Complex Made Simple

Sheikh Zayed inspired me to become a secret Emirati

The story of a boy, turned investor, who grew up in the UAE, and was inspired and learned from the country's best

I grew up in the UAE during the transformational reign of Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan and returned home as an adult Wall Street banker Sheikh Zayed left us fifteen years ago but he will always be the guardian angel of the UAE and being Emirati is unthinkable without remembering him Only Sheikh Zayed’s subtle diplomatic and negotiating genius enabled the UAE to come into existence, to become the second largest economy in the Arab world

By Matein Khalid: Chief Investment Officer and Partner at Asas Capital     

An Oxford archaeologist once said that an Englishman who studied the Arabic language for a protracted period of time becomes a secret Arab. Since this Englishman happened to lead the Arab revolt in the Hijaz, wrote the “Seven Pillars of Wisdom”, wore a Bedouin thobe and argued the cause of Arab unity (in vain) at the Versailles conclave of statesmen after the Great War, Colonel Thomas Edward Lawrence was unquestionably a secret Arab. History remembers him as Lawrence of Arabia.

Yet, what do you call a Karachi/Satwa/Jumeirah boy who grew up in the UAE and thought of himself as just another son of Baba Zayed, the leader I revered like all of my other Emirati childhood friends. I grew up in the UAE during the transformational reign of Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan and chose to return home as an adult Wall Street banker after almost two decades abroad because I adored the warm, effervescent, cosmopolitan, tolerant desert El Dorado that the UAE had become in my absence. Love makes you do strange things, especially love for an idea, a vision, a country, a sanctuary of the heart, a childhood fairytale come true. Sheikh Zayed inspired me to learn, to explore, to dream, to heal, to cherish the past yet embrace the future, to treat all human beings with dignity and grace….to become a secret Emirati.

Hardly any man forges a handful of fragmented Arabian tribes into a proud nation state, nudges history fast forward, changes the map of the world and becomes a living legend in his own lifetime – Sheikh Zayed accomplished all these things. He created the most successful – in fact, the only – enduring political Federation in the modern history of the Arab world and thus must be judged by history as the greatest Arab stateman of the late twentieth century.

More by Matein: The Saudi Aramco IPO and Brent crude oil prices will fly in December!

As a Chase Manhattan Bank executive, I was privileged to get to know several close blood relatives of Sheikh Zayed. I was the global  capital markets advisor to one of his senior nephews for almost seven years and even taught real estate investing to his grandson Sheikh Hamdan bin Saeed bin Zayed as an adjunct professor at AUS – Sheikh Zayed even inspired me to teach, in a quest to give something back to the UAE for the myriad gifts this country has given me both as a boy and a man.

Sheikh Zayed left us fifteen years ago but his memory is indelibly imprinted in the heart of the people of the UAE, in the hearts of those who knew him and loved him in life. He will always be the guardian angel of the UAE and the very concept of being Emirati is unthinkable without remembering him. Even as a boy in a crowded Eid majlis, I noticed the obvious pleasure Sheikh Zayed derived from meeting little children. He would hold them close, ruffle their hair, gently tease them and whisper little jokes to them and put them at ease in a vast palace majlis. Baba Zayed was like a mythical figure from a fairy tale, the last great Arabian knight who walked the earth and was a colossus on the global diplomatic, humanitarian, philanthropic and ecological stage.

As an investor, I am stunned by the sheer scale and spectrum of Sheikh Zayed’s economic and financial legacy. He established the Abu Dhabi Investment Authority (ADIA) by Emiri decree as far as back 1976. ADIA is now the world’s largest, most professionally managed sovereign wealth fund and has never suffered the governance scandals that have cost untold billions of dollars in losses for its peers in Malaysia, Brunei, Libya and Kuwait.

Unlike the governments of Iraq, Iran, Libya, Algeria and Venezuela, Sheikh Zayed resisted the temptation to nationalize or expropriate the assets of oil companies drilling for black gold in Abu Dhabi. Nationalization was the dominant economic policy theme in the second decade of OPEC in the 1970’s, yet Sheikh Zayed did exactly the opposite. He offered equity stakes in joint ventures with ADNOC to French, British, American, Japanese and even South Korean oil and gas companies wishing to invest in Abu Dhabi. This decision ensured that ADNOC is one of the world’s most profitable, technologically efficient, best managed and globally diversified state-owned oil and gas companies.  As significantly, an entire generation of world class Emirati executives have now reached the pinnacles of corporate power in the boardrooms of both ADNOC and ADIA. 

Sheikh Zayed navigated the treacherous minefields of international politics at a defining moment in the history of the modern Middle East in the late 1960’s. The June 1967 war was a disaster for the Arab states as Israel occupied East Jerusalem, Golan Heights, the West Bank, Gaza and the Sinai Peninsula. The Soviet Union had midwifed a Marxist-Leninist state in South Yemen and financed insurgencies in Oman and the Horn of Africa.

More by Matein: This crazy bull market will crash and die sometime in 2020

Britain had been forced to retreat from Aden and was bankrupted by Harold Wilson’s 1967 sterling devaluation. Whitehall informed the emirs of the Trucial States that HMG was unable to protect them from foreign predators and would close its military bases East of Suez. The United States, trapped in the Vietnam quagmire, anointed the Shah of Iran as its gendarme in the Gulf against Soviet subversion but he used his Washington connection to seize three islands from the UAE at the moment of the Federation’s birth in December 1971 and claimed Bahrain as a province of the ancient Sassanid Persian empire.     

Only Sheikh Zayed’s subtle diplomatic and negotiating genius enabled the UAE to come into existence, let alone to become the second largest economy in the Arab world and an anchor of the Gulf’s new security architecture in our times. UAE troops helped liberate Kuwait from Saddam Hussein’s armies in Operation Desert Storm, performed UN peacekeeping missions in Bosnia, Kosovo and Afghanistan and joined Saudi Arabia to combat Iranian revolutionary subversion in Yemen. 

Sheikh Zayed had captured my heart when I was a little boy even before we moved from Pakistan to the UAE. In October 1973, Sheikh Zayed joined Saudi King Faisal’s oil boycott to protest America’s arms airlift to Israel during the Yom Kippur War. This was an act of huge personal courage. A small Gulf state established only two years earlier had challenged the global might of President Nixon (“Tricky Dick”) and Secretary Kissinger, who had overthrown regimes in Chile, Cambodia and Laos for not slavishly following Uncle Sam’s geopolitical diktat. Yet Sheikh Zayed was not deterred by Kissinger’s threats to seize the Gulf oilfields. His sense of honour made him do the right thing. In Sheikh Zayed’s immortal words, “Arab oil can never be dearer than Arab blood.”

More by Matein: Lebanon: Ghosts, memories and monetary abyss

It seems absurd to me that Sheikh Zayed was never awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, given to Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin. Begin was the leader of the Irgun terrorist gang in British Mandate Palestine who bombed the King David Hotel in Jerusalem and ordered the hanging of two captured British sergeants in Netanya. In June 1982, Begin invaded Lebanon to destroy the PLO and use napalm, cluster and phosphorus bombs against the besieged civilian population of West Beirut. The Red Cross estimates 20,000 human beings died in the siege of Beirut but since they were “only Lebanese and Palestinians”, it did not prevent Begin from getting the Nobel from the powers that be in Stockholm. Yet, Sheikh Zayed, who financed development projects in 70 countries, who never waged war against any other state, who invited the crème de la crème of the Arab world to settle in Abu Dhabi (RIP Dr. Adnan Pachachi, my last link to Hashemite Iraq) when war and revolution gutted their societies, was not even considered for the Nobel Peace Prize. What a pity, what a world!

Sheikh Zayed and I were also united by a sense of human loss. On 4 April 1979, a merciless Islamist military dictator General Zia hanged his close friend, and my boyhood hero Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the most brilliant and charismatic elected Prime Minister in the history of Pakistan. Sheikh Zayed had sent his Presidential jet to Rawalpindi airport to await a kangaroo court’s reprieve that never came. Something died in me when the Pakistan army hanged Mr. Bhutto and that was the moment my heart sought solace in the embrace of Baba Zayed. An accident of birth or a bureaucratic document like a passport is not sufficient to win a human being’s love for the place where he really feels at home. Sheikh Zayed inspired me to become a secret Emirati and I will cherish his memory to my grave.