Lessons on leadership from the Renaissance man of Arabia

Interview with Zaki Nusseibeh by Manuela Mirkos


A recent study by Orient Planet Research confirmed that investment in infrastructures continues to be top priority for governments across the Gulf countries. The UAE and Saudi Arabia in particular rank among the top 12 global markets worldwide for infrastructure investment and the total value of active infrastructure projects in the GCC has reached $1.14 trillion with roads, highways and bridges among the highest number of projects, according to the report.

The economic maodel that in a relatively short amount of time has turned the economies of some Gulf countries into regional powerhouses is driven by a vision to grow, attract investments and diversify from oil through mega infrastructure projects. But it is also based on political leadership, as in the case of the UAE and its founding father, the late Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan al Nahyan. Manuela Mirkos sat down with his former translator and advisor and currently Minister of State, Zaki Nusseibeh, to find out how Sheikh Zayed fostered policies to take the country to its current level of economic and social progress and the role its leadership played in the modern history of the emirate.


Mr Nusseibeh, you wrote that “the success story of the UAE today is a true reflection on the unique greatness of this outstanding and far-sighted political figure”: how did Sheikh Zayed turn his vision into reality in just few decades?


The country that Sheikh Zayed came to rule in 1966 lacked the basic amenities of modern life. It lived with the other sheikhdoms of the Trucial Coast in relative isolation from the outside world, divided, underdeveloped, under populated, and dependent for its defence needs on a treaty relationship with a distant power. Sheikh Zayed took the helm of a new state that in effect had a small population deprived of the necessary economic and political infrastructures needed for survival. Without qualified personnel, with scant manpower, without state institutions, without security or defence forces, he nevertheless had to face daunting challenges that few foreign observers at the time believed he could really overcome. 
The first task he set out to accomplish in his early years was to build a modern and successful welfare state from ground zero. His greatest call, he felt, was to compensate his people for decades of poverty and need, to provide them with education and health, to build their cities and their homes, to win them over to his grand design and to fulfil their aspirations and dreams. However, this truly amazing and difficult feat had to be carried out while striving simultaneously to forge a new and viable political structure in the surrounding power vacuum that could not only survive in its rough neighborhood but also play an active and moderating role in Arab and international affairs, defend its territorial integrity, impose its political independence, and coalesce the tribes and clans of the Emirates into a cohesive and potent nation- one that is a respected and sought after ally and friend in the world community.


What lessons do you think are still valid, particularly at times of international challenges like those we are facing today?


He continued a lifelong passion to work tirelessly and selflessly in building his own country, while engaging in a coherent and grand foreign policy vision aimed at working for world peace and prosperity, promoting unity and solidarity between Arabs and Muslims, campaigning for dialogue and understanding between disparate nations and civilizations, helping the needy and poor outside his country both as individuals and as countries, and resolutely supporting the causes of justice and right wherever the role of a champion was needed. I believe this is the kind of solidarity the international community needs today to face the rising challenges of sectarianism, isolationism and ideological conflicts.

You spent several years working closely with Sheikh Zayed: which qualities were distinctive of his leadership style?


His wisdom, his moderation, and his adroit political instincts made him a sought-out friend and guide in all international counsels. He was an inspired and inspiring leader. His generosity, his kindness and his humane and enlightened world outlook won the hearts and minds of millions inside and outside his country. 
He was by all accounts a great statesman of immense charismatic appeal, the Renaissance man of Arabia, a dreamer and a doer who saw the hazardous future for the region and for his people and was bent on changing its direction. He was also a fabled Bedouin chieftain, a man who had lived and survived the vicissitudes of a harsh upbringing in an isolated part of the world in the first part of the last century and grew up with a dream to bring prosperity and well-being to his people, to create a federated State of the Emirates in the footsteps of his namesake and grandfather, Zayed Bin Khalifah, and to contribute to regional stability and peace.

What role do you think this played in shaping up the country’s current level of social cohesion and prosperity?


Sheikh Zayed taught us that all men- and women- are born equal as kinsmen of common lineage and destiny, regardless of their race, rank, religion, or origin. It is their duty to fulfil their divinely mandated mission by working together in a spirit of harmony and compassion, to build and not to destroy, to be there for the needy, to take the hand of the weak and stand for justice. He believed man’s only worth in society is a function of how useful his life is spent in serving its nobler causes. This philosophy continues to shape the policies of the UAE leadership and people today.