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An Appreciation of Sheikh Mabarak bin Mohammed Al Nahayan
Published on February 25, 2010 By PranayGupte In Life Journals

By Pranay Gupte


He was the last of the giants, those tough men of the Bedouin desert who formed a new nation out of a harsh environment, those visionaries who created a country that would occupy a special place in the global firmament.


Sheikh Mabarak bin Mohammed Al Nahayan, who died on Wednesday, occupied a special place himself in the hearts of fellow Emiratis. He was the first Minister of the Interior of the United Arab Emirates, and he helped start and sustain what’s arguably one of the foremost security infrastructures in the world. Even before his federal role, which began when the UAE was established in December 1971, Emiratis knew him as the head of the Abu Dhabi Police, which he established in 1961. Most of all, they knew him for his dazzling smile and his endearing warmth, and they knew him for being accessible at all times.


They knew him, too, for befriending Indians who had started to come to the UAE to participate in what seemed to be an implausible task of nation building at the time. He nurtured those friendships, even when he was felled by a stroke in1979; his grateful Indian friends – such as the Sindhi businessman Mohan Jashanmal – would visit him virtually every day at his majlis.


I, too, was among those privileged to be welcomed to his majlis in Abu Dhabi. Tea and coffee would be served, and on a high-definition TV screen, photographs of the evolution of the UAE from a desert territory to a modern nation would roll. Some of them depicted Sheikh Mabarak as a young man – tall, almost statuesque, fiercely handsome, possessing a chiseled face that, of course, always seemed to be smiling.


His long illness may have sapped his strength – but not his spirit. He held out his hand for all visitors, gripping theirs firmly, and imbued them with his special energy. I always touched his feet when I met him: how could I not? He was, after all, a living legend. Sheikh Mabarak was the embodiment of the enduring values of adventure and equitable development on which this remarkable nation has been built.


He was also the UAE’s unsung hero; his close friends, Sheikh Zayed and Sheikh Rashid, are widely recognized as the UAE’s founders. But, in his own unobstrusive way, Sheikh Mabarak was right there with them, constantly consulted by both men, their respect for one another deepening with every incremental stride that the Emirates took toward social and economic progress.


Those photographs in Sheikh Mabarak’s majlis capture some of the regard those extraordinary men had for one another – their body language tells a special story of joy in seeing an ancient society make the transition to a technologically driven state. They speak of the founders’ own proud wonder at seeing their children and grandchildren grow up in a far more hospitable environment than that of their youth, one that opened endless possibilities for competing in the global commons with the skills bestowed by education and enterprise.


Sheikh Mabarak encouraged the promotion of those skills, just as his son does so vigorously now. The son I’m referring to is Sheikh Nahayan Mabarak Al Nahayan, the UAE’s Minister of Higher Education and Scientific Research. He, too, is a living legend.


He is that not only for his stellar record in education and science. Sheikh Nahayan’s devotion to his father in itself constitutes a legend. Ever since an accident in London incapacitated his father – and that was more than 30 years ago – Sheikh Nahayan tended to his father in a way that was preternatural, in a way that went way beyond anything demanded by filial duty. He would rise with his father for prayers at dawn, he would have breakfast with his father, he would join his father for his majlis. And then, before the sun had set, Sheikh Nahayan would himself drive his father around Abu Dhabi.


Watching father and son together in such tenderness, it was impossible not to be moved, it was impossible not to reflect on the meaning of that most atavistic of relationships.


The nexus between father and son had a common narrative besides their dedication to their beloved country. That other narrative encompassed their generous view of Indians and other Subcontinentals as being integral to the prosperity and progress of the United Arab Emirates. It would be fair to say that in a nation whose leaders have always welcomed men and women from South Asia, Sheikh Mabarak and Sheikh Nahayan offered a unique hospitality.


That is why Sheikh Mabarak is being mourned not only in this nation on the Arabian littoral. The prayers are also resonating elsewhere in the region, and in lands just three hours away, places familiar to both father and son from their many visits.


Those prayers are of grief, of course, and they ask for salvation for Sheikh Mabarak’s soul. But they are also prayers celebrating a man who led a long and full life, a man who left many smiles over many miles, a giant who dreamed of an entire new society and lived to see it happen during his lifetime. They are prayers celebrating a man of tolerance who showed that whatever one’s faith, a warm welcome to strangers almost always results in enduring friendships. I will miss his majlis, and I will miss that smile.


(Pranay Gupte’s forthcoming book is on India and the Middle East.)



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