Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque Director-General Yousif al-Obaidli
ABU DHABI- With its otherworldly omen and majestic demeanour, the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque is not only a beacon of culture in Abu Dhabi but a symbol of tolerance to the rest of the world.
With visits by thousands of worshippers and others every day — reaching 60,000 a day at certain times of the year — managing the monument is no easy feat. However, Yousif al-Obaidli, the director-general of the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque Centre, has made it his life mission to do just that.
“We want to have a unique example of presenting tourism in the UAE through this mosque, which has a very special cultural aspect that will distinguish Abu Dhabi and the country in general from other destinations,” he said. “By focusing on this and enhancing cultural tourism, the economy of Abu Dhabi and the UAE will be further diversified and enhanced.”
Obaidli is also director-general of the Founder’s Memorial for the late Sheikh Zayed, who established the United Arab Emirates. Obaidli is one of the most prominent figures in cultural tourism in the Emirates. His task is of paramount importance, handling more than 5 million visitors from all over the world every year.
“People from different religions, backgrounds and ethnic groups are always welcome to witness the mosque’s Islamic architecture and art, as well as learning about our culture and our mission,” he said.
“Tourists from all over the world make it a point to stop in Abu Dhabi to be able to catch a glimpse of this breathtaking monument, which was named after our founding father. Sheikh Zayed envisioned it to serve as a sheer beacon of reason and intellect, while consolidating the notions of tolerance, coexistence and solidarity.”
From official and academic delegations, both local and international, to tourists and worshippers, the mosque has kept Obaidli’s hands full.
“The nature of my work is diverse,” he said. “I have different specialised teams in different sectors and I have to make sure that our vision and mission are always achieved. Seeing as it is a cultural centre and a global pioneer in highlighting the tolerant Islamic culture, we aim to enhance cross-cultural communication by running several cultural events and social initiatives.”
The centre takes part in many local and international exhibitions while conducting lectures on different topics. Obaidli, who was born in Abu Dhabi, has been working to put the country’s culture on the global map. “It’s important to keep the UAE’s culture alive,” he said. “The country has so much to offer and it’s time for people around the world to pay closer attention to that. The tourism sector will truly be a game changer in the future.”
The centre has a library that features many rare books specialised in Islamic art. “As the mosque was built using precious material, including marble stone, gold, semi-precious stones, crystals and ceramics, we have to ensure to maintain these assets and to preserve the mosque for hundreds of years to come for the next generations,” he said. “We have teams that work 24/7 to keep this masterpiece alive for the future.”
Obaidli said he found his passion during his work towards a doctorate in business administration at the United Arab Emirates University. His study covered an array of topics, including business administration, innovation, change management, human resource investment and corporate social responsibility. That laid the foundation for his thesis on cultural tourism in the Emirates, with a focus on hiring and retaining Emiratis as tour guides.
“The UAE, and Abu Dhabi in particular, is focusing on this sector,” he said. “With Saadiyat Island being developed as a cultural district in Abu Dhabi, it hosts the Louvre [Abu Dhabi] museum and many other projects are in the pipeline. This will add to the existing assets, such as the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, which is one of the most popular attractions in the world and nominated second best landmark globally by TripAdvisor last year.”
After graduation, he further delved into the field, managing cultural destinations across Abu Dhabi under the umbrella of the Ministry of Presidential Affairs.
“Thanks to my specialisation in managing cultural tourism entities and my study with a focus on engaging Emiratis to participate and contribute to this important sector and make it more sustainable, my contribution and my study helped me improve this aspect,” he said. “We’ve achieved great progress in this regard and are going to achieve more.”
He said his main drive was to build a model for managing cultural tourism that is sustainable and utilises national assets, as well as Emirati human resources, which will help diversify the UAE’s economy away from the energy sector.
“It’s really important because, for the UAE to have a more sustainable income and future, it has to diversify its economy and use all national assets, including Emirati youth,” Obaidli said.
“One of the most significant elements globally, based on the World Travel and Tourism Council, shows that tourism is the largest sector that hires people, creates jobs and is one of the sectors that have a great effect on other sectors of the economy, including transportation, travel and the hospitality industry. This sector is expected to grow faster than the wider economy and many other industries over the next decade and it is anticipated to support over 370 million jobs by 2026.”
He said the UAE has the assets to invest in tourism, in particular cultural tourism. “My job is to help put the UAE on the global map,” he said. “The mosque contributes, in that sense, as it underpins the values of acceptance, respect towards humanity and ethnic diversity. This is one of the top priorities I have for my country.”