An age ends with the passing on Friday of Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed al Nayhan, the ruler of the United Arab Emirates. His primary achievement was that he presided over the prosperous region’s phenomenal economic growth. And in his 18 years as Head of State, he built his country’s partnership with the United States of America and marshalled the oil wealth of the UAE to develop the Persian Gulf into an economic powerhouse.
The Sheikh had suffered a stroke in 2014, but no cause was given for the end. Sheikh Khalifa became the ruler of the UAE, a federation of seven semiautonomous city-states along the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman, after the death of his father in 2004.
His tenure was marked by swift economic development, dented only by a debt crisis in the glitzy metropolis of Dubai in the late 2000s that he helped end by pouring in billions of dollars from the wealthier emirate of Abu Dhabi.
His reign was also punctuated by the turmoil around the Middle East. During the uprisings known as the Arab Spring, which spread across the region in 2011, his government intervened behind the scenes to support strongmen and undermine political Islamists.
His military worked closely with the United States in Afghanistan, joined the coalition against the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq and partnered with Saudi Arabia in its military intervention against the Houthi rebels in Yemen in 2015. It was during his tenure that the Emirates and neighbouring Bahrain established formal diplomatic relations with Israel in 2020, the first Arab states to normalize relations with the Jewish state in nearly three decades.
Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan (MBZ), often described as the Gulf’s savviest leader and as a strategist who brings historical perspective to discussions, has been chosen to lead the UAE foundation. Under the Constitution, the Vice-President and Premier, who is the ruler of Dubai, acted as President until the federal supreme council, which groups the rulers of the seven emirates, met on Saturday to elect him.
This has further consolidated Abu Dhabi’s power which had already grown under Khalifa, who came to power in 2004. “Not much will change in UAE’s foreign and domestic policies, except that MBZ will have even fewer reasons to seek consensus with Dubai and other Emirates,” tweeted Cinzia Bianco, a research fellow at the European Council of Foreign Relations. MBZ had led a realignment of West Asia that created a new anti-Iran axis with Israel and fought a rising tide of political Islam around the region.