Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed al-Nahyan, the United Arab Emirates’ long-ailing president, whose name adorns the world’s tallest building, Dubai’s Burj Khalifa, died May 13. He was 73.
The UAE’s Ministry of Presidential Affairs announced a 40-day period of mourning and a three-day suspension of work across the government and private sector, with flags to be flown at half-staff.
Sheikh Khalifa succeeded his father, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan, as president. His father is widely revered by Emiratis as the UAE’s founding father after the country became independent of Britain in 1971.
Although 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. On occasion, Emirati state media published rare photographs and videos of Sheikh Khalifa.
As president, he held the most powerful position among the seven semiautonomous emirates stretching along the shores of the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman. His role as president derived from his standing as hereditary ruler of Abu Dhabi, the UAE’s largest and richest emirate.
Historically, the president of the UAE is from Abu Dhabi and the vice president and prime minister — currently Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum — is from Dubai.
The UAE’s regional power and influence, however, emanates from Abu Dhabi, which has most of the country’s reserves of oil and natural gas. Early in his tenure as the UAE’s second president, Sheikh Khalifa oversaw much of the country’s rapid economic growth.
Despite its size and wealth, Abu Dhabi is often overshadowed by the glitzy emirate of Dubai, the commercial hub that showcases both the UAE’s bold visions and, at times, debt-fueled pipe dreams, including a massive palm-shaped, man-made island structure that sits empty years after it was created to match a similar and occupied man-made structure.
As Dubai’s fortunes began to falter along with the global economy in 2009, Sheikh Khalifa led efforts to protect the federation by pumping billions of dollars of emergency bailout funds to Dubai. As a result, the name of Dubai’s tower was changed from the Burj Dubai to the Burj Khalifa at its official opening in January 2010.
The two emirates sometimes disagreed on international and commercial decisions: In 2003, Sheikh Khalifa ordered the creation of a new airline, Etihad Airways, which competes with Dubai’s much larger Emirates Airline.
Sheikh Khalifa also used Abu Dhabi’s oil wealth to attract cultural and academic centers, such as a branch of Paris’s Louvre museum and satellite campuses of New York University and the Sorbonne. He presided over efforts to move the OPEC country beyond its reliance on petrodollars with investments in renewable-energy research, including a vision for a futuristic low-carbon desert city known as Masdar. The UAE announced last year a goal of net-zero emissions by 2050, even as it expands investments in oil and natural gas for export.
Sheikh Khalifa also helped boost the UAE’s regional profile by sending warplanes to the NATO-led mission against Moammar Gaddafi’s regime in Libya in 2011. In September 2014, the Emirates became one of the most prominent Arab participants in U.S.-led airstrikes against the Islamic State militant group in Syria, deploying its first female air force pilot on the initial raid.
Abu Dhabi’s big spending overseas during Sheikh Khalifa’s rule helped shape its investment strategy. The Abu Dhabi Investment Authority is now one of the world’s largest sovereign wealth funds, with close to $700 billion of assets, according to estimates by the Sovereign Wealth Fund Institute. Sheikh Khalifa’s personal wealth was estimated at $19 billion by Forbes magazine in 2008.
His half brother, Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, was seen as the country’s powerful de facto ruler and the leader making major foreign policy decisions such as joining a Saudi-led war in Yemen and spearheading an embargo against Persian Gulf neighbor Qatar in recent years.
There was no immediate announcement about a successor, although Mohammed is expected to claim the presidency as Abu Dhabi’s crown prince.
Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed al-Nahyan was born in September 1948 in the inland oasis of Al Ain, near the border with Oman.
He was educated at Britain’s Royal Military Academy Sandhurst. In 1969, while Abu Dhabi was still a British protectorate, Sheikh Khalifa was named prime minister and chairman of Abu Dhabi’s defense department, which later became the core of the UAE’s armed forces. After independence in 1971, he became defense minister.
Although the UAE’s ruling sheikhs hold near absolute power, Sheikh Khalifa began an experiment with elections by allowing limited voting — by a handpicked electorate — for half the members of a 40-seat federal advisory body in 2006.
He oversaw crackdowns on Islamists and other activists, which the UAE viewed as threats to its ruling system, and also supported efforts to quash the Muslim Brotherhood, including in Egypt.
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 an entity linked to the founder of the former Blackwater security firm, Erik Prince, who moved to Abu Dhabi in 2009.
In the final years of Sheikh Khalifa’s presidency, his half brother, Mohammed, shaped the UAE’s budding ties with Israel after the two countries normalized relations in 2020.
Sheikh Khalifa was known to have had eight children with his first wife, Sheikha Shamsa bint Suhail Al Mazrouei, and several grandchildren.