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Pakistani Gardener Who Transformed Abu Dhabi’s City Dies Aged 83

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A Pakistani gardener Abdul Hafeez Khan who transformed Al Ain, a city of Abu Dhabi, died at the age of 83 in United Arab Emirates. In his book 50 Years in Al Ain Oasis, Abdul Hafeez Khan Al Yousefi shared his experience with the late Sheikh Zayed to turn the desert green.

In the end, the devoted horticulturist, who has died at the age of 83, spent most of his life dedicated to love for all things growing, and the creation of what is rightfully known as the Green City of the Emirates. At just 25 years old, Al Yousefi was summoned to the task by Sheikh Zayed, although it is fair to say he was unaware of what lay ahead when he arrived first in Abu Dhabi in 1962.

At that time he was a recent graduate in agricultural science from the American University of Beirut. Soon, however, he was hired as an agricultural adviser by Sheikh Zayed, then the Ruler’s Representative in the Eastern Region.

Abdul Hafiz Khan family lived at Karachi in Pakistan. But all his travels had not prepared him for the extent of the challenge that became clear as soon as he set foot in Abu Dhabi.

The sand and sparse scrub that was the city in the early 60s, give way to barren mountains and huge dunes as he traveled to the collection of villages around the Buraimi oasis.

Abdul Hafiz Khan challenged the opinion of most people who said “God created this place a desert, and it will remain a desert”.

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It was not a view shared by Sheikh Zayed. The future first President of the UAE had a vision that included hospitals and schools for his people, but also a city of trees and green spaces, as expressed in his words “give me agriculture and I shall guarantee civilisation”.

It was Al Yousefi who would help turn this vision to reality. And what started as a working relationship between Sheikh Zayed and his new employee would grow to become a friendship over many decades.

In recognition of the humble foreigners who give a piece of themselves to help build this country. The most immediate obstacle to the pair’s partnership was the language barrier, but after the translator employed by Sheikh Zayed proved inadequate to express his ideas, Al Yousefi set about mastering Arabic.

“Where is this Abu Dhabi? I couldn’t find it in an atlas. Does it even exist?”, the young Pakistani horticulturist recalled asking himself after accepting the appointment.

Sheikh Zayed also worried that his young assistant might be tempted to return home. Al Yousefi remembered the ruler once grasping his arms with the words “You will not leave me, will you now?” He did not. One challenge was to find trees that might shade the new roads planned for Al Ain but could survive the sand storms and the harsh climate.

The solution, Al Yousefi realised, was the date palm. In his book he recalled rushing to find his employer to share the idea, and finding him taking breakfast in the village of Hilli. The idea excited Sheikh Zayed so much that he insisted they begin plotting the palms’ location at once, each man holding one end of a tape measure.

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With a modern house – the first of its kind in Al Ain – built for him, Al Yousefi stayed to grow not just plants but a family, eventually raising seven children. Whenever he was asked why he remained in the UAE, he replied “How can I explain through words? Sheikh Zayed had a magnetic personality that stopped me. His love and affection are indescribable.

“His determination and conviction to see this land bloom instilled confidence in me.” After retiring, Al Yousefi continued to tend his garden until the last months of his life. He was shaded by a giant eucalyptus, imported in one of 12 crates of the trees from Australia.

The eucalyptus carries a plaque “Planted by H.H. Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan in 1962” and now serves as a living, growing memorial to both men.

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