In matters of historical precedence, Abu Dhabi has had the clear advantage over Dubai. The town was established much earlier as an independent settlement and commercial centre, and also struck oil many years before (and in much greater quantities than) Dubai. The city has, however, always lagged behind its neighbour in terms of development. Much of the blame for this can be laid at the door of the insular, old-fashioned and often downright eccentric Sheikh Shakhbut bin Sultan al Nahyan (ruled 1926–1966). Despite the sudden wealth of oil revenues, Sheikh Shakhbut signally declined to make any notable improvements to his city, preferring to keep oil revenues locked up in a wooden chest under his bed.

Increasing frustration at the glacial pace of change (particularly when compared to events in burgeoning Dubai) led to Sheikh Shakhbut‘s overthrow in a peaceful coup in 1966, and his replacement by his younger brother, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al Nahyan (ruled 1966–2004), who had previously served as governor of Al Ain, proving a resourceful and charismatic leader. On becoming ruler he immediately set about transforming Abu Dhabi. Electricity and telephones were rapidly installed, followed by a new port and airport, schools and a university. Sheikh Zayed also initiated a vast public handout of accumulated oil money to cash-strapped locals and other impoverished families across the neighbouring emirates – an act of fabulous generosity which did much to establish his reputation, and paved the way for his role as leader of the UAE following independence in 1971, when he became the new country’s first president.

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