While working in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), I had the tremendous good fortune and honor of meeting Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi. This was truly one of the more special and noteworthy experiences of my lifetime.
Khalifa University, the young university where I was working had climbed the ranks quickly to be the number one ranked university in the UAE, one of the top universities in the Middle East and highly ranked in the world. Due to this accomplishment, members of the leadership team and Emiratis working at the university were invited to the Sea Palace to the majlis of the Royal Family. There was a lot of security and phones were not allowed so the photos are courtesy of the university. The majlis is a unique feature in the Arabic world that I hope to explain in a later post. On this day I would estimate 100 to 200 visitors gathered in the ornate Majlis. We were all seated around the large rectangular room. There was a long waiting period. When the Sheik was seated, at times it looked like he would rise, so everybody stood up. Then, he went around the entire room and shook the hand of every single person attending and exchanged a few words. Impressive to say the least. Here is one of the most powerful men in the world with a tremendously busy schedule taking time to do that. He had a strong presence and what I remember most was a strength and fatigue in his eyes. He looked tired but steadfast.
The Sheik is revered and admired by all Emiratis. He is truly a man of the people. I saw him more than once having lunch at the Jones the Grocer cafe and he would regularly bicycle with the public at the Formula 1 racing track. He is the Supreme Commander of the military forces and is often considered the “de facto” leader of the UAE. In 2019, the New York Times named him as the most powerful Arab ruler and In 2020, the New York Times called him “one of the most powerful men on Earth.” He was also named as one of the ‘100 Most Influential People’ of 2019 by Time magazine. He is dedicated to his country and its people. He advocates for the empowerment of women, the environment, education and philanthropy around the world. His level of activity is exhausting and awe inspiring to behold.
After the time in the Majlis, the Khalifa University representatives were taken out back, where he gave us a talk. It was to me, an extremely inspiring, insightful talk. You can see my bald head to the right of the pillar in the back. What I recall from the talk was how critical he felt that education was. Not so much the academic part but making sure his citizens know how to think. He emphasized that ok was not good enough. He also discussed how difficult it is being a leader in the Middle East, emphasizing that all that had been developed in the UAE could be destroyed by a single mistake. He then told a story about an island, Sir Baniyas Island I believe. On the island an ancient Christian church was found. He discussed the decision to preserve it. This was all in an effort to communicate the appreciation for all religions.
As I listened to him speak with intelligence, knowledge, vision and compassion I could not help but wish my own country had such a leader. I truly felt I was in the presence of greatness that day. I give thanks to the UAE and Khalifa University for that special experience and honor.