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VIEW: The Man Who Made A Desert Bloom

Published in Daily Times / Saturday, January 01, 2011

By Afrah Jamal

“O Lord! We have crash-landed!” was Hafeez Khan’s first reaction when his aircraft touched down in what appeared to him the middle of nowhere. The plane was one that could land on unprepared surfaces, which is just as well since there was nothing remotely resembling a proper airstrip at that time in Abu Dhabi. Awaiting him was a king with a dream, a desert starved for greenery, and a dusty blueprint of a future that appeared far-fetched.

Today, three things strike first time visitors to the beautiful city of Al Ain — tree lined avenues, roundabouts and the absence of tall buildings. Al Ain, which is the other city in the state of Abu Dhabi, in the past bore an unfortunate resemblance to a gigantic sandbox.

It was not that long ago and Abu Dhabi state had just struck it rich with black gold. But no one could mistake any part of the Trucial state of the 1960s for the ‘garden city of the Gulf’. Khan may have felt that he had stepped back in time but his real task was to help usher in the future. What the king probably needed was a magician. He got the next best thing. Pakistani horticulturist Hafeez Khan soon learnt that he was an integral part of the future mapped out by Sheikh Zayed. This was despite the mournful tidings received from the community of international agriculture experts who did not think anyone could ever make this desert bloom; the land itself, which had remained a blank and inhospitable canvas since time immemorial, seemed to echo their skepticism.

He must have cut an impressive figure at the time with his university degree and a surname Khan, which the natives automatically assumed made him a direct relation of Ayub Khan — the then president of Pakistan. Al Ain alternatively made a startling impression on the young Khan. “There was nothing there. Nothing!” He repeats to quell the “but surely” rising in anyone’s mind. Times were different; life was difficult but, he adds, Pakistanis were respected.

Abdul Hafeez Yawar Khan, originally from Pakistan, was studying in Beirut at the time. H H Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan (1919-2004) was the first ruler of the state of Abu Dhabi and later President of UAE. Reportedly, “members of the Al Nahyan family” have ruled since the beginning of the 18th century, “longer than any other ruling dynasty in Arabia.” Khan, who came out to help change a city’s fortunes, had originally packed for a year. Half a century later, he is still there.

Al Ain — the birthplace of the Sheikh — was destined to become a model city. When asked how long it took him to achieve this miracle, he replied with a faint twinkle in his eyes: “I’m still at it.” Khan is a gracious host and a veritable treasure trove of the city’s modern history. He fondly remembers the king who had a grand vision of turning Al Ain into an Eden and no qualms working besides his subjects to help propel his dreams faster. Khan who can easily pass off for an Arab now, knew no Arabic then and he and the king communicated through an interpreter. Till one day the king paid the interpreter to flee, forcing Khan to learn the language — fast.

He is eager to show off his adopted city and explains its many idiosyncrasies. Al Ain, unlike its sister city of Abu Dhabi, is vertically challenged because its ruler decided that there was enough space to grow horizontally instead of upwards. Khan muses over his late friend’s love for greenery that bordered on obsession; such was the king’s enthusiasm that in many cases the trees came first, the roads after. And then there is the saga of the poor sinking donkeys that led to a very important discovery. While selecting their flora, they had not catered for the fauna — grazing wild beasts. When the offending wild beasts were banished to the outskirts of the town, word got round that they had started to sink. The king acted on Khan’s information and subsequent digging at the site of Jabel Hafeet Mountain revealed a fresh water spring.

Finding Mr Hafeez Khan, who is now a UAE national, is not difficult. He continues to stay in the same compound, in another house built right next to the original one. He has seen many firsts, starting with his home which was the first concrete house ever built in the city, and a lovingly tended eucalyptus tree — the first ever planted by his old friend — the king — in 1962.

Visitors get to see both the tree and the historic driveway frequented by his king and rulers of other states.

They went straight from camels to Cadillacs,” he observes. It is hard to reconcile present day UAE with the medieval living conditions that existed just four decades ago. In their haste to enter the 20th century, Al Ain — the second largest city of Abu Dhabi — got its first luxury hotel Hilton in 1971 but camels remained the primary mode of travel.

Khan helped complete the king’s original quest and conquer the desert. He is fiercely loyal to the man who put his country on a fast track and immensely proud of what they managed to accomplish together given the challenging environment and desolate terrain. They left lasting footprints in the sand. Now his (Khan’s) daughter cheerfully carries on her father’s mission.


  1. Very interesting. Didn't know that the man who made the desert bloom was originally a Pakistani! :)

  2. Shazia..i heard that he has been featured in a book , Trendsetters: 100 notable Pakistanis (am forgetting the exact title) but Ive not seen that in the local bookstores yet...

    I believe he's thinking of writing a memoir...theres a lot more left to tell....Hafeez Khan is 70 years young! & a wonderful story teller...:)

  3. Yes indeed he is a wonderful story teller...A very nice person...Thank you so much Afrah Jamal for writing about my Nana.

  4. My Pleasure...Hope all's well with Hafeez Sahib?

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  5. Great informative site. I'm really impressed after reading this blog post. I really appreciate the time and effort you spend to share this with us!

    Al Raha Golf Gardens Abu Dhabi

  6. Thanks Afrah Jamal u write beautiful story on my uncal life


    1. You are Welcome. He led a fascinating life.


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