Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan Biography

(1st President of the United Arab Emirates)

Birthday: May 6, 1918 (Taurus)

Born In: Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates

Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, revered as founding father of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), was the first President of the country and the Emir of Abu Dhabi. His political journey began as governor of Abu Dhabi’s Eastern Province. As his eldest brother and Emir of Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Shakhbout ibn Sultan, was reluctant to invest oil revenues in developing the emirate, the British, on request of other members of the Al Nahyan family, deposed Shakhbout in a non-violent palace coup and made Zayed the new Emir. After Zayed came to know that the British would revoke its treaties with the Trucial States and withdraw from the area, he became the chief architect in uniting seven emirates to form the UAE. He became first President of UAE and played an instrumental role in its overall development spending oil revenue in such pursuit. UAE under his leadership emerged among the most flourishing nations in the region and as a middle power. Zayed served as Emir of Abu Dhabi for nearly four decades and as UAE president for almost 33 years till his death and was succeeded by his eldest son Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan.

Quick Facts

Also Known As: Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan

Died At Age: 86


Spouse/Ex-: Amna bint Salah Buduwa Al Darmaki, Ayesha bint Ali Al Darmaki, Fatima bint Mubarak Al Ketbi, Hassa bint Mohammed Al Nahyan, Mouza bint Suhail Al Khaili, Sheikha bint Madhad Al Mashghouni

father: Sultan bin Zayed Al Nahyan

mother: Salama bint Butti Al Qubaisi

siblings: Hazza' bin Sultan Al Nahyan, Khaled bin Sultan Al Nahyan, Maryam bint Sultan Al Nahyan, Shakbut bin Al Nahyan

Born Country: United Arab Emirates

Billionaires Presidents

Died on: November 2, 2004

place of death: Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates

Diseases & Disabilities: Diabetes, Kidney Problems

More Facts

awards: Order of the Star of Romania

Childhood & Early Life

Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan Zayed was born on May 6, 1918, in the Emirate of Abu Dhabi, Trucial States (presently a part of the UAE) as the fourth and youngest son of Sheikh Sultan bin Khalifa Al Nahyan and his wife Sheikha Salama bint Butti Al Qubaisi. The Qasr al-Hosn building in Abu Dhabi is generally considered as Zayed’s birthplace, however some sources mention it as the Sultan Bin Zayed Fort in Al Ain.

Sultan ascended as ruler of Abu Dhabi after killing his brother Hamdan in 1922 and reigned till 1926 when he was shot to death by another brother Saqr. Following assassination of Sultan, Salama reportedly made Zayed and his three brothers pledge that they would under no circumstance become violent against or kill one other.

Zayed grew up in the desert area of Al Ain amidst the Bedouin tribesmen from whom he acquired traditional skills. His stint with them also led him to get accustomed with the life of an Emirati, and pick up skills and habits that help a desert man to live in extreme climatic conditions. He was given basic instruction in the principles of Islam. Zayed was a falconer.

After Saqr’s assassination in 1928, Sheikh Shakhbut bin Sultan Al Nahyan, eldest brother of Zayed, became the Emir of Abu Dhabi.

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Emir’s Representative of the Eastern Region of Abu Dhabi

In 1946, Zayed became governor of Eastern Region of Abu Dhabi. During such tenure, he was stationed at the Muwaiji fort in Al Ain and his activities included meeting and discussing issues with officials from Petroleum Development (Trucial Coast) and providing them assistance after they started exploring the area as a potential site for oil.

Meanwhile in 1949 Saudi Arabia made territorial claims over a vast area of Abu Dhabi and an area in the Buraimi Oasis as these areas were suspected to be potential sites for oil. Saudi Arabia’s surreptitious endeavours in influencing and bribing the tribes and communities of those areas to switch loyalties precipitated the Buraimi dispute or Buraimi war of 1952-1955. On August 31, 1952, the Saudi Emir of Ras Tanura, Turki bin Abdullah Al Otaishan led a small force and invaded and occupied the Hamasa village in the Buraimi Oasis and declared it a part of the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia. The Saudis in their bribery campaign even made unsuccessful attempts to lure Zayed, who opposed their territorial claims. The Saudis reportedly offered Zayed an amount of £30 million so that he gives Saudi Arabian oil company ARAMCO permission to explore for oil in the disputed areas. He was also offered 50% of any oil revenues from the area and a new car among other things.

In September 1955, Zayed and his second elder brother Hazza went to Geneva and appeared before the Geneva Court on behalf of Shakhbut and provided evidence to tribunal members during the Buraimi arbitration proceedings. Allegations of attempts made by Saudi to influence the tribunal and subsequent walk out of the British and Belgian representatives led to failure of the arbitration. Following this, the British moved ahead to revoke the Standstill Agreement and deployed the Trucial Oman Levies, a local military force, to reoccupy the Buraimi Oasis. The force, in presence of Zayed and Hazza, fought with the Saudis at the Al Buraimi Oasis in October that year and captured the oasis and the entire Saudi contingent. The two brothers also came forward in assisting the British to initiate negotiation for a ceasefire agreement with the Bedouin Sheikhs. The British then split the territory of Buraimi Oasis, leading Abu Dhabi to consolidate control of Al Ain. Zayed also contributed in developing the Buraimi Oasis which included restoring the age-old irrigation system of falaj.

Emir of Abu Dhabi

Oil was discovered in Abu Dhabi in 1958 and its export began in 1962 thus generating good oil revenue. Shakhbut was however reluctant to use such revenue in developing Abu Dhabi. He also showed lack of interest in participating in the Trucial States Council. Such stubborn attitude of Shakhbut hindered progress of the emirate and exasperated its elites. The members of the ruling Al Nahyan family then requested the British to help them in deposing Shakhbut and in making Zayed the new Emir of Abu Dhabi. The British informed Shakhbut of such developments and about the stance of the Al Nahyan family through British Acting Resident Glen Balfour-Paul.  On August 6, 1966, the British used the Trucial Oman Scouts and conducted a non-violent palace coup in which Shakhbut stepped down as Emir and paved way for Zayed to take the role.

After Zayed became the Emir, he shouldered the responsibility of a financial leader among the Trucial States. He developed relations with those northern states that did not had the oil and financial resources and with time his emirate contributed to about four-fifth of the Trucial States Development Fund.

Zayed also endeavoured in developing the city of Abu Dhabi and hired Japanese architect Katsuhiko Takahashi during the late 1960s. This saw construction of several important buildings and corniches, development of wide roads, and greening of the city. After Takahashi left, Zayed inducted Egyptian architect Abdulrahman Makhlouf to take care of the infrastructural projects.

Founding Father & First President of the UAE

British Foreign Office Minister Goronwy Roberts visited the Trucial States in early January 1968 and apprised its rulers that the British had decided to revoke its treaties with the Trucial States and would withdraw its military force from the Persian Gulf. Zayed then made an unsuccessful attempt to convince the British not to take such step and even offered to bear all costs for keeping the British Armed Forces in the Emirates. Following this, on February 18 that year, Zayed and Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum of Dubai attended a meeting at a desert highland amidst the Dubai and Abu Dhabi border, and agreed to endeavour in uniting the Emirates into federation and invite other trucial rulers to join such pursuit to form a strong nation.

The nine Persian Gulf sheikhdoms negotiated in pursuit of forming a union of Arab emirates, however a consensus could not be reached. Tough negotiations followed and on December 2, 1971, Abu Dhabi, Dubai and four other emirates, namely Sharjah, Ajman, Fujairah, and Umm Al Quwain agreed to unify and form the nation called United Arab Emirates. Same day, Zayed, who is credited as the key person responsible for unifying the seven emirates to form the UAE, assumed office as the country’s first President. On January the following year, Ras al-Khaimah joined UAE. The Federal National Council (FNC) was formed in February 1972.

Zayed supervised set up of the Abu Dhabi Fund for Arab Economic Development that over time funded some of its oil revenues to around forty Islamic Asian and African countries. He brought about reforms to integrate the infrastructure of UAE in 1973. New reforms were also initiated in 1976 to integrate defense forces of the emirates. Meanwhile, on August 21, 1974, Zayed signed the Treaty of Jeddah with King Faisal of Saudi Arabia to settle the Saudi Arabia – UAE border dispute, which included the Buraimi Dispute as well. It was only after this that Saudi Arabia recognised UAE as a country.

Zayed converted the Financial Investments Board, formed by the Emirate of Abu Dhabi in 1967, to the Abu Dhabi Investment Authority (ADIA) in 1976. This sovereign wealth fund created to invest surplus funds of the government has emerged as one of the largest investment funds of the world.

Zayed is recognised for his efforts in federalizing and modernizing UAE by channelizing its oil revenues in different sectors like healthcare, education, and infrastructure, building hospitals, schools and universities, thus developing the country as one of the most prosperous ones in the region. The country under his leadership emerged as a leading financial centre and took steps in fostering gender equality, particularly in the field of women’s education. Zayed held a more liberal stance with regard to women’s rights and supported certain women’s rights like right for education and labour rights. Private media was allowed during Zayed’s rule, however it was expected that they would refrain from criticising Zayed and the Al Nahyan family. Zayed also allowed freedom of worship. Many non-Muslim places of worship were built during his rule. He donated generously, amounting to millions of pounds sterling, for genuine causes. His rule also witnessed free distribution of lands, which helped several landless families.

In 1981, he co-founded the Dar Al Maal Al Islami Trust in Switzerland that has gained prominence as one of the leading Islamic financial institutions. Construction of the present Ma'rib dam was financed by him in 1984 following the devastating flood that occurred in the Ma'rib Governorate in Yemen in 1982. The current dam is located near the collapsed 8th century BC ancient dam. According to sources, ancestors of Zayed emigrated from the area of Ma'rib.

The Zayed Center for Coordination and Follow-Up that was established in 1999 was mainly funded by Zayed. He eventually dissolved it in August 2003 amidst controversy and criticism over its opinions, which many alleged to be anti-American and anti-Semitic.

Family & Personal Life

Zayed had seven wives and eighteen sons. He was counted among the world’s richest men and derived his wealth mainly from oil revenues of Abu Dhabi and the Emirates, He bought the Tittenhurst Park at Sunninghill, Berkshire in 1988 for £5m.

Zayed suffered from diabetes and kidney problems and died on November 2, 2004. He was interred in the courtyard of the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, the largest mosque in UAE located in Abu Dhabi.


Several institutions, centres and places are named in his honour. These include the Zayed University, the Shaikh Zayed University, Shaikh Zayed International Airport, Shaikh Zayed Medical College and Hospital, and Sheikh Zayed City in Greater Cairo.

The Founder's Memorial, a memorial to Zayed was opened in 2018, the year that was dedicated in the UAE to commemorate the life and achievements of Zayed.

See the events in life of Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan in Chronological Order

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