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Last Updated: Saturday, 6 November, 2004, 17:33 GMT
Fond farewell for Sheikh Zayed
By Julia Wheeler
BBC Gulf correspondent, UAE

The United Arab Emirates is mourning its former President, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan, who died on 2 November, aged 86.

Body of Sheikh Zayed being carried through the streets
The coffin was taken to Abu Dhabi's Sultan Bin Zayed mosque

There had been tears all day and no doubt for much of the night.

Women with red, puffy eyes were clutching scrumpled, damp tissues to their noses. Men stood in small, quiet groups, looking forlorn and bewildered.

They had lost the man they call "Baba Zayed", Father Zayed, and for many it felt as if their own father had died.

The roads to the burial ground had been closed to traffic so I boarded a bus, one of hundreds specially commandeered by the government to make the sad journey.

Already seated were other women going to pay their respects. In this traditional, Muslim society it is normal that men and women should travel in separate vehicles.

Every time the dead president's name was mentioned, the sobbing grew louder, some women rocking to and fro to ease their grief

With a subdued greeting of As Salaam Alaykum, "peace be upon you", to my fellow passengers, I felt glad my funereal suit matched their loose, black robes.

I was conscious of intruding at a time of grief and keen to meld into the sombre scene.


The bus took us from the centre of the modern city Sheikh Zayed created from an unremarkable patch of desert near the sea, through the grid-like suburbs of straight, clean roads lined with trees, and finally along the wide, smooth, four-lane highway heading out of the city.

It was empty of the luxurious, fast cars which usually frequent it, but guarded at several checkpoints by the flashing lights of the Abu Dhabi police jeeps.

Women weep as they wait for the funeral cortege
Overcome by grief, many women wept in the streets

We were accompanied by the comforting sounds of Koranic verse being recited - almost sung - on the bus radio.

Some of the women wept, quietly, until the news bulletin was broadcast. There was no mention of the day's election in the US, but a 15-minute reiteration of Sheikh Zayed's death, his achievements and the condolences received by his family.

Every time the dead president's name was mentioned, the sobbing grew louder, some women rocking to and fro to ease their grief.

Every so often the bus stopped at the roadside to collect more passengers.

An old woman climbed slowly and deliberately aboard, her face covered by a bronze-coloured, mask-like burka worn by many of her generation. Underneath, her skin was tanned and wrinkled by decades in this hot, harsh climate.

She would remember the days before oil was discovered, when Sheikh Zayed was seen as a wise, fair leader by the desert tribes and the British stationed on the then Trucial Coast.

Sheikh Zayed put us on the map... he was a good man, a great man
Noora, student

How he had worked to bring together the other six emirates forming the federation.

And she could reflect on the days before he began distributing Abu Dhabi's oil money across the country ensuring the continuation of a modern, forward-looking state.

Remarkable record

On the back seat of the bus, Noora, an intelligent, 16-year-old student, travelling with her mother and sister, told me how she loved Sheikh Zayed.

She had visited the royal palaces on several occasions, but it was not her personal connection - more what he had done for the country - which moved her.

"He put us on the map," she told me. "Now everyone knows the Emirates is a peaceful and good country. He was a good man, a great man."

Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan
Born in 1918, fourth son of ruler of Abu Dhabi
Took power from his brother in 1966
President of UAE since foundation in 1971

When we arrived near the burial ground of the huge Sheikh Zayed mosque, many of the women squatted in the sand, huddling together under the trees for some shade.

The men, who greatly outnumbered the women, waited in separate groups, their long white dishdasha gowns bright against the women's black clothing.

When it was time for the Asr prayer, the men formed a huge group on the sand facing towards Mecca.

As the time for the funeral cortege to pass grew nearer, the mourners lined the pavement, again in two distinct groups of black and white. The men waited, solemnly in near silence.

A female police officer, in her blue camouflage-patterned uniform and black hijab topped by a beret, blinked away tears.

In front of her, a small woman sobbed loudly enough to attract the attention of a senior officer standing with the men. He approached to tell the women not to cry. Instead, to say Allah Akbar, "God is great".


A deeply devout people, the Emiratis have found huge solace in their religion at such a pivotal time in their history.

Muslims believe that because Sheikh Zayed died during the holy month of Ramadan, he will receive extra blessings in heaven.

The chants of Allah Akbar grew stronger and more desperate as the flashing lights and powerful engines of the funeral cortege approached... and quickly passed by.

Some of the women were so overcome they threw themselves to the ground.

This was unprecedented grief on an unprecedented occasion. Never before had this young state said goodbye to its president.

They feel gratitude towards him for changing their country from an insignificant backwater to a wealthy, secure nation, the envy of many in the turbulent region which surrounds it.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 6 November 2004 at 1130 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.




Compiled by BBC Monitoring

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04 Nov 04 |  Middle East
UAE buries 'father' Sheikh Zayed
03 Nov 04 |  Middle East
Son succeeds as UAE mourns leader
03 Nov 04 |  Middle East
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03 Nov 04 |  Middle East
Veteran Gulf ruler Zayed dies
02 Nov 04 |  Middle East

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