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29 November 2023

Hard-knocks life did us plenty of good: Al Fahim

Al Fahim looks back on his childhood. (SUPPLIED)

By Eman Al Baik

The economic boom that transformed Abu Dhabi from a barren land with barely any infrastructure to a vibrant global metropolis was the result of the vision and determination of late President Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, according to a leading businessman.

Mohammed Abdul Jalil Al Fahim, the former CEO and Honorary Chairman of Al Fahim Group, paid tribute to the UAE's late president during a lecture at the American University of Sharjah.

"He was a Bedouin who was proud of his roots," said Al Fahim.

"He was a visionary man who had a clear vision of where he wanted to see his people and his country."

The address, entitled Reminiscences From the Early Days of the UAE, was part of the Chancellor's Distinguished Lecture Series.

Al Fahim Group is one of the largest private conglomerates in the UAE. During four decades under his stewardship, the businesses controlled by Al Fahim family have jointly become a regional powerhouse with hospitality, oil engineering, travel and automobile divisions.

Al Fahim shared with an audience of professors and students his first-hand account of the profound social and second changes that took place in Abu Dhabi.

Al Fahim, who was born in 1948, said he had an opportunity to go to school only when he reached the age of 10. "We did not have schools at that time and when we were given one we rushed to learn. One day our headmaster asked us what we wanted to be in the future. We answered drivers and clerks. We did not have dreams. Knowing nothing about the world and how other people lived and surrounded with just sand, what dreams could we have had?"

He showed a picture of a group of children taken by a British photographer in 1957.

Most of those in the picture have gone on to become ambassadors and senior staff at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the UAE Central Bank and Abu Dhabi Water and Electricity Company.

He recalled the early years of his life when there were hardly any electricity or roads in Abu Dhabi.

"We never dreamed of roads and cars and airplanes," he said. "But Sheikh Zayed changed all that. He became a mentor and a guide to us, the best teacher one could ask for."

Al Fahim spoke of the crucial role played by women in the early years.

"Even though women did not enjoy the benefit of school education until 1968, they played a pioneering role in the upbringing and education of the young in those days. While the men were away for months on end on trading voyages or pearl diving, it was the women who held the fort and took care of all the duties such as tending animals and selling fish in the market, as well as following up on the children's education."

He told how Sheikh Zayed changed the masterplan for the urban development of the emirate proposed by a leading British company and asked it to greatly increase the size of the roads.

"Sheikh Zayed expanded our dreams by sending us to study in the UK, telling us, 'You will be the leaders of your people, so work hard and gain the fruits'."

And Al Fahim, author of the book From Rags to Riches: A History of Abu Dhabi, told the students: "It is your turn to build upon the tremendous development that has been achieved."


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