Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan Obituary

On 13 May 2022, Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the second President of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces and the Ruler of Abu Dhabi, died at 74 after a long battle with health issues. He was buried the next day by his family members at the Al Bateen Cemetery in Abu Dhabi.


Khalifa (born 7 September 1948) was the first-born son of Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan — at that time the youngest brother of Abu Dhabi’s ruler Shakbut bin Sultan Al Nahyan and his Representative in the Eastern Region — and his first wife, Hassa bint Mohammed bin Khalifa Al Nahyan, daughter of Khalifa bin Zayed bin Khalifa Al Nahyan, the eldest son of Zayed bin Khalifa Al Nahyan (also known as “Zayed the First”). From father’s side Khalifa was the grandson of Salama bint Butti Al-Qubaisi and Sultan bin Zayed bin Khalifa Al Nahyan, who ruled Abu Dhabi for four years until his assassination in 1926 during a period of family power struggle among the many sons of Zayed the First, whose long reign (1855-1909) was characterised by stability and prosperity. His full name — Khalifa bin Zayed bin Sultan bin Zayed bin Khalifa bin Shakhbut bin Theyab bin Issa bin Nahyan bin Falah bin Yas — shows his paternal line all the way to Yas bin Amer, the tribal progenitor of Bani Yas (descendants of Yas) tribal federation to which the Al Nahyan belong.


As the oldest son of Zayed bin Sultan, Khalifa was primed for a leadership role in the Emirate of Abu Dhabi  since Zayed replaced his brother Shakbut — who ruled Abu Dhabi since 1928 — in 1966 and initiated a series of reforms, investing in the development of the emirate. The political career of the (then) 18 year old Khalifa, Zayed’s only adult son, commenced as he briefly took over his father’s role as Abu Dhabi  Representative in the Eastern Region (Al Ain). In 1969, a year after the British announced their intended withdrawal from the Gulf and amid plans for a federation of emirates, Khalifa was named the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, a position he held for nearly four decades (until 2004), in a bid to cement the future succession line for Zayed’s sons and prevent familial struggles. In his new capacity as the Deputy Ruler, Khalifa worked with his counterparts from the other eight emirates, namely: Ajman, Bahrain, Dubai, Fujairah, Qatar, Ras Al Khaimah, Sharjah, and Umm Al Quwain, to resolve outstanding issues about the future form and representation of the federation and drafting recommendations for the rulers’ meetings.


With the creation of the United Arab Emirates in 1971, as the eldest son of the President and the heir-apparent, Khalifa took on a number of official positions shaping the structure and policies of both the Abu Dhabi emirate and the federation. Aged 23, he was appointed Abu Dhabi’s Prime Minister and Minister of Defence and Finance in the first Abu Dhabi Cabinet and, at 25, Khalifa became Deputy Prime Minister of the UAE (1973-1977). Since 1974, he served as Chairman of the Abu Dhabi Executive Council (the Cabinet of the emirate), created on Khalifa’s order amid a government restructuring. Simultaneously, he oversaw the allocation of wealth, land and loans at low interest rates to Abu Dhabi’s citizens as Head of the Department for Social Services and Commercial Buildings (also known as the “Khalifa Committee”) as well as the distribution of foreign assistance to Arab countries and beyond through the Abu Dhabi Fund for Arab Economic Development (later the Abu Dhabi Fund for Development) that he chaired since the late 1970s.


Khalifa also had a prominent role in defence and the construction of the military. As Head of the Abu Dhabi Department of Defence he was responsible for the formation of the emirate’s forces (the Abu Dhabi Defence Force) and later worked with Dubai’s Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the UAE Defence Minister, on developing UAE’s federal military through unifying the emirates’ individual forces into what would become the Federal Defence Forces (UAE Armed Forces) in 1976. A graduate of the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst, Khalifa assumed the position of Deputy Supreme Commander and approved the federal military’s structure and ordered the preparation of the first unified defence budget.


Amid regional challenges, Khalifa sought to build a strong military through diversifying arms suppliers and acquiring state-of-the-art equipment. One of his first European visits in his capacity led to Paris upon the invitation of the French Minister of Defence and in 1977 during his next visit to France, the two countries signed a defence pact, enabling the UAE to receive French military equipment. In the 1970s, amid the Arab-Israeli wars, he worked to strengthen Arab cooperation. In 1975 he led the UAE’s delegation to the first meeting of the Arab Military Industrialisation Corporation (AMIC), established together with Egypt, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia to supervise the collective development of the Arab defence industry to decrease foreign reliance. Reinstating relations with Egypt in 1987, after Cairo’s peace deal with Israel and readmission to the Arab League, Khalifa hosted an exhibition of Egyptian defence equipment in the UAE, highlighting the need for reinstating cooperation among the AMIC member-states to build-up their armed forces without  depending on foreign defence imports.


In the 1980s, amid the Gulf War and the ambiguous position of the US and Europe and the Soviet invasion to Afghanistan, he called on the United Nations Security Council to adopt a resolution calling for a ceasefire in Iran-Iraq war (1984) and promoted closer military and defence cooperation among the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members, envisaging strong national militaries that would help protect the Gulf and decrease their vulnerability to foreign interference. Following the resurfacing of the secret US arms supplies to Iran during the Iran-Iraq war, Khalifa said the UAE was open to receiving weapons from the Soviet bloc to strengthen defence capabilities, he held talks with the first Chinese delegation to the UAE in 1984 and in 1989 the UAE acquired ballistic missiles from North Korea. In the 1990s, he oversaw the establishment of IDEX (the International Defence Exhibition & Conference), the largest arms and defence technology sales exhibition and conference in the Middle East, in a bid to boost UAE’s status and capabilities.


When the Abu Dhabi government assumed ownership of a 60% share from Western-held oil concessions and transferred it to its nascent energy major, the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC) in 1974, it took on a greater responsibility for administering Abu Dhabi’s oil resources, which are among the largest in the world and represent the majority of the UAE’s total oil reserves. Thus, during the late 1970s and 1980s, Khalifa began to be more engaged in energy policies, meeting with other officials and awarding oil concessions to US, Canadian, East German, British and other companies. He managed Abu Dhabi’s oil and gas policies, development and wealth, and allocation of investments stemming from his chairmanship of several key institutions — Abu Dhabi’s Supreme Petroleum Council (est. 1988), and by extension Abu Dhabi’s energy major, the ADNOC, as well as the Abu Dhabi Investment Authority (est. 1976), the emirate’s sovereign wealth fund.


Khalifa’s accession to President occurred within a wider leadership change in the GCC, precipitating an era of modernisation. Khalifa then worked to strengthen federal institutions and, following his father’s legacy of the commitment to the seven emirates’ unity, steering them through the 2008 global financial crisis, which led to Dubai renaming the world’s tallest building as Burj Khalifa. He oversaw the restructuring of the UAE Cabinet in 2006, with Vice-President and Dubai Ruler Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum becoming the country’s Prime Minister, and developing the UAE’s first long-term strategy in 2007, which envisaged the UAE becoming the global leader in various fields, mirroring the future modernisation vision of the country and the swelling number of portfolios needed to achieve it. In another important step, Khalifa introduced indirect elections for half of the Federal National Council in 2006, which has been previously fully appointed, and later introduced a mandatory 50:50 quota on gender representation in the Council. During his reign, the UAE has taken great strides to expand its influence in the Arab world and beyond through economic and soft power as well as military and defence capabilities. Domestically, the country has made enormous progress in nearly all sectors—from education, healthcare and social services to energy, economic diversification and into cutting-edge areas such as: developing civilian nuclear energy and its space programme with the first Arab mission to Mars.


Khalifa’s contribution to the formation and development of Abu Dhabi and the UAE over his nearly six decade long career are indisputable. His personality will be greatly missed in the Gulf and beyond. His passing marked the end of an era and the opening of a new chapter for the country and the region as his half-brother, Crown Prince Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, was unanimously voted in to replace him by the remaining six emirates’ rulers in a smooth accession process.


18 May 2022



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