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UAE leader Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan dies aged 73

The United Arab Emirates’ long-ailing ruler and President, Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, has died at the age of 73. 

Key points:

Sheikh Khalifa oversaw much of the country’s blistering economic growthHe stepped back from the day-to-day affairs of ruling the country after suffering a stroke in 2014His half-brother Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed is expected to claim the presidency

Sheikh Khalifa oversaw much of the country’s blistering economic growth and his name was immortalised on the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa, after bailing out debt-crippled Dubai during its financial crisis.

However, after suffering a stroke and undergoing emergency surgery in 2014, a decade after becoming President, he ceased having any involvement in the day-to-day affairs of ruling the country.

The last several 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 Saudi-led war in Yemen and spearheading an embargo on neighbouring Qatar.

The crown prince, also the deputy supreme commander of the armed forces, shepherded the UAE’s budding ties with Israel after the two normalised relations in 2020.

Sheikh Khalifa (right) was considered one of the world’s richest men.(AP: UAE Ministry of Presidential Affairs)

Crown prince likely to take over

The UAE has announced a 40-day period of mourning and a three-day suspension of work across the government and private sector. Flags will be flown at half-mast.

There was no immediate announcement on a successor, although Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed is anticipated to claim the presidency.

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“The UAE has lost a loyal son, and the leader of its blessed empowerment journey,” Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed wrote on Twitter after his brother’s death was officially announced on state media.

“Khalifa bin Zayed, my brother, supporter and mentor, may Allah Almighty grant you eternal peace.”

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US President Joe Biden expressed his and First Lady Jill Biden’s sympathies on social media.

“Jill and I were deeply saddened to learn of the passing of His Highness Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed al Nahyan,” he wrote.

“Sheikh Khalifa was a true partner and friend of the United States, and we will honour his memory by continuing to strengthen ties with the government and people of the UAE.”

Ties have been strained between the Biden administration and the leaders of Saudi Arabia and the UAE, which have not joined US efforts in isolating Russia amid its war in Ukraine.

Messages of condolences also poured in from around the region and the world, foremost from leaders of Arab countries supported by Abu Dhabi.

Queen Elizabeth II offered her sympathies through a statement on social media, saying the President “devoted his life to serving the people of the United Arab Emirates and his relationship with its allies and friends”.

Two men standing shake hands in front of photographers. Dignitaries from around the world have offered their condolences. (AP: John Stillwell)

Son of country’s founding father ensured UAE’s military might

Sheikh Khalifa was the eldest son of Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, widely revered by Emiratis as the country’s founding father. The federation recently marked its 50th anniversary.

Though he had been out of public sight since his stroke, Sheikh Khalifa’s image was ubiquitous, gracing every hotel lobby and major government office across the country.

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 named as Abu Dhabi prime minister and chairman of the emirate’s Department of Defence, which later became the core of the UAE’s armed forces.

During his tenure, Sheikh Khalifa helped boost the UAE’s regional profile by bulking up its military with hefty purchases from US weapons manufacturers.

The UAE saw none of the Arab Spring street protests that shook other parts of the region, though in the wake of that unrest, Sheikh Khalifa oversaw crackdowns on Islamists and other activists in the country, drawing criticism from international rights groups.

Soldiers carry body of late president through honour guard. UAE Honour Guard pallbearers carry the body of late President.(Reuters: UAE Ministry of Presidential Affairs)

One of the world’s richest men

Under his presidency, the UAE joined Saudi Arabia in sending forces to Bahrain to quell an uprising there by the country’s majority Shiite population demanding greater rights from the island nation’s Sunni leadership.

Questions were raised during Sheikh Khalifa’s rule about the UAE’s use of foreign military contractors, including one linked to the founder of the former Blackwater security firm, Erik Prince, who moved to Abu Dhabi in 2009.

A US diplomatic cable made public by WikiLeaks in 2010 uncharitably described the President as “a distant and uncharismatic personage”.

Sheikh Khalifa was believed to be among the world’s richest rulers, with a personal fortune estimated by Forbes magazine in 2008 at $19 billion.

His personal life was not much in the public eye. Like many in the Gulf Arab 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 — with his first wife, Sheikha Shamsa bint Suhail Al Mazrouei. He is also survived by several grandchildren.

AP

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Krzysztof Stanowicz

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