Greening the desert from water, not oil

Shaikh Zayed chating with a group Emiratis in the desert in 1970s.

Dubai: “A drop of water in the desert equals a beating pulse,” said Shaikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan in 1987. One of the UAE’s remarkable achievements has been turning a desert into a thriving metropolis.


Before the discovery of oil, Shaikh Zayed built wells to harvest underground water. “Shaikh Zayed loved water so much that he passed a law in Al Ain that prohibited people from burying wells, or cutting down trees. If you pay close attention, you will notice that many of our roads are curved, as they were built to avoid having to cut down trees,” said Hamdan Al Darei, Emirati historian and researcher.

The presence of water and Shaikh Zayed’s enormous efforts to preserve it and use it productively allowed for traditional agriculture. The UAE was thus able to trade before oil was even a blip on the radar. Once oil was discovered, Shaikh Zayed adopted an aggressive plan for the greening of the land. As oil revenues continued to build impressive cities, drive investment and modernisation, Shaikh Zayed simultaneously worked on the development of water resources and the protection of water from pollution.

He ensured that water would remain safe and abundant in the UAE. Decades later, the GCC is only just beginning to address the water challenges and the fact that eventually, water demand may outstrip supply. This is another proof of Shaikh Zayed’s legendary foresight. His instincts about preserving water were, indeed, correct.

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