic preacher, although an enthusiasm and a thirst for knowledge took him out into the desert with the Bedouin tribesmen, absorbing all he could about the way of life of the people, their traditional skills and their hard-won ability to survive under the harsh climatic conditions.
These early years not only taught Sheikh Zayed about his country, they also brought him into contact with the people, and by the nineteen thirties, when he was scarcely out of his teens, his brother Sheikh Shakhbut found that Zayed was well worthy of his trust. When the first geological survey teams from foreign oil companies arrived to carry out a preliminary surface survey of the trackless wastes of Abu Dhabi's deserts, it was Sheikh Zayed who was assigned the task of guiding them.
He performed well, living up to all the expectations placed in him, and in 1946, shortly before the search for oil began in earnest after the end of the Second World War, he was the obvious choice to fill a vacancy as Ruler's Representative in the inland oasis of Al Ain, then a mere cluster of small villages, although today a thriving city with a population nearing 200,000.
One early European visitor to Al Ain shortly after Sheikh Zayed took over was an oil company representative, Edward Henderson, who, more than forty years later, is now an Adviser in the Centre for Documentation and Research in Abu Dhabi. In his memoirs, he recalls the impression that Sheikh Zayed made upon him.
Zayed was then about thirty years old, Henderson recalls.
He was hand- some, with humorous and intelligent eyes, of fine presence and bearing, simply dressed, and clearly a man of action and resolution.
Although he was young, and had only been formally in charge of the Abu Dhabi sector of the oasis and its surrounding deserts for some two years, he was experienced in the politics of the region, and was already by far the most prominent personality in the area. He had a sure touch with the Bedouin.
Sheikh Zayed's task of Ruler's Representative not only involved the relatively simple job of administering Al Ain itself, but stretched over a far wider area,...