According to the Emirati national news agency WAM, Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, President of the United Arab Emirates, has died. He was 73 years old.
“The Ministry of Presidential Affairs declared on Friday that there would be 40 days of formal mourning with flags at half-mast and three days of closure of ministries and official organizations at the federal, state, and municipal levels, as well as the business sector,” the ministry said on Twitter.
Sheikh Khalifa had been rarely seen in public since suffering a stroke in 2014, with his brother, Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed (known as MBZ), seen as the de facto ruler and decision-maker on major foreign policy decisions in recent years, including joining a Saudi-led war in Yemen and spearheading an embargo on neighboring Qatar.
“The UAE has lost its righteous son, leader of the ’empowerment phase,’ and custodian of its beautiful path,” MBZ tweeted, praising Khalifa’s wisdom and kindness.
According to the constitution, Vice President and Prime Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the ruler of Dubai, would serve as president until the federal council, comprised of the rulers of the seven emirates, met within 30 days to pick a new president.
Arab leaders, including Bahrain’s monarch, Egypt’s president, and Iraq’s prime minister, began to send their condolences.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken expressed condolences on the death of Sheikh Khalifa, whom he called a “true friend of the US.”
“We deeply valued his support in building the extraordinary partnership our countries enjoy today. We mourn his passing, honor his legacy, and remain committed to our steadfast friendship and cooperation with the United Arab Emirates,” he said.
Sheikh Khalifa took over as head of state of the wealthiest emirate of Abu Dhabi in 2004. Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed is expected to succeed him as ruler of Abu Dhabi.
Abu Dhabi, which controls most of the Gulf state’s oil resources, has held the presidency since the UAE federation was established in 1971 by Sheikh Khalifa’s father, the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan.
The reign of Sheikh Khalifa
Sheikh Khalifa bin Shakhbout was born in 1948 in the interior oasis of al-Ain, near the Sultanate of Oman, and was named after his great grandfather, Sheikh Khalifa bin Shakhbout.
While the region was still a British protectorate, Khalifa was appointed prime minister of Abu Dhabi and head of the emirate’s Department of Defence, which subsequently became the backbone of the UAE’s military forces. Following independence in 1971, he served as defense minister, among other positions, until becoming president in 2004.
Although the UAE’s governing sheiks have near-absolute control, Sheikh Khalifa initiated an experiment with elections in 2006 by permitting restricted voting — by a hand-picked electorate – for half of a 40-member federal advisory committee. Subsequent elections in 2011 and 2015 failed to turn even two out of every five people offered the opportunity to vote.
The UAE had none of the Arab Spring street protests that shook the rest of the region; nonetheless, in the aftermath of that instability, Khalifa ordered tighter crackdowns on opposition activists, attracting criticism from international rights groups. The UAE has backed regional efforts to demolish the Muslim Brotherhood, especially Egypt.
Sheikh Khalifa leveraged Abu Dhabi’s oil resources to lure cultural and academic institutions such as Louvre Museum branches and satellite campuses of New York University and the Sorbonne. He also oversaw attempts to wean the OPEC country off its dependency on petrodollars through investments in renewable energy research, including plans for Masdar, a future low-carbon desert metropolis.
During Sheikh Khalifa’s reign, Abu Dhabi’s large international expenditure also helped lift the emirate, which owns most of the UAE’s oil reserves, out of the shadow of Dubai, the Middle Eastern commercial powerhouse.
As Dubai’s fortunes deteriorated with the global economy in 2009, Sheikh Khalifa spearheaded attempts to rescue the federation by injecting billions of dollars in emergency bailout funding into the city-state. The two emirates do not always agree on foreign policy issues, competing commercially. He urged to establish a new airline, Etihad Airways, in 2003 to compete with Dubai’s profitable and much larger carrier, Emirates Air.
Sheikh Khalifa also aided the UAE’s regional reputation by sending rescue planes to Pakistan following disastrous floods and deploying jets to the NATO-led campaign against Muammar Gaddafi’s regime in Libya in 2011.
During Sheikh Khalifa’s tenure, questions were raised regarding the UAE’s employment of foreign military contractors, notably one tied to Erik Prince, the founder of the former Blackwater security business. He moved to Abu Dhabi in 2009. According to an official who talked to The Associated Press news agency in early 2009, Prince was part of a multimillion-dollar operation to train troops to battle pirates in Somalia.
Sheikh Khalifa’s name is likely best known across the globe for its association with the world’s tallest structure, an approximately 828-meter (half-a-mile) glass-and-steel tower in Dubai.
At its formal opening in January 2010, the skyscraper’s name was suddenly changed from Burj Dubai to Burj Khalifa after he decided to pump billions of dollars into Dubai to save it from a full-fledged financial crisis.
He was thought to be one of the world’s wealthiest kings, with Forbes magazine estimating his worth at $19 billion in 2008.
He is reported to have had eight children with his first wife, Sheikha Shamsa bint Suhail Al Mazrouei, two sons and six girls. Several grandkids also survive him.