Thinking of Strategy by Looking at the Past: 1960s Farewell Arabia Assignment

A few weeks ago (yes, I am a horrible marker and put it off as long as possible, even when I am curious as to what students think) we watched a video in class (above to watch) call Farewell Arabia. It documents the first years of Sheikh Zayed's reign as the ruler of the Emirate of Abu Dhabi (before the UAE was the UAE).

The assignment was to watch the video, watch what strategic tactics (or tools or methods or habits) were used by Sheikh Zayed and write a one page mini-essay of how they could be modernized - or if modernization was necessary! Most of the students had seen the video before (I have seen it several times before of course, I used it when I taught Leadership and in previous Strategy classes we just watched it and had discussions).

Through the pages chicken scratch (I say that with love of course) there was wisdom, pride and a deep understanding of the importance of maintaining the past and their heritage in building the future.

There were clear themes of how they understood that Sheikh Zayed worked at achieving his ambitious vision for the Emirate and later the country. They were, his clear vision, balance, strong communication skills, development of education, healthcare and infrastructure and the importance of heritage, culture and religion.

Clear vision

The first was that they all saw that the clear vision of what could and would be was the guiding light in all the decisions that were made. Also this vision was clearly communicated to citizens and to the experts that were brought in to advice, educate and build.


They saw and heard about the difficult balancing act of maintaining and holding on to the past and developing for a better, more prosperous future. This balance led to tolerance, gathering information from a variety of sources and making decisions with care and love.

Strong communication skills

Each student spoke of the daily meeting or majalis where really anyone could come and speak with Sheikh Zayed, to air grievances, ask for assistance and for any reason really. These are still held today and also twitter is used by many Sheikhs today to communicate ideas, decisions and hopes for the future with citizens, residents and the twitter sphere in general. Of course communication is more about listening than speaking - and my students made this clear to me.

Developing education, healthcare and infrastructure

Many students talked about the ways in which education (for both boys and girls) was a priority right from the beginning - of course it still is and now there are universities in the country and many scholarship opportunities for going to the best universities in the world for graduate and post-graduate degrees. Healthcare is also still a priority - and while the old traditions seem to be losing ground to modern medicine, there is still many wise women and men who practice the old ways. Ports, airports, highways and linking the people within the country and linking the country to the outside world are still priorities - and decisions in the past (and now) are made for decades in the future, not for next year.

Heritage, culture and religion

Above all, the students said that Sheikh Zayed was a Muslim and also a man of the desert, and with a strong love of tradition, poetry, and the old ways. The students all expressed the fears of too much modernization and losing the old traditions - and it all goes back to balance doesn't it?

Yes, this semester has really focused on traditions, traditional industries and looking at the past to help us build the strategies of the future. This semester is not done yet - I am not sure what will be next, but you are sure to hear about it shortly after I experience it.

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