Sheikh Khalifa Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the president of the United Arab Emirates, died on Friday. He was a pro-Western moderniser who brought the Gulf Arab state closer to the US and its allies.
Khalifa, who was also ruler of the UAE’s richest emirate, Abu Dhabi, died, according to the Ministry of Presidential Affairs, although no specifics were provided.
Khalifa, who was born in 1948, has been a recluse since having a stroke in 2014. According to state news agency WAM, he was buried and funeral prayers were performed on Friday.
“The United Arab Emirates has lost its righteous son and leader of the ’empowerment phase’ and custodian of its beautiful path,” his half-brother and Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed wrote on Twitter, saluting Khalifa’s wisdom and charity.
For years, Mohammed, also known as MbZ, has been the de facto ruler of the United Arab Emirates, an OPEC oil producer and a major commercial and tourism hub that has sought to expand its political clout in the region and beyond.
On Friday, UAE official media began referring to MBZ as the new ruler of Abu Dhabi, which controls the majority of the UAE’s oil riches and has held the presidency since Khalifa’s father, the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan, founded the UAE federation in 1971.
According to the constitution, vice-president and premier Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, the ruler of Dubai, will serve as president until the federal supreme council, which brings together the rulers of the seven emirates, meets within 30 days to pick a new president.
Diplomats and observers predict that MbZ will become the new president, strengthening Abu Dhabi’s dominance, which had already risen under Khalifa, who took office in 2004.
Khalifa’s death comes at a time when Abu Dhabi’s relations with Washington have been clearly strained due to the United States’ perceived withdrawal from the security concerns of its Gulf allies.
“Not much will change in UAE foreign and internal policy, except MbZ will have even less motive to seek consensus with Dubai and other Emirates,” Cinzia Bianco, a research fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, tweeted.
MbZ oversaw a Middle East realignment that included the formation of a new anti-Iran axis with Israel and the combat of a rising wave of political Islam across the region.
In a statement, US President Joe Biden called Khalifa a “genuine partner and friend of the United States” and stated that the US will continue to deepen ties with the UAE.
“The legacy and excellent acts of Sheikh Khalifa were deeply recognized in Israel,” Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett remarked of the UAE’s connections with Israel in 2020.
Iran’s Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian, whose nation has had contentious ties with the UAE in the past, wrote a condolence message to his Emirati colleague, according to Iranian official media.
Ali Al Khatri, an Emirati citizen, said Khalifa will be remembered for his efforts to improve the country, which has a population of around 10 million people, the bulk of whom are expatriates.
Khatri, 32, told the journalists in Abu Dhabi, “We will remember him as our father.”
The UAE has declared a 40-day mourning period, with flags flying at half-staff and all governmental and private sector organizations suspending operations for three days.