Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, who marshaled the oil wealth of the United Arab Emirates to develop the Persian Gulf nation into an economic powerhouse and close partner of the United States during his 18 years as head of state, died Friday. He was 73.
His death was reported by the state-run Emirates News Agency. No cause was given. Sheikh Khalifa had a stroke in 2014 and subsequently stepped back from many of his public duties. The government announced that government offices and private businesses would close for three days beginning Friday, and that a 40-day mourning period would be observed across the country.
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.
Dubai thanked him by naming the world’s tallest building after him, changing its name from Burj Dubai to Burj Khalifa.
His reign was also punctuated by 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 group 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 neighboring Bahrain established formal diplomatic relations with Israel in 2020, the first Arab states to normalize relations with the Jewish state in nearly three decades.
In the Emirates, Sheikh Khalifa was a towering, if remote, figure, who rarely appeared in public but whose image was seemingly everywhere: on the walls in government offices, behind reception desks at hotels. In addition to serving as the emir of Abu Dhabi, he was the country’s president and the head of its armed forces, investment fund, and petroleum council, which oversees oil policy.
After his stroke, he stepped back from the daily affairs of government, delegating power to his younger half brother, Mohammed bin Zayed, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi, who championed a more assertive foreign policy.
It was widely expected that Sheikh Mohammed would succeed Sheikh Khalifa as the Emirates’ new ruler, but no information about the formal succession process was immediately available.
In a post on Twitter, Sheikh Mohammed said Emiratis were “united in grief” at the loss of a “brother and mentor.”
“We were blessed by your strength, wisdom and leadership,” he wrote.
In a statement, President Joe Biden called Sheikh Khalifa “a true partner and friend of the United States,” and said the U.S. government would “honor his memory by continuing to strengthen the long-standing ties between the governments and people of the United States and the United Arab Emirates.”
Like other oil-rich monarchies in the Persian Gulf, the Emirates has long looked to the United States for protection from external threats as well as a place to buy expensive military equipment.
But tensions between the two countries have risen this year over the Emirates’ resistance to join Western efforts to isolate President Vladimir Putin of Russia over his invasion of Ukraine. Also clouding relations is a sense in the Emirates that the United States is not doing enough to ensure the security of its Gulf partners, especially from Iran and its armed proxies.
Sheikh Khalifa was born in 1948 in the oasis of Al Ain in the emirate of Abu Dhabi. He was the first son of Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, who would become the Emirates’ first post-independence ruler, and Hassa bint Mohammed bin Khalifa Al Nahyan.
At the time, Abu Dhabi was one of a collection of Arab sheikhdoms in southeastern Arabia that had signed protective treaties with the British. Sheikh Khalifa studied at the British Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst.
In 1966, the British installed his father as the ruler of Abu Dhabi in a bloodless coup against Sheikh Zayed’s elder brother.
Sheikh Khalifa returned to Abu Dhabi from Britain to work under his father, and his role grew after the Emirates became independent in 1971 and his father became head of state. Sheikh Khalifa headed the petroleum council, which oversaw oil policy, a key post in a desert country with few resources other than hydrocarbons.
He also oversaw the armed forces and the country’s sovereign wealth fund, which grew to an estimated $700 billion, making it one of the world’s largest.
His father died in 2004, and the next day Sheikh Khalifa succeeded him as the ruler of Abu Dhabi and the president of the Emirates, positions he held until his death.
His personal wealth was said to have been formidable. In 2011, Forbes reported that he was worth $15 billion, making him one of the world’s richest monarchs. In 2018, the magazine placed him No. 43 on its list of the world’s most powerful people.
Sheikh Khalifa is survived by his wife, Shamsa bint Suhail Al Mazrouei, their eight children, and an undisclosed number of grandchildren.