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Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan Report



Leadership is one of the aspects of management that affect different fields in societal life, whether in business, the political arena, or economics.

Various factors influence the quality of leadership including the style of leadership that a leader chooses to apply and a leader’s personal attributes, which tend to dictate his or her behavioral patterns and the kind of choices he or she makes when prioritizing decisions. All these aspects are important, especially in the running of a nation or state, as a lot rides on the ability of the leader to make objective decisions for the overall good of a large group of people.

Therefore, the people have to choose a leader that understands what the society needs and how to solve most of the problems it faces while ensuring that development remains progressive. Looking at past leaders and what they have done for the society is one of the ways that people use to identify what they consider as ideal attributes for future leaders and thus what they would look for in a person vying for a leadership position.

This paper gives an example of such analysis with Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan being the ideal leader of choice. The paper focuses on a brief history of Zayed, some of his most significant achievements, attributes that made him suitable for leadership, his leadership style, and what other leaders can learn from his legacy.

Brief history

Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan was born “in 1918 in a small town, Al Ain, at the southern coast of the Persian Gulf” (Amirsadeghi 27). Although his father, Sheikh Sultan bin Zayed bin Khalifa Al Nahyan, was the ruler of Abu Dhabi, his was a humble family. Al Ain did not have most of the social amenities present today.

There were no modern schools and the town was susceptible to maladies of all sorts. The main economic activities in the region at the time were fishing and diving for pearls, both of which did not generate much income for families in the region as the people lacked adequate diving equipments for both activities.

There was also some farming activities in the area, although mostly subsistence in nature. Although the lack of schools in the area resulted in Zayed not getting formal education, he underwent religious instruction in Islam and learnt about Islamic culture, both from his family and from a local preacher.

His mother, Sheikha Salma binti Butti, ensured that Zayed and his brothers observed family values and made Zayed and his siblings promise not to engage in violence amongst themselves, and they kept this promise. He also lived in the desert with Bedouin tribesmen, which gave him an opportunity to connect with the people, learn about their culture, and some survival skills in the harsh climate. These aspects of his life contributed to the quality of his leadership and influenced his desire to create a better place for his people.

Sheikh Zayed was a revolutionary leader who was dedicated to improving the lives of his people through economic development. One of the reasons why Zayed is a good example of a model leader is that he was selfless.

By putting the needs of his people ahead of his own, he managed to develop the lives of many people in Al Ain as well as those of the general population of Abu Dhabi. Although oil existed during the reigns of his predecessors, the people only started to experience its benefits during Zayed’s reign (Henderson 88). The second reason is that he was accommodative.

Although Abu Dhabi is mostly an Islamic nation, he was accommodative of other religions such as Christianity. The important aspect of this factor is that he created a state where there would be peaceful coexistence of individuals, regardless of their religion. This aspect has created great economic opportunities for the people of Abu Dhabi and has facilitated chances of learning for Abu Dhabi’s citizens in states that mainly practice Christianity and other religions.

Thirdly, Zayed was a humble leader, which made him approachable. Although most leaders prefer to have high levels of privacy, thus allowing citizens limited access to their offices, this attribute made it easier for Zayed to find out what the people’s problems were in good time and resolve them before they grew in magnitude.

Another reason that made Zayed an effective leader worthy of analysis is his action-centered style of leadership, which means that he was the type of leader that likes to have personal involvement with the affairs of his people. For instance, during surveys regarding oil in the area, he personally oversaw the process to ensure that the prospecting process did not harm the rest of the environment. Lastly, his diligence as a leader ensured that laws and culture that existed at the time remained relevant and preserved.

Success in various aspects of his life

Various personal qualities influenced the success of various aspects of Sheikh Zayed’s life and made him an effective leader. For purposes of this paper, five main aspects of the leader’s life are worth an analysis. These include the political aspect, social aspect, cultural aspect, religious aspect, and his view on economics.

Social aspect

It is evident from a review of his life that Zayed’s upbringing had a lot of influence on the social part of his life. For instance, due to growing up and living in “Al Ain through the first fifty years of his life, Zayed familiarized himself with the people” (Amirsadeghi 102).

Although not mandatory for all great leaders, this quality ensured that he was in a better position to interact with his followers, which is one of the easiest ways for any leader to find out what the problems of his subjects are through the subjects themselves. An additional advantage of living in his hometown for most of his life is that he was aware of the environment around him and was concerned about its conservation.

Most leaders live in designated areas, usually away from their hometowns. The resultant effect is that they lose touch with the old environment as they familiarize themselves with the new one. Such leaders thus lack vital information concerning the environment in village areas, some of the improvement the place needs, and problems that such areas develop after they leave the area.

Having grown in Al Anan and experienced some of the hardships in the area, Zayed was determined on protecting the environment and the livelihoods of the people. For instance, reports have it that on one incident, he refused a bribe worth thirty million Euros from a Saudi Arabian oil company, AMARCO, to allow it to explore oil on Buraimi Oasis, one of the areas in Abu Dhabi that Saudi Arabia lay claim (Davidson 52).

Zayed cited both environmental concerns of mining oil in the area and the potential aggression it would spark from the area’s residents. Another one of his amazing qualities that had an effect on his social life was his sociability. His personality made him easily approachable.

This quality is especially significant as leaders these days keep an aura of stern rule around them to the extent that their subjects fear them. This scenario should not be the case as it is better to achieve obedience through loyalty than it is if such obedience is a result of fear. The former type of loyalty would ensure that people obey their leader, carry out his/her bidding willingly and back his/her decisions, as they trust his/her judgment.

Even though there were some controversies regarding some of his decisions, the people never lost confidence in his leadership. This assertion is evident from the number of times that the people re-elected him as their leader and the fact that he served the country until his death. After his first appointment as a leader of the United Arab Emirates in 1971, he was reappointed three more times in 1981, 1986, and in 1991(Henderson 68).

Religious aspect

Regarding the religious aspect of his life, Sheikh Zayed was very observant of Islamic teachings, particularly regarding leadership and family values.

His mother, Sheikha Salma binti Butti, ensured that Zayed and his siblings knew the value of having unified family by making them promise not to engage in violence against each other. Unity is one of the main teachings that Islam emphasizes on in its teachings. The Quran insists on Islamic brethren getting along and letting their love for the same God unify them. This teaching is evident in most nations that practice Islam as the main religion.

Although the topic of Jihad creates controversy, the religion detests taking of innocent lives and the creation of violence where other means exist. This aspect is the main reason why, even though the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia have disputes regarding the domination of the Buraimi Oasis, they have always taken to peaceful avenues of resolving the conflict, such as holding diplomatic talks.

The Treaty of Jeddah between Saudi Arabia an the UAE, which both states made in 1974, has kept the border dispute civil, even though the dispute persists to some extent, with the UAE claiming some of the land extending as far as Qatar in Saudi Arabia.

Zayed ensured that the two states carried out business without interference from matters arising from the dispute. In order to show the great effort Sheikh Zayed put into ensuring that the dispute remained under control, matters concerning it did not resurface until 2005, just one year after his death.

Sheikh Zayed was also accommodative of other religions. During his reign, there was an increase of expatriates from other religions, especially Christians. He advocated for the peaceful coexistence of the different religions and created a country where everyone could contribute to the development of the Trucial states. He approved the building of St. Joseph’s Cathedral in Abu Dhabi in 1981 to accommodate the worship needs of the Christian Catholic population in the region.

Although it is the only Catholic Church in Abu Dhabi, it serves the purpose, as the Christian population is dismal in comparison to the Islamic population in the state. According to the latest census results that the relevant ministry in the state carried out, the Christian population accounts for nine percent of the total population, in comparison to seventy-six percent of the Islamic population. The rest of the religions make up fifteen percent of the total population.

An interesting fact about the United Arab Emirates is that only ten percent of its entire population comprises citizens (Federal Research Division 24). The rest of the population constitutes expatriates and thus it would take very sound policies to ensure that the larger portion of the population obeys the laws and customs of the land without resulting to conflict. Zayed’s provision of compromise in terms of religion ensured peace and harmony throughout the entire state.

Political Aspect

Zayed had an advantage as far as the political aspect of his life was concerned. His family had been involved in Abu Dhabi’s governance for some time. His father, Sheikh Sultan bin Khalifa Al Nahyan, had been the leader of Abu Dhabi for four years before his assassination in 1926. Due to the sudden vacuum of power that his father’s death created, his uncle, Sheikh Shakhbut bin Sultan Al Nahyan, took over the leadership of the city.

In 1946, before he became the president of the United Arab Emirates, Zayed served in Abu Dhabi as the governor, a position he attained in 1946 through appointment by the ruling families. This rich background in political leadership helped him to understand the laws of the land at an early age and prepared him for his position as president of an entire federation, even though he lacked formal education.

As a political leader, it was part of Sheikh Zayed’s roles to ensure that the laws that were existent prior to his appointment as a leader were observed, and aid in the formulation of new ones for the common good of the society. One of the qualities that have helped him in the achievement of this goal is his decisiveness. Although it may be important for a leader to listen to other people’s opinions, being decisive on decisions is equally as important. The essence is to ensure that the people diligently follow and respect one’s decisions.

Economics view

The majority of the Sheikh’s actions exhibit elements of utilitarianism, a theory that suggests that leaders should act on decisions that result in the greatest happiness for the majority of the population. According to the theory, things that generate the greatest happiness are good, thus right, and consequently moral, while things that cause the least happiness are bad and thus wrong and immoral.

The theory lays its basis on the idea that power transfers from society to the leaders through a social contract in which the people agree to bestow power for decision-making on leaders in exchange of order and security of property.

The leaders thus only hold the power in trust for the people and should consequently act and make decisions that ensure the general wellbeing of the entire society. Zayed’s principles, including the exploration of oil in Abu Dhabi and the facilitation of expatriates to work in the country on two-year visas, comply with the utilitarian concept and prove that the concept works, both in theory and in practice (Rabi 45).

One of his most landmark political decisions resulted in the creation of the United Arab Emirates through the synchronization of policies with neighboring cities for the maximization of economic gain. Governors from the various cities together with the ruling family voted and appointed a leader of their choice, which ensured that each state got a say in the determination of leadership, regardless of the size of the state. This system is still in effect in the state until date.

The main quality that made Zayed a great leader with regard to the economy of the UAE is that he exhibited behavioral elements of an effective manager. Management in economics is important, whether the subject is a small company or an entire country. Several theories describe the various qualities that an effective manager should possess or develop to attain success and increase productivity.

The theories take various forms. Some of them are descriptive, others prescriptive, and others analytical in nature. The main similarity that these theories share is their use of behavioral patterns in the establishment of an effective manager. Zayed was an open-minded leader who explored various options in the development of the country’s economy. Most countries use facilities and resources within their borders to create wealth.

The United Arab Emirates is no exception; however, unlike most other states, the UAE lacked a few various resources essential for development projects. For instance, the nation had a poor labor force due to its low population. In addition, most Islamic cultures expect women to work at home and leave formal labor to men. The reasoning behind this notion is that in Islamic culture, men are supposed to provide for their families while women in the community manage households.

Having been a resident of Abu Dhabi for the larger part of his life, Zayed was aware of this and applied different strategies to remedy the situation without necessarily interfering with the culture. One of the strategies he applied was that he took advantage of the abundance of oil and engaged in export trade to earn revenue for the nation.

His predecessor, Sheikh Shakhbut, was not keen on using oil revenue to develop the nation, which led to frustration among members of the ruling family and his subsequent deposition. Even though revenue from oil can be quite substantial, the UAE was still deficient as far as labor force was concerned (Rabi 49).

Previous leaderships would sponsor scholarships for citizens to learn various skills abroad and then come back to the country and use those skills to develop the country’s economy. Zayed took the additional measure of enacting policies that encouraged foreign investment in the country, both by hosting multinational corporations from other countries and allowing expatriates from all over the world to work in the country.

The result was that the UAE gained from the products developed by the multinational corporations, which was a cheaper way of obtaining a sufficient labor force for the nation. Another additional advantage of these policies is that they generated enough revenue to cater for the development of social amenities that were adequate for the increasing population (Federal Research Division 27).

In business, in order to increase productivity, most companies implement strategies that reduce the amount of capital input required while increasing output in terms of financial gain. By allowing multinational corporations to operate in the UAE, Zayed had created a system that provided less input in terms of human capital and using revenue to build social amenities such as schools and hospitals.

This system also allowed for maximization of output in terms of revenue from taxes the companies and the expatriates paid on their earnings. An increase in population also created a ready market for its resources within its territorial borders, thus enabling savings on import taxes that the state had to pay to other states for its products. Even though Zayed did not have any formal education, he displayed impressive qualities of an effective manager.

Cultural aspects

With regard to the cultural aspect of the Sheikh’s life, he lived his life according to the Islamic culture. Islam is the official religion in Abu Dhabi and other Emirates within the confederation. As a result, most expatriates that seek business and employment opportunities in the area are Arabs who practice Islam as their religion of choice. Although the laws of the state allow for freedom of religion, the cultural aspects that make up part of Islam make it easier for Islamic Arabs to fit in with the culture in the UAE.

Zayed was a more liberal leader and allowed partial practice of other cultures in the country, as long as they did not contradict the existent norms and laws of the land. He also allowed for the establishment of private media houses with restrictions on controversial issues especially regarding the ruling families and the president. As part of the Islamic culture, society expects women to stay home and manage the household as opposed to working beside men in the formal sector.

However, Sheikh Zayed advocated for the allowance of women to work in whichever field they chose as long as they did not neglect their household duties. Perhaps the rationale behind his ideology was to counter the nation’s inadequate labor force. International trends would also bear influence on different views, hence justifying his perception of the roles that women should play in society. Whatever the reason, the ideology has largely taken effect and transformed the societal view of what Islamic women can and cannot do.

Zayed’s action-centered leadership

Over the years, theorists have developed different models regarding leadership styles, their characteristics, and advantages that accrue from their use. Although most of these theories apply in the world of business, their usage is generally applicable to any other field where leadership comes into play. John Adair is one such theorist.

He proposes that his action-centered leadership is effective in the improvement of leadership skills resulting in the creation of great leaders. Adair’s theory is prescriptive in nature by providing suggestions for the improvement of behavioral patterns and adoption of actions that result in the creation of effective leadership. According to the theory, leaders who engage in the activities of their subject of governance are more effective than those who choose to delegate duties and work through methods that are more authoritarian.

Adair (179) suggests that this way is one of the best methods of discovering problems and creating solutions for them before they reach critical levels. He adds that his model facilitates the creation and maintenance of relationships between the leaders and their subjects and among the subjects as they work towards the achievement of common goals (Braun 182).

This theory matches most leadership decisions and actions that Zayed displayed. For instance, he was at the forefront of the fight against the use of the Buraimi Oasis for oil prospects by the Saudi company AMARCO.

In 1955, “Sheikh Zayed and his brother, Hazza, attended a special tribunal for the hearing of the dispute in Geneva and gave their testimonies regarding some inappropriate behavior by the Saudi Arabian side” (Amirsadeghi 93). The impropriety consisted bribery by the company to the leadership of Abu Dhabi to facilitate some level of permissiveness, even though such acts were illegal.

Zayed was also personally involved in the surveys for prospective oil areas in Abu Dhabi, thus playing a supervisory role in the process to ensure that the exploration did not damage the environment. Personal involvement in the management of matters at basic levels ensured that Zayed maintained a good relationship with his subjects thus earning loyalty through his hard work and leading by example.

Zayed’s effective leadership behavior: three-dimensional taxonomy

The three-dimensional taxonomy involves an analysis of the leader’s behavior based on three categories, viz. task-oriented behavior, relations-oriented behavior, and change-oriented behavior.

One of the notable task oriented behavior that Zayed exhibited was his focus on issues that he wanted to work on. He made sure that the tasks he set out to accomplish were complete and satisfactory in the context of their purpose. For instance, in the 1960s, Zayed worked on the restoration of the Falaj water system that served as a source of water for irrigation in plantations in the Buraimi Oasis.

This move ensured that the production of food for the residents of the area was enough to provide a means of earning income and improving the livelihood of the people in the area. Noting that most of the land cover in the United Arab Emirates is desert land, it must have taken him great focus and determination to ensure that the system was reliable enough to sustain irrigation to date.

Another example of such behavior was his ability to prioritize issues so that the most crucial ones in terms of impact came first at a time where most tasks he had to handle seemed critical. A good example is that instead of choosing to import labor and build social amenities for everyone, he chose to formulate policies that would allow multinational corporations to invest in the country, thus bringing with them labor and revenue for the facilitation of social amenities.

In terms of relations oriented behavior, his appeal for peaceful methods of conflict resolution was one of his most outstanding characteristics. The main example in this case would be his resolution to hold a tribunal with the Saudi Arabian government in Geneva in 1955 after parties from a Saudi Arabian oil company tried to prospect for oil in the disputed Buraimi Oasis.

The parties were in a territory under his domain and that meant, internationally, they had breached the sovereignty of his state and given him the right and discretion to take appropriate action. His upbringing had a big role in his decisions to choose peaceful means over violence, a trait that ensured that the UAE enjoyed peace throughout his reign.

Zayed exhibited change-oriented behavior through his cultural and religious viewpoint. While most neighboring states considered allowing expatriates to practice their cultures in a state that is majorly Islamist unorthodox, he considered that kind of change vital in the creation of civil relations between his government and the expatriates. Allowing partial media freedom in his state was one of the indicators of his liberalistic characteristic with regard to change.

He supported change as long as it had a positive impact in the society. In most Islamist states, especially in rural areas, women still perform the task of managing the household while the men provide for the family. Zayed, like most other people in the world today, believed that women were an important pillar of the society and as long as they did their bit in ensuring that the household was in order, they could indulge in other income generating activities alongside their male counterparts.


Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan was an amazing leader whose attributes ensured that his leadership led the country to great developmental achievements. His style of leadership was crucial in the unification of the Trucial States and the formation of the United Arab Emirates. He was driven by the will of the people and thus he did his best to grow the economy of Abu Dhabi, despite some of the controversies that surrounded some of his decisions.

He left a legacy of firm and action-centered leadership based on objectivity for other leaders to emulate. Leaders in other countries still celebrate his achievements through landmarks and other monuments in his honor. His leadership is one of the types of leadership that society learns from and a model for future leadership options.

Works Cited

Adair, John. Action Centered Leadership, Farnham: Gower Publishing Ltd., 1979. Print.

Amirsadeghi, Hossein. The Arabian Horse: History, Mystery and Magic, Australia: Thames & Hudson, 2005. Print.

Braun, Frank, Michel Avital, and Ben Martz. “Action-centered team leadership Influences more than performance.” Team Performance Management 18.4 (2012): 176 -195. Print.

Davidson, Christopher. Abu Dhabi oil and beyond, New York: Columbia UP, 2009. Print.

Federal Research Division. United Arab Emirates: A Country Study, Montana: Kessinger Publishing, 2004. Print.

Henderson, Edwardson. This Strange Eventful History, London: Quartet Books. Print.

Rabi, Uzi. “Oil Politics and Tribal Rulers in Eastern Arabia: The Reign of Shakhbut (1928-1966).” British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies 33.1 (2006): 37-50. Print.

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