How the UAE inspired a young man on a visit to become one of the country’s top scientists

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Dr Abdishakur Abdulle from Somalia plays key role in study to improve health of Emiratis

He arrived in the UAE in 1981 for what he believed would be a month-long vacation. Three decades later, Dr Abdishakur Abdulle dedicated his doctoral thesis to the UAE’s founding father, the late Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan, to credit the profound impact the UAE leader had on the young scholar.

Now, 40 years later, Dr Abdulle is still here in the UAE, and fondly remembers the handful of times he met Sheikh Zayed during his lifetime.

Thesis dedication

“He was the motivation behind my pursuit of further education, so of course I had to dedicate my thesis – Biochemical Markers of Hypertension and Chronic Kidney Disease – to him. In fact, the UAE is the reason behind where I am today, and I am striving to give back to this wonderful country today,” Dr Abdulle told Gulf News.

The Somali expat, who is now associate director and senior research scientist at the NYU Abu Dhabi’s Public Health Research Centre, recounted how he arrived in the young Arab country, and why he initially decided to stay.

‘I was swept away’

“I had a happening life in Mogadishu, and came to the UAE to visit my sister. My brother-in-law worked in Abu Dhabi at the time. But upon getting here, I was swept away by the momentum. Everything was changing, growing, thriving. Within 10 days, I had found a job at an insurance company, and I decided to keep at it,” Dr Abdulle said.

A number of things unique to the UAE struck the then-17-year-old.

Putting down roots

“There was then a mass settlement of previously-nomadic people in the Al Dhafra region, and it was fascinating. People who had always been on the move were putting down roots as the country transformed. There was also a mass greening effort that began in circa early 1982, and given the desert nature of other Gulf countries at the time, it was astonishing to see date palms lining the highways,” Dr Abdulle.

He was also swept away by the beauty of the local community.

“They were strikingly attractive, and very fit; tall and slim, everywhere you went, people had so much perseverance and determination,” Dr Abdulle said.

Late Sheikh Zayed’s lasting influence

This grit was most pronounced in late Sheikh Zayed, who had a deep impact on everyone who came across him. Dr Abdulle first met the UAE leader a year after he arrived in the UAE. By then, a partnership between the UAE and Somalian government had seen him receive a scholarship, and he was therefore pursuing a Bachelors in Science at UAE University in Al Ain.

“Sheikh Zayed made a visit to the university, and what he said addressing students then has had a lasting impact on me and my career to this day. The late founding father said, ‘Everything you need – crafts, books, stationery, food, essentially anything – is my responsibility, and I will be asked to account for it in front of God’, he told us. I was blown away by how deeply committed this leader was towards our wellbeing, and the development of his people. His caring remarks gave me goose-bumps, and became the greatest motivation to me as a student at the time, and also for me as a person, and later a father. I look upon him as my mentor,” Dr Abdulle said.

Graduate studies

He graduated with a bachelor’s in 1986, and met Sheikh Zayed for the second time at his graduation, receiving his degree from the statesman. Some years later, he joined a doctoral programme (PhD) in biological sciences at the University of Central Lancashire in the UK.

Mourning the leader

“I completed my doctoral thesis in late 2004, on the night that Sheikh Zayed passed away. I remember looking back then at all the times I had had the chance to meet this inspirational leader, and couldn’t help tearing up. The grief is different when you lose someone you love,” Dr Abdulle said.

“The third and last time I had seen him up close was when he visited Al Ain. I had been waiting in the approach to a roundabout when we were stopped to make way for his convoy. The vehicle drove by slowly, and he waved to all of us with that inspirational and loving smile. It is still imprinted on my mind,” he added.

Driving research

Stirred by the late UAE leader’s drive, Dr Abdulle went on to do a one-year post-graduate programme at Harvard Medical School. He eventually joined NYU Abu Dhabi, where he is playing a leading role in a study designed to better understand and improve the health of Emiratis.

“I am passionate about giving back to the country that has given me so much. The UAE Healthy Future study will help us better understand common non-communicable diseases afflicting the Emirati community in a way that has not been possible before, and will thus direct the future policy, and ultimately the wellbeing of Emiratis,” he said. The long-term prospective cohort study kicked off in 2015.

His years in the UAE have seen Dr Abdulle grow personally as well as professionally. Marrying in 1986, he is today a father to seven children, aged between 18 and 34 years old.

More success

“I have seen the UAE grow through every twist and turn, and it is determination, care and perseverance of its leaders that set it apart. This passion ignites in us the spirit to continue their work, and give back to this wonderful country,” Dr Abdulle said.

The research scientist wished the UAE an even more promising future as it celebrates its Golden Jubilee this year.

“I have been privileged to witness this journey so far, and wish this wonderful country even more progress and success going forward,” he said.

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