Posted on November 22, 2004 in Washington Watch
There were striking contrasts that could be observed in US press treatment of the recent passing of two historic Arab figures: Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan, President of the United Arab Emirates and Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat.
While Arafat had been declared irrelevant by the Bush Administration and shunned by the US during the past three years, the Palestinian leader’s illness and death occupied the front pages of US dailies and endless discussion on network television.
Sheikh Zayed, on the other hand, was a trusted friend and key ally of the US for many decades, a visionary political leader and a humanitarian with an impressive record of relief and reconstruction assistance. His death, nevertheless, received only scant attention in the US newspapers and television.
While US commentators were befuddled by the outpouring of Palestinian emotion over Arafat, at the same time, a US reviewer of the foreign press appeared not to comprehend why news of Sheikh Zayed’s death overshadowed coverage of President Bush’s reelection in most of the Arab world’s media.
I will write about the West’s negative obsession with Arafat on another occasion, because I want to reflect here on Sheikh Zayed, his life and legacy, his indisputable contribution and what we can learn from the way his death was treated or not treated in the US as opposed to the significance it was accorded in much of the rest of the world.
It was not that Sheikh Zayed was not appreciated by US leaders who worked with him.
Four years ago, I was asked by Abu Dhabi Television (which carries my weekly program, “Viewpoint”) to record interviews with prominent US leaders about the contributions Sheikh Zayed had made to world peace and development. The individuals with whom I spoke spanned several administrations and both political parties: President Jimmy Carter; former Secretary of State James Baker; former Secretary of Defense William Cohen; General Anthony Zinni; and former Assistant Secretary of State, Robert Pelletreau.
If a man can be known by his friends, then the tributes paid to Sheikh Zayed by this extraordinary collection of US public figures stood as a remarkable testimony to his greatness. What struck me, even more than what they said, was the intensity of their feelings about the man, and the common themes, each, in separate interviews, used in describing Sheikh Zayed’s life and work.
To a man, they spoke of their admiration for his extraordinary success in building his nation and leading it into the 21st Century. They spoke, as well, of his wisdom, a quality frequently mentioned in discussions of Sheikh Zayed. Each noted how Sheikh Zayed, while a friend and steady ally, never hesitated either to provide wise counsel or to criticize US policies that tested the friendship. They also noted his timely and generous assistance in meeting humanitarian challenges worldwide.
Why then, given this obvious appreciation from US leaders, who knew Sheikh Zayed and valued his decades-long relationship with the US, did this great man’s passing receive so little press coverage?
Some might suggest that Sheikh Zayed’s passing went unreported because it occurred on the US’s Election Day. This, however, is not a sufficient response, since every major paper and news organization continued to cover international news, even during the election. I believe that there are other factors that account for this disconnect in US coverage.
First and foremost, I believe it was because Sheikh Zayed was a leader of quiet greatness. He and his country do not blow their horn loudly.
The UAE is an unrecognized gem. It is the country that deserves the description “making the desert bloom” but doesn’t boast about it. Under Sheikh Zayed’s stewardship an architectural, commercial and environmental marvel has been created, that is unknown to most Americans.
And Americans don’t know about Sheikh Zayed’s political leadership. His bold, though unsuccessful, effort in 2003 to secure an Arab League resolution to call on Saddam Hussein to step to avert war was both visionary and courageous. It, however, only received scant attention in the US press.
Nor do Americans know of the extraordinary humanitarian, relief and reconstruction efforts initiated by Sheikh Zayed in dozens of countries throughout Europe, Asia and Africa. Whether fighting disease in Africa, rebuilding demolished Palestinian homes and holy sites, or providing critical medical assistance in Kosovo and Iraq, the UAE has provided exemplary international leadership-and yet, because these actions have not been trumpeted, they are not known.
When critics ask, “Have Arabs done good with their wealth?” or “Can Islam coexist with modernity?” One need only look to the UAE to see that the answer to both questions is definitively “Yes.”
Why then so little press attention? Is it because Sheikh Zayed did not broadcast his work, or is it because his accomplishments and his country’s progress run counter to persistent and pervasive biases? Most probably both factors can be seen as reasons behind the lack of coverage of Sheikh Zayed’s life and legacy. He should have been a good story about an accomplished Arab leader. He did great things. He did them quietly and without controversy. He was successful. He defied the stereotypes.
And so it was, that given our lack of knowledge and our great cultural disconnect, a quiet and great leader passed quietly from our midst. He was mourned by Emiratis who lost the father of their country and by Arabs and Muslims everywhere who lost one of the region’s wisest and most visionary leaders. It was tragic that so much of this was not understood in the US.
His legacy, however, remains with us and, I believe, efforts should still be made to communicate that legacy in the West. Because it is an antidote to negative stereotypes, his story must be told. If not told, then that legacy can be recast and distorted by those hostile to Arabs and Muslims. The life and contributions of Sheikh Zayed, so revered in the Arab and Muslim world, need to be more broadly appreciated in the US, as well.
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