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The United Arab EmiratesThe longtime ruler, Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, died on Friday, the government’s state news agency announced in a brief statement. Hey what 73.
Khalifa, the president of the UAE, oversaw much of the country’s dizzying economic growth and his name was immortalized on the tallest building in the world, the Burj Khalifa, after saving debt-paralyzed Dubai during his financial crisis more than a decade ago.
The UAE Ministry of Presidential Affairs has announced a 40-day mourning period and a three-day suspension of work in all ministries and the private sector starting Friday, including flags to be flown at half mast.
He had long since ceased to be involved in the daily affairs of the country’s government. Instead, his half-brother, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi Mohammed bin Zayed, was seen as the de facto ruler and the decision maker of important foreign policy decisions, such as joining a Saudi-led war in Yemen and the leading to an embargo on neighboring Qatar in recent years.
There has been no immediate announcement of a successor, although Mohammed bin Zayed is expected to reclaim the presidency.
Khalifa, who has rarely been seen in official photos or public events for years, succeeded his father, Sheikh Zayed, founder of the United Arab Emirates, in 2004.
He suffered a stroke and underwent emergency surgery a decade later, though officials didn’t release the news until the next day. He has remained largely out of public view since then.
In 2017, 2018 and 2019, Emirati state media released rare photographs and videos of Khalifa. In the latest images, Khalifa wore white sneakers and a traditional white dress as she greeted Sheikh Mohammed and other rulers in the Emirates.
Khalifa, the eldest son of the first UAE leader after the federation was formed in 1971, held the most powerful position among the seven semi-autonomous city-states that stretch along the shores of the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman. His role as president stemmed from his position as hereditary ruler of Abu Dhabi, the largest and wealthiest emirate in the United Arab Emirates. Abu Dhabi serves as the seat of the federal capital.
Despite its size and vast oil wealth, Abu Dhabi has often found itself overshadowed by the glitzy Emirati neighbors of Dubai, the Middle Eastern trading hub that showcases both the UAE’s bold visions and, at times, pipe dreams fueled by the debt, including a huge palm-shaped artificial island that remains empty years after its creation.
When Dubai’s fortunes began to falter along with the global economy in 2009, Khalifa spearheaded efforts to protect the federation by pumping billions of dollars in emergency bailout funds to Dubai. The two emirates do not always see foreign policy decisions in the eye and compete commercially with each other. In 2003, Khalifa called for the creation of a new airline, Etihad Airways, which competes with the successful and much larger Dubai carrier Emirates Air.
Khalifa has increasingly used Abu Dhabi’s oil wealth to attract cultural and academic centers, such as branches of the Louvre Museum and the satellite campuses of New York University and the Sorbonne. He also chaired efforts to move the OPEC country beyond its dependence on petrodollars with investments in renewable energy research, including plans for a futuristic low-carbon desert city known as Masdar.
Abu Dhabi’s large spending overseas during Khalifa’s rule also helped push the emirates, which controls most of the UAE’s oil reserves, out of Dubai’s shadow.
In 2007, the Abu Dhabi Investment Authority, one of the largest sovereign wealth funds in the world, came to the rescue of a struggling Citigroup Inc. with a $ 7.5 billion cash injection. Less than two years later, another Abu Dhabi state fund made one of its largest purchases in a series of front-page purchases when it paid nearly € 2 billion (then worth around $ 2.7 billion) for a 9.1% stake in the German carmaker Daimler AG, the company behind Mercedes-Benz.
Khalifa, meanwhile, helped strengthen the UAE’s regional profile with relief missions to Pakistan after devastating floods and by sending warplanes to the NATO-led mission against Moammar Gaddafi’s regime in Libya in 2011.
During Khalifa’s rule, questions were raised about the UAE’s use of foreign military contractors, including one related to former Blackwater security firm founder Erik Prince, who moved to Abu Dhabi in 2009. Prince was involved in a multimillion-dollar troop training program to fight pirates in Somalia, according to an official who spoke to The Associated Press in early 2009.
But Khalifa’s name is perhaps the most familiar in the world for its connection to the tallest building in the world, a nearly half-mile (828-meter) glass and steel spire in Dubai.
The tower’s name was unexpectedly changed from Burj Dubai to Burj Khalifa upon its official opening in January 2010 following its decision to funnel billions of dollars to Dubai to save it from a full-scale financial meltdown.
Khalifa assumed the post of UAE president and ruler of Abu Dhabi in November 2004 following the death of his father, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, widely revered by the Emirates as the country’s founding father.
Khalifa’s image was ubiquitous, gracing every hotel lobby and government office across the country. But unlike Dubai ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, vice president and prime minister of the federation, he was rarely seen in public.
A US diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks in 2010 non-charitable description of the president as “a distant and not very charismatic character.”
Khalifa was born in 1948 in the inner oasis of Al Ain, near the border with the Sultanate of Oman, and is named after his great-grandfather, Sheikh Khalifa bin Shakhbout.
In 1969, while the area was still a British protectorate, Khalifa was appointed prime minister of Abu Dhabi and chairman of the emirate’s Department of Defense, which later became the core of the UAE’s military. After independence in 1971, he became Minister of Defense along with other roles. Subsequently, the title of Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces was assumed by Mohammed bin Zayed.
Although the ruling sheikhs of the UAE hold near-absolute power, Khalifa began an electoral experiment by allowing limited voting – by a hand-selected constituency – to help members of a 40-seat federal advisory body in 2006. Subsequent rounds of elections in 2011 and 2015 failed to attract even two out of five of those who had the opportunity to vote.
The UAE has not witnessed any of the Arab Spring street protests that rocked other parts of the region, though in the wake of those unrest, Khalifa oversaw the tightening of the crackdown on Islamists and other activists, drawing criticism from international rights groups. The UAE has also supported efforts in the region to crack down on the Muslim Brotherhood, including in Egypt.
He was believed to be among the richest rulers in the world, with a personal fortune estimated by Forbes magazine in 2008 at $ 19 billion. He built a mansion in the Seychelles, an island chain nation in the Indian Ocean, and faced complaints there for causing water pollution from the construction site.
In 2007, Khalifa made an important gift to the Johns Hopkins Medicine complex in Baltimore. The extent of the donation was not disclosed, but it was described as “transformative”.
After falling ill, it fell to his stepbrother and designated successor, Mohammed bin Zayed, to handle many of Khalifa’s post-stroke duties, often in collaboration with Sheikh Mohammed of Dubai. The transition went largely unnoticed, as many Emirati and foreign diplomats long assumed that the crown prince was a central power broker in the UAE leadership.
In September 2014, the Emirates became one of the most prominent Arab participants in the US-led airstrikes against the Islamic State militant group in Syria, deploying its first female aviation pilot in the initial raid.
Those sorties were followed by a forceful intervention in Yemen as part of a coalition led by Saudi Arabia on the side of the impoverished country’s internationally recognized government against the Shia rebels who had taken over the capital Sanaa and other areas. The UAE has deployed thousands of soldiers, 52 of whom were killed in a September 2015 missile attack on their base, the heaviest military loss in the country’s history.
Khalifa’s personal life was not much in the public eye. Like many in the Gulf, he was fond of the traditional sport of falconry and was said to love fishing. He is known for having eight children – two sons and six daughters – with his first wife, Sheikha Shamsa bint Suhail Al Mazrouei. He is also survived by several grandchildren.