The United Arab Emirates President Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al-Nahyan died on Friday at the age of 73 after a years-long battle with the disease, sparking a period of mourning and a shift in power in the oil-rich Gulf state.
Sheikh Khalifa, who was in office during a time of great fortune for the UAE but was rarely seen in public, will likely be replaced by his half-brother, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi Mohammed bin Zayed, who was already considered the the de facto ruler of the country.
The most visible testimony of Sheikh Khalifa is the tallest building in the world, Dubai’s Burj Khalifa, which was renamed after saving the debt-stricken emirate when the global financial crisis struck in 2009.
“The Ministry of Presidential Affairs has mourned the people of the United Arab Emirates, Arab and Islamic nations and the world over the death of President His Highness Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al-Nahyan,” tweeted the official WAM news agency.
The ministry has announced 40 days of mourning, with flags at half mast since Friday and suspended jobs in the public and private sectors for the first three days.
The funeral prayers would take place later on Friday.
While condolences came from abroad, US President Joe Biden called Sheikh Khalifa “a true partner and friend of the United States”.
Lebanon, Kuwait and neighboring Oman also ordered three days of mourning.
Sheikh Khalifa assumed the post of second president of the UAE in November 2004, succeeding his father as the sixteenth ruler of Abu Dhabi, the richest of the federation’s seven emirates.
He has made few public appearances since 2014, when he underwent surgery following a stroke, although he has continued to deliver sentences.
The cause of death was not immediately released.
The UAE, a former British protectorate founded in 1971, has gone from a desert outpost to a booming state in its short history, fueled by its oil wealth and Dubai’s rise as a commercial and financial center.
The second largest economy in the Arab world behind Saudi Arabia is now exerting growing political influence, filling a space ceded by traditional powers such as Egypt, Iraq and Syria.
The country of around 10 million has also joined military campaigns in Libya and Yemen and has broken ranks with much of the Arab world to establish ties with Israel in 2020.
– fragile figure –
Bearded Sheikh Khalifa had made a frail figure in his occasional public appearances, while his half-brother housed world leaders and conducted diplomatic forays abroad.
“The Emirates have lost their virtuous son and leader of the ’emancipation phase’ and the trustee of his blessed journey,” Mohammed bin Zayed tweeted.
“His positions, achievements, wisdom, generosity and initiatives are in every corner of the nation … Khalifa bin Zayed, my brother … may God have mercy on you and grant you access to heaven.”
Sheikh Khalifa, who had no formal higher education, led the UAE as Dubai emerged as a tourist and commercial hub while Abu Dhabi pumped oil as a key OPEC player.
He came to Dubai’s rescue when it was hit by the global financial crisis, extending a multi-billion dollar lifeline to the emirate.
The ruler of Dubai, the vice president of the United Arab Emirates, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al-Maktoum, said the country is in mourning “with hearts full of sadness”.
Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and the Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani, also expressed their condolences, along with powerful neighbors Saudi Arabia and India, Egypt, Syria, Pakistan and Ethiopia, among others.