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UAE’s long-ailing leader Sheikh Khalifa dies at 73

DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES (AP) – The United Arab Emirates’ (UAE) long-ailing ruler and president, Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, died yesterday, the government announced in a brief statement. He was 73.

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 over a decade ago.

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-factor ruler and decision-maker of major foreign policy decisions, such as joining a war in Yemen and spearheading an embargo on neighbouring Qatar in recent years.

The UAE announced a 40-day period of mourning and a three-day suspension of work across the government and private sector, including flags to be flown at half-staff.

There was no immediate announcement on a successor, although Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed is anticipated to claim the presidency. He would assume the title at a time of high oil prices, which boost the UAE’s spending power.

“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 the Almighty grant you eternal peace.”

United Arab Emirates President Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan. PHOTOS: AP
People pass by the UAE national flag flying at half-staff after the announcement of the Emirates president’s death

In a statement, United States (US) Secretary of State Anthony Blinken described Sheikh Khalifa “as a true friend of the United States”, adding that the US remains committed to its steadfast friendship and cooperation with 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 poured in from around the region and the world, foremost from leaders of Arab countries supported by Abu Dhabi.

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 was founded in 1971 and 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. On occasion, Emirati state media published rare photographs and videos of Sheikh Khalifa.

The president holds the most powerful position among the seven semi-autonomous city-states of the UAE, which stretches along the shores of the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman.

Historically, the president is from Abu Dhabi, the largest and riches of the seven emirates. The vice president and prime minister is from Dubai, titles currently held by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum.

Despite its size and wealth, Abu Dhabi often finds itself overshadowed by the glitzy emirate of Dubai, the commercial hub that showcases both the UAE’s bold visions and, at times, debt-fuelled pipe dreams, including a massive palm-shaped man-made island that sits empty years after its construction.