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He Was our Washington and our Lincoln, Rolled Into One

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I had the honour this year of introducing and interviewing Dr Abdul Khaleq Abdullah on stage to a packed auditorium of around 1,350 UAE nationals. The occasion was a UAE National Identity summit held in the Higher Colleges of Technology, Sharjah Women's College campus. Emirati students were there from across the HCT network.

Dr Abdul Khaleq, who is a personal hero to me and to thousands of Emiratis, stood at the podium and addressed the students - many seated on the stairs, others standing at the sides and at the back because there were no seats left.

"All of you have a birthday," he told the students, "but in addition to the birthday on your passport all of you were born on December 2, 1971." The applause began, and he continued: "All of you have a home, but in addition to the home you live in, your home is the entire land of the UAE." The crowd cheered. "All of you have a father, your father's name is written on your ID card, but all of you have a second father. His name is Sheikh Zayed."

The hall was tense with emotions that I have never experienced, before or since. People started cheering "Bu Khalifa," our affectionate nickname for the father of our nation. Nothing comes closes to an Emirati's heart. Nothing compares to Sheikh Zayed.

Many non-Emiratis will not understand what goes through Emirati hearts, minds and veins when Sheikh Zayed's name is mentioned. He has become a revered figure. Sheikh Zayed, to us, was George Washington and Abraham Lincoln rolled into one. Washington established the United States of America, and Lincoln saved it from its biggest threats. Sheikh Zayed lived long enough to do both.

Before him, the Trucial Coast states were not much more than warring tribes, some more established than others, but all relatively small, weak and vulnerable. So weak were these states that one of them was a victim of aggression and occupation by a neighbour in the small window of 72 hours between the British withdrawal and the union of the then six Emirates.

A couple of weeks ago, someone whom I cannot call an Emirati - even though he is a citizen - wrote on my blog doubting the success of the union. "We're better off alone," he said. That was truly un-Emirati of him. I was taken aback, along with a dozen or so others, Emiratis and non-Emiratis. Some responded, trying to talk some sense into him, but to no avail. His feelings seemed to be etched in stone. I realised then that we can't win the heart of every person. Yet, even to this unrepresentative doubter, Sheikh Zayed was a red line that cannot ever be crossed.

To Emiratis, Sheikh Zayed wasn't a mere person: he was an icon as well as a phenomenon. He single-handedly created an identity, "The Emirati," where one never existed before. No one ever talked about the need to preserve Emirati identity in his lifetime. There was no need, you see, "Emirati identity" was Sheikh Zayed, the definition and the personification of Emirati identity, as well as its guardian.

Sheikh Zayed's impact changed our vocabulary for ever. Before him, both inhabitants and visitors would use the phrase, "the Arab Emirates are"; after him we say, "the Arab Emirates is." How many can lay such a claim in the world? He was indeed a phenomenon that will most probably never be recreated. He was the right man at the right time, balancing the needs of several ruling families and tribes, not all of whom were in full agreement all the time. But all it took was one word from Sheikh Zayed and they would all acquiesce.

We continue to learn of his wise decisions years after his passing. Sending non-combatant Emirati troops to Afghanistan to assist the manipulated and war-ravaged people was one of them. The Emirati presence there is an essential element in keeping what peace there is in that country, as our knowledge of Islam and the traditions of the Afghans gives them trusts in us. No other Gulf Arab country stepped up to the plate, and the UAE continues proudly to shoulder that great responsibility alone.

Take the case of Libya and the Emirates; both states have a roughly equal amount of oil, with relatively small populations. In fact, Libya is probably in a far more advantageous position, lying on the Mediterranean next to potentially major trading partners. Compare both states' literacy and education levels, women's development and child health care, trade and commerce; in those areas, and virtually every other sense, the UAE outshines Libya. Even our sisterly Kuwait has sadly stagnated in the past few decades, despite its enormous oil wealth.

There is no doubt in my mind, not for one second, that our seven emirates, big and small, wealthy and poor, would not have survived in such a dangerous neighbourhood were they not tied in a union orchestrated by Sheikh Zayed. It is one debt that all Emiratis are proud to carry for the rest of our lives.

But how have we honoured him since his passing, five years ago today? The truth is that in his lifetime, roads and auditorium halls were named after him as well as a university, and today Abu Dhabi is building a museum dedicated to him. But is that enough? "I pity this new generation that is not growing up in the shadow of Sheikh Zayed," my friend Talal told me recently. He's right.

But those of us who were fortunate enough to have done so have a part to play in keeping his memory alive. Where is the Sheikh Zayed International Airport? Where is the dedicated day - work day or holiday, it doesn't matter - that carries his name? Why aren't school curricula infused with his lessons? I have no doubt that we could have done much better than this. Comments such as "We're better off alone" are a result of our complacency towards Bu Khalifa's legacy, and that is un-Emirati of us.

Five years on, we're just waking up to the UAE's loss of the century; and it still hurts.

This article first appears in The National on Monday, November 2nd 2009