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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
Matein Khalid is an investment banker based in the UAE