By Peter Hellyer.
On Friday 13 May, 2022, residents of the UAE learned that the country’s second president, HH Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, had died. He had been President and Ruler of Abu Dhabi since November 2004, when he succeeded his father, the UAE’S Founding Father, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan. Following a stroke in early 2014, Sheikh Khalifa had handed over most of his powers to his brother, Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed, the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, who has now succeeded him as UAE President and Abu Dhabi Ruler.
Sheikh Khalifa’s service to the country goes back well over 50 years, before the UAE was formed. He was appointed by his father as Abu Dhabi Ruler’s Representative in Al Ain in 1966, when he was only 18, and became Crown Prince in 1969, a post he held for 35 years. He also headed the Abu Dhabi Cabinet, later called the Executive Council, and had a variety of other major roles, heading the Abu Dhabi Investment Authority, the Abu Dhabi Fund for Development and the Supreme Petroleum Council, as well as being Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces.
In all of these, acting as his father’s right-hand man, he guided the development of Abu Dhabi’s infrastructure for over 30 years.
One of his key areas of activity was the provision of housing and other support to local citizens. In Abu Dhabi, throughout the 1980s and 1990s, he presided over a huge programme of loans and grants that not only funded the construction of the buildings that today provide the essential infrastructure but also ensured that most citizens had homes of their own.
After becoming president in 2004, Sheikh Khalifa launched a similar programme in other emirates, with thousands of houses being built for citizens along with hospitals and other facilities.
The cost of these development programmes ran, over the years, into the tens of billions of dirhams. With many of the beneficiaries of Sheikh Khalifa’s remarkable generosity being UAE citizens, these programmes attracted little attention from the UAE’s expatriate communities or from overseas visitors. They explain, however, the way in which the people of the Emirates had an enormous affection for Sheikh Khalifa.
During his years as Ruler’s Representative then Crown Prince in Abu Dhabi, and then as UAE President, he provided an example of a lifetime of service to his people.
Despite his high positions, Sheikh Khalifa was never one to seek the limelight. In consequence, few outside his own people knew of the details of his innate kindness, his generosity and his dedication to service. Those details are best known amongst his family, friends and those who worked with him.
His passing is, in many ways, the end of an era. As aide and right-hand of his father Sheikh Zayed until 2004, he helped to build the UAE. Then, as President, he led the country through the difficult transition years after the death of his father, the nation’s founder, until illness required him to take a less active role.
He leaves behind him a stable, confident and secure nation that owes much to the dedication and hard work of this kind and good man.