The ruler and president of the United Arab Emirates, Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, died on Friday, the government announced in a brief statement. He was 73 years old.
Sheikh Khalifa oversaw much of the country’s breakneck economic growth and his name is immortalized on the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa, after rescuing debt-crippled Dubai during its financial crisis more than a decade ago.
However, after suffering a stroke and undergoing emergency surgery in 2014, a decade after assuming the presidency, he ceased to be involved in the day-to-day running of the country.
The last years of his life saw his half-brother, Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, rise to become the de facto ruler and decision maker of major foreign policy decisions such as joining a war. led by Saudi Arabia in Yemen and spearheading an embargo on neighboring Qatar in recent years. The crown prince, also deputy supreme commander of the armed forces, guided the UAE’s fledgling ties with Israel after the two relations normalized in 2020.
The United Arab Emirates announced a 40-day mourning period and a three-day work stoppage across government and the private sector, including flags to be flown at half-staff.
There was no immediate announcement of a successor, although Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed is expected to claim the presidency at a time of high oil prices, which are boosting the UAE’s purchasing power.
“The UAE has lost a loyal son and the leader of its blessed journey of empowerment,” Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed wrote on Twitter after his brother’s death was officially announced in state media. “Khalifa bin Zayed, my brother, supporter and mentor, may Allah Almighty grant you everlasting peace.”
In a statement, US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken described Sheikh Khalifa as “a true friend of the United States,” adding that the US remains committed to its steadfast friendship and cooperation with the United States. the United Arab Emirates. Vice President Kamala Harris also expressed her condolences.
Ties have been strained between the Biden administration and the leaders of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, who have not joined US efforts to isolate Russia amid its war in Ukraine.
Messages of condolences also arrived from all over the region and the world, mainly from the leaders of the Arab countries supported by Abu Dhabi. Iran’s state-run IRNA news agency said the country’s Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian also expressed condolences from him.
Sheikh Khalifa was the eldest son of Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, widely revered by Emiratis as the founding father of the country. The federation recently celebrated its 50th anniversary.
Although he had been out of the public eye since his stroke, Sheikh Khalifa’s image was everywhere, adorning the lobby of every hotel and major government offices across the country. Rare photos and videos of Sheikh Khalifa were sometimes published by Emirati state media.
The president occupies the most powerful position among the seven semi-autonomous city-states of the United Arab Emirates, which stretches along the coasts of the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman. Historically, the president is from Abu Dhabi, the largest and wealthiest of the seven emirates. The vice president and prime minister are from Dubai, titles currently held by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum.
Despite its size and wealth, Abu Dhabi is often dwarfed by the glitzy emirate of Dubai, the commercial hub that showcases both the UAE’s audacious visions and sometimes debt-fueled pipe dreams, including a massive man-made island. palm shaped. that is empty years after its construction.
However, the UAE’s regional power and influence emanate from Abu Dhabi, which holds most of the country’s oil and gas reserves. Dubai provides the UAE with a whirlwind of headline-grabbing advertising and entertainment and lifestyle stories that human rights groups say distract from the controversial policies decided in Abu Dhabi.
When Dubai’s fortunes began to falter along with the world economy in 2009, Sheikh Khalifa led efforts to protect the federation by pumping billions of dollars in emergency bailout funds into Dubai. The two Emirates do not always agree on foreign policy decisions and compete with each other commercially. In 2003, Sheikh Khalifa ordered the creation of a new airline, Etihad Airways, which competes with Dubai’s much larger Emirates Air.
Sheikh Khalifa increasingly used Abu Dhabi’s oil wealth to attract cultural and academic centers, such as a branch of the Louvre Museum and satellite campuses of New York University and the Sorbonne. He also presided over efforts to wean the OPEC country from reliance on petrodollars with investments in renewable energy research. The United Arab Emirates last year announced a commitment to net-zero emissions by 2050, even as it expands investments in oil and gas for export.
He is credited with overseeing the creation and growth of the Abu Dhabi Investment Authority, now one of the world’s largest sovereign wealth funds with close to $700 billion in assets, according to estimates by the Sovereign Wealth Fund Institute.
Sheikh Khalifa was born in 1948 in the inland oasis of Al Ain, near the border with the Sultanate of Oman. He was trained at Sandhurst, the royal military academy in England.
In 1969, Sheikh Khalifa was appointed Prime Minister of Abu Dhabi and Chairman of the emirate’s Defense Department, which later became the core of the United Arab Emirates armed forces.
Khalifa helped boost the UAE’s regional profile by augmenting its military with heavy purchases from American arms manufacturers. It put fighter jets on the NATO-led mission against Muammar Gaddafi’s regime in Libya in 2011. In 2014, the Emirates became one of the most prominent Arab participants in the US-led airstrikes against the militant group. Islamic in Syria.
US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said the US will honor Sheikh Khalifa’s legacy “through our strong defense partnership with the United Arab Emirates.” The head of the US Central Command in the Middle East, General Michael Kurilla, said that “the strategic partnership between the armed forces of our two countries is strong.” He had a meeting in Abu Dhabi with his crown prince on Thursday.
Although the ruling sheikhs of the United Arab Emirates have near-absolute power, Sheikh Khalifa began an experiment with elections by allowing limited voting, by a handpicked electorate, for half the members of a federal advisory body to the United Arab Emirates. 40 seats in 2006. Subsequent rounds of elections in 2011 and 2015 failed to attract even two out of five of those who had a chance to vote.
The United Arab Emirates did not see any of the Arab Spring street protests that rocked other parts of the region, though in the wake of those unrest, Sheikh Khalifa oversaw a crackdown on Islamists and other activists in the country, drawing criticism from international human rights groups. The United Arab Emirates, which sees Islamist movements as a threat to its system of government, has also supported efforts in the region to crush the Muslim Brotherhood, including in Egypt.
Under his presidency, the United Arab Emirates joined Saudi Arabia in sending forces to Bahrain to put down an uprising there by the country’s largely Shiite population demanding greater rights from the island-nation’s Sunni leaders.
Questions have been raised during Khalifa’s rule about the UAE’s use of foreign military contractors, including one linked to former security firm Blackwater founder Erik Prince, who moved to Abu Dhabi in 2009.
A US diplomatic cable made public by WikiLeaks in 2010 mercilessly described the president as “an aloof and uncharismatic character.”
Sheikh Khalifa was believed to be among the world’s wealthiest rulers with a personal fortune estimated by Forbes magazine in 2008 to be $19 billion. He built a palace in the Seychelles, a nation of islands in the Indian Ocean, and faced complaints there about water pollution from the construction site.
His personal life was not much in the public eye. Like many in the Arab Gulf states, he was passionate about the traditional sport of falconry and was said to enjoy fishing. He is known to have had eight children, two sons and six daughters, by his first wife, Sheikha Shamsa bint Suhail Al Mazrouei. He is also survived by several grandchildren.
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