Photo courtesy of the

Sheikh Zayed and a Sustainable Legacy

“With God’s will, we shall continue to work to protect our environment and our wildlife, as did our forefathers before us.”

Dec 2, 2018

The founding father of the UAE, His Highness Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, had a long-lasting vision of the union. Along with His Highness Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum, late Ruler of Dubai, they shared a devotion in building a land that was everlastingly good for all its people and its environment. His charismatic character manifested through his persistence, determination and optimism to build an oasis within the vast areas of sandy deserts. It is remarkable how his contributions have had a large impact up until today, as we honor his values 100 years after his birth — the Year of Zayed.
The late Sheikh Zayed’s devotion to environmental protection was demonstrated in his early leadership, since his appointment as the Ruler Representative of the Eastern Region of Abu Dhabi in 1946. He had witnessed the struggle of the people in the Trucial States which made him acknowledge the difficulties of life in the desert. His core values of wisdom, fairness and acute insight were portrayed in his policies and governing style. During his early rulership, Sheikh Zayed revised local water ownership rights to ensure that all residents had equal access to water. He also worked on ensuring the minimization of water waste in the nation.
Growing up, I heard stories that when he performed the ablution, a ceremonial washing of one’s body before prayer, he would do so near a tree so that the tree could benefit from the water droplets. His deep concern for the environment has led to agricultural development and a reestablishment of the oasis as the main market center. Sheikh Zayed’s urban planning in Al Ain made the city one of the greenest in the Arab World.
Sheikh Zayed’s vision to not only invest in his people and land but also in environmental protection shaped the environmental policies in the early days of the union. In 1975, Sheikh Zayed established the High Environmental Council. His devotion to wildlife protection motivated his ban on hunting in the UAE in the 1980s, around the same time when he founded a falcon hospital to ensure the protection of falcons. In the early days when hunting was an integral part of Emirati tribes.
“[Sheikh Zayed] was talking about the hunting of the gazelle and that shooting will lead to its extinction,” said Peter Hellyer, a historian and environmentalist, at an NYUAD Institute talk. Hellyer shared that this decision was prompted by Sheikh Zayed’s own experience on a hunting trip, in which he realized the necessity of animal conservation.
Sheikh Zayed saved the Arabian Oryx from becoming extinct by establishing a breeding program on Sir Bani Yas. In 1978, there were only four Arabian Oryx that were transferred from Al Ain to Sir Bani Yas. Today, the population of the Arabian Oryx is 6,200.
Sheikh Zayed’s environmental stewardship did not go unnoticed in the international community. He received a gold medal from the Food and Agricultural Organization of the UN for his work in reforesting the desert. He ordered the planting of more than 140 million trees throughout Abu Dhabi as he believed in the power of agriculture. “Give me agriculture and I assure you of civilization,” said Sheikh Zayed. He was the first head of state to receive the Golden Panda Award, World Wildlife Fund’s highest conservation award, in 1997. His legacy led to his recognition for the Champion of Earth Award in 2005.
"For five decades, Sheikh Zayed advocated and adopted the concept of what is known today as sustainable development," said Majid Al Mansouri, a member of the executive committee of the Environment Agency in Abu Dhabi. His contribution to green the desert alongside his understanding of the importance of natural environment has led to his recognition as the man of the environment in the Arab world.
“We cherish our environment because it is an integral part of our country, our history and our heritage. On land and in the sea, our forefathers lived and survived in this environment. They were able to do so only because they recognized the need to conserve it, to take from it only what they needed to live, and to preserve it for succeeding generations,” said Sheikh Zayed.
“With God’s will, we shall continue to work to protect our environment and our wildlife, as did our forefathers before us. It is a duty, and, if we fail, our children, rightly, will reproach us for squandering an essential part of their inheritance, and of our heritage.”
Sheikh Zayed’s words honor the development of the UAE and its sustainable conservation. The establishment of the Zayed Sustainability Prize is also a tribute to his vision of environmental protection, as it rewards innovation in the fields of health, food, energy and water. As environmental challenges around the world increase, there is much that the younger generation can learn from the words and efforts of Sheikh Zayed. Living in the comfort of modern infrastructure can sometimes make us take for granted the importance of our living environment. However, it is important for everyone to take a step back and play a role in environmental conservation in any way we can. Together, we can expand on what Sheikh Zayed has contributed toward environmental protection.
Fatma Al. Rahma is a contributing writer. Email her at
gazelle logo