Greening the Desert

COURTESY Abdul Hafeez Khan

Arriving in Abu Dhabi in 1962 was like stepping back into the Stone Age. When the plane landed it was very shaky. We landed on the sand--that was the airstrip. There was nothing here. I saw a flag, the old Abu Dhabi flag. The political agent was on leave, so his assistant processed our papers. Sheikh Shabout was the Ruler at the time. The name of this country was the Trucial States. It was under British rule.

I came from Beirut thanks to a friend of mine, Sergio Boston, a political agent in the British Embassy in Lebanon. Sheikh Zayed and he were friends. Sheikh Zayed wanted to green the desert, thus sought expertise in agriculture. Most experts told Sheikh Zayed that it was impossible. I was pursuing a master’s degree in agriculture. When I signed the contract I thought, okay, it will be an adventure. I told myself I’ll give it one year. God has brought me here.

I committed to the project. I said to myself, “Let me plant plants here. I can manage this.” Sheikh Zayed did all the planning of Al Ain with his stick. We were in the middle of the desert. If he wanted a road here he would draw a line in the sand. Then came tarmac and the roads were laid. Sheikh Zayed pointed with his stick where he wanted the plantation and I began planting ...

What to plant in the middle of the desert? There was a horribly strong wind out in the desert that blew down the plants. Sheikh Zayed used to ask me what to do about this. I spent many days thinking and thinking. Nothing that came to mind would work. The wind kept on blowing the plants away. Then one day I thought about date plants. For centuries there had been date plants here that were irrigated by the falaj system. Wind had not carried them away. Why couldn’t it be the same for the plants we were trying to introduce?

It took me 10 days. The Land Rover we had ordered arrived. Roads had not yet reached where I was working. I asked for Sheikh Zayed, but he had left on a trip. I was mad with ideas. I had been thinking for the past 10 days straight. I wanted to do something sustainable and fast because I was going to leave in a year. While driving past date plants I wondered, why not plant here? Go ahead. Soon Sheikh Zayed and I started planting trees from the Hilton in Al Ain towards a small market. The plants took root! After this Zayed told me to continue, to oversee the planting of trees from Al Ain to Abu Dhabi, then from Abu Dhabi to Dubai. Eventually his idea spread to Muscat and Saudi Arabia. While I planted, Sheikh Zayed supervised. I held one end of the tape in my hand and Sheikh Zayed held the other end. He called me ‘Khan’ and I called him ‘Zayed.’ Donkeys carried the load back then.

Sheikh Zayed was knowledgeable about indigenous plants, but he wanted exotic plants to be introduced. So we ordered plants from Pakistan. The plants arrived via Dubai, as Abu Dhabi did not have a sea port at that time. When a message came that the plants had arrived, Sheikh Zayed told me to take his car to the port in Dubai. It was a seven hour drive from Al Ain. When I arrived back home Sheikh Zayed was waiting to inspect the plants. We planted them together right away. Sheikh Zayed told me the next morning to, “work, work and work, planting.” Work is like worship. Even during Ramadan, while fasting, we would work. He was such a genius. He told me that buildings will come by the time these plants grow tall.

Then there was the question of what to eat. I talked with Sheikh Zayed about date trees. “People will eat the dates.” I said, “They will eat dates and pray for you. The birds will come from far away and eat.”

Sheikh Zayed became Ruler on the 6th of August 1966. After two days of becoming Ruler he started working. And then it was only work, work and work for Sheikh Zayed. He lived his life working for the people. It was a magical attraction to see Sheikh Zayed working. When I saw him I was deeply impressed by his work ethic. It was engrossing to witness. Sheikh Zayed loved trees. He would die for trees and plants. When contractors came to build the roads Sheikh Zayed told them that they were not allowed to destroy a single leaf. He was not like you or me. He had eyes like a falcon’s.

Sheikh Zayed had given me a translator through a political agent. In Beirut I spoke French and port at that time. When a message came that the plants had arrived, Sheikh Zayed told me to take his car to the port in Dubai. It was a seven hour drive from Al Ain. When I arrived back home Sheikh Zayed was waiting to inspect the plants. We planted them together right away. Sheikh Zayed told me the next morning to, “work, work and work, planting.” Work is like worship. Even during Ramadan, while fasting, we would work. He was such a genius. He told me that buildings will come by the time these plants grow tall.
Then there was the question of what to eat. I talked with Sheikh Zayed about date trees. “People will eat the dates.” I said, “They will eat dates and pray for you. The birds will come from far away and eat.”

Sheikh Zayed became Ruler on the 6th of August 1966. After two days of becoming Ruler he started working. And then it was only work, work and work for Sheikh Zayed. He lived his life working for the people. It was a magical attraction to see Sheikh Zayed working. When I saw him I was deeply impressed by his work ethic. It was engrossing to witness. Sheikh Zayed loved trees. He would die for trees and plants. When contractors came to build the roads Sheikh Zayed told them that they were not allowed to destroy a single leaf. He was not like you or me. He had eyes like a falcon’s.

Sheikh Zayed had given me a translator through a political agent. In Beirut I spoke French and Sheikh Zayed became Ruler. Another letter from Sheikha Fatima asks for unusual vegetables, like cauliflower, to be grown and sent to the palace.

After a year, my family and friends asked me, “Why don’t you return to Beirut?” After a few more years they asked, “Are you going to stay there your entire life?” I became a UAE national about 30 years ago, thanks to Sheikh Zayed. One day I went to the police station for something, I no longer recall why. They checked my ID and told me that my birth place was now Al Ain. How could it be Al Ain? My thanks to Sheikh Zayed.

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