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The Gulf Lost a Remarkable Leader, Sheikh Khalifah bin Zayed Al Nahyan (1948-2022)

The death last week of His Highness Sheikh Khalifah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the President of the United Arab Emirates and Ruler of Abu Dhabi, did not mark a political milestone and change in government. That occurred in 2014 when he suffered a debilitating stroke that made it impossible to continue to carry out his responsibilities as the leader of a relatively young but extremely dynamic country still making its mark in the world. The baton passed to his younger brother Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed who effectively took control of the UAE’s federal government, leaving Sheikh Khalifah the dignity of continuing as titular head of state and government. Sheikh Mohammed shared with his elder brother a common vision of the future of the Federation; a more unified federation and a bigger and more influential role for the UAE on the regional and global stages. Only the style of government changed. Sheikh Mohammed implemented the same policies in a much more ambitious and impatient manner than the low-keyed and perhaps more deliberate Sheikh Khalifah. Otherwise, they both worked to advance the vision of their late father, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan, and the co-founder (Sheikh Rashid Al Maktoum of Dubai) of the United Arab Emirates in 1971.

A Good Man

I will, personally, miss Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan. I had served in Abu Dhabi as Deputy Chief of Mission from 1980 to 1983 and, for reasons related to the insanity of the American ambassadorial process, spent almost two-thirds of my tour as my country’s charge d’affaires. My first ambassador left shortly after I arrived in 1980, and the White House could not sort out a replacement until the summer of 1982. During this period, I gained a deep admiration for Sheikh Khalifa, who was then Crown Prince and the de facto governor of Abu Dhabi.

Sheikh Khalifa’s quiet, somewhat shy and withdrawn mien belied a very serious, thoughtful, and intelligent leader. He had a broad portfolio, with responsibility for the management of the Emirate of Abu Dhabi as head of the Executive Council, the Deputy Commander of the UAE Armed Forces, and the Commander of the Abu Dhabi Armed Forces, the most powerful component of the federation’s combined defense forces. At that time, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, Sheikh Khalifa’s younger half-brother, was just embarking on his career; over the next thirty years, the two would create and command what would become the most effective military machine in the Gulf. Sheikh Khalifa managed the affairs of Abu Dhabi in a competent but low-key fashion, without fanfare. He delegated extensively, so much so that I and other diplomats rarely had occasion to engage with him directly. He went out of his way to respect the dignity and autonomy of the other six emirates, particularly the smaller and poorer ones that depended in Abu Dhabi for economic survival. At the same time, he treated Dubai’s insistence on serving as a co-capital city with an amused reserve but ultimately a firm denial. Sheikh Khalifa’s father, Sheikh Zayed, the then President of the UAE, was a dominating personality whose presence was felt in all parts of the country. Given the immense authority of Sheikh Khalifa’s father, it was reflexively very easy for many of my diplomatic colleagues to dismiss his eldest son as a key player in the UAE’s decision-making process.

Some of us learned quickly, and others a bit too late, that this dismissal was a mistake. Throughout his life, Sheikh Zayed relied more on the advice and counsel of his quiet eldest son than many of us realized, and would back his son’s decisions to the hilt. Sheikh Khalifa studied issues carefully and at length, frustrating many outside observers and leaving the mistaken impression that he could not make decisions. Once made, however, the sheikh’s decisions stuck and were implemented, with generally positive results.

Sometime in 1982, the Foreign Ministry summoned me to receive a letter addressed to me by name as charge d’affaires and signed personally by Sheikh Khalifa informing me that the UAE Armed Forces would forbid payment of commissions to Emirati entities on any sales or other transactions by American companies. At that point, the letter was moot. The United States had lifted its “stealth embargo” only a year before, and until then we had sold nothing of value in the defense sector to the Emirates. I soon learned that Sheikh Khalifa had sent otherwise identical individualized letters to every North American and European ambassador in Abu Dhabi as well. I will leave readers to imagine the outrage that roiled the diplomatic corps. One or two had the temerity to protest, at least unofficially, and all argued that it would never be implemented. This gave me the opportunity to plug for U.S. arms sales, citing the then recently enacted Foreign Corrupt Practices Act as an example of how U.S. and UAE policies converged. At this point, Sheikh Khalifa could have politely dismissed me; instead, to my considerable surprise, he asked me for a copy of the FCPA. The sheikh had stronger anti-corruption views than most political leaders I had met in my career. These views helped to reinforce the UAE’s early financial success. Sheikh Khalifa had both operational and nominal control of the Abu Dhabi Investment Authority (ADIA) and the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC), the two principal economic drivers of the Emirate’s (and indirectly) the Federation’s economies; his honesty and integrity played a key role in ensuring that they have become the giants they are today.

Quiet Effective Crisis Management

My tour in the United Arab Emirates was largely dominated by the Iran-Iraq War, which broke out only two months after my arrival. This led to my first exercise in crisis management. Early in the war, the embassy received reports that Iraqi helicopters had secretly deployed to Ras al-Khaimah to launch an attack against Iran. Our concerned calls to the Emirati government elicited a response within the next day that “the problem had flown away.” A few weeks later I met Sheikh Khalifa, who told me with a smile and a wink that the incident had never occurred. The Iran-Iraq War spurred the United States to reconsider its policy of avoiding significant military engagement with the states of the lower Gulf, and Washington quickly inundated the Embassy, which had no assigned military attaché, with requests for port visits and overflights. I later learned that every one of the requests I delivered to my counterparts in Abu Dhabi passed through an intense process of consultation with the emirate’s notables, a process managed by Sheikh Khalifah, before I got a response.

Sheikh Khalifa succeeded his father as Ruler of Abu Dhabi and was elected President of the UAE on the latter’s passing in 2004. He managed the economic crisis of 2008 adroitly, mitigating the damage to the overall UAE economy while subtly but effectively clipping the wings of Dubai as a rival capital city. The renaming of Burj Dubai, the world’s tallest structure, as the Burj Khalifa—named in honor of his father, naturally, rather than himself—made that clear.

Sadly, Sheikh Khalifa suffered a stroke in 2014 that left him unable to perform his duties. De facto authority in both of his major positions passed to his younger brother, Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed, who has effectively governed the United Arab Emirates since then. While I have no special knowledge of the inner workings of the ruling family, numerous informed friends tell me that the warm personal relations between the two brothers that I had observed during my time in Abu Dhabi continued until Sheikh Khalifa’s death. With his passing on May 13th, Sheikh Mohamed assumed the title of Ruler of Abu Dhabi automatically. The Federal Supreme Council of the Federation elected him President of the UAE the following day. There is no reason to believe that his passing will have any effect on the UAE’s domestic and foreign policies; as a practical matter, Sheikh Mohamed has ruled the Federation for eight years, and he will almost certainly continue to rule for much longer.

What Happens Next?

The question that seems to most engage both UAE citizens and foreign observers is whom Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed will designate as his Crown Prince and eventual successor. Although technically the Crown Prince only succeeds as Emir of Abu Dhabi, the political and economic predominance of the emirate effectively guarantees that the Federal Supreme Council, the body on which the ruler of each emirate sits, will select the ruler of Abu Dhabi as President. Though Sheikh Mohamed, as of this writing, has given no hint of his choice, speculation has so far centered on his eldest son, Sheikh Khalid bin Mohamed, aged 40, who currently serves as Chairman of the Abu Dhabi Executive Office—effectively the governor of Abu Dhabi—or one of Sheikh Mohammed’s five full brothers.

Primogeniture is not the rule in the traditional Arab states. Tradition decrees that the ruling family has the responsibility to rule, rather than an individual, and that the family decides whom to anoint from among its members. As such, if Sheikh Mohamed were to select his son as Crown Prince when he has five full brothers all in their prime and all working in some of the most important jobs in the UAE, this would constitute a serious break in tradition and would raise numerous questions about the family’s internal unity—potentially even leading to questions about the future stability of Abu Dhabi. On the other hand, such a succession process raises a question as to whether this would, as a practical matter, rule out Sheikh Khalid bin Mohamed, Sheikh Mohamed’s son, ever becoming Ruler of Abu Dhabi, given the relatively young ages of his uncles.

In neighboring Saudi Arabia, which follows the same tradition, six sons (of a reputed total of 45) have come to the throne since the 1953 death of the Founder of the Kingdom, Abdulaziz bin Abdurrahman Al Saud, commonly known as “Ibn Saud.” Only the current King, Salman, looks to have ensured the succession of his son, Mohammed bin Salman to the throne when he dies. Nor does tradition dictate that the eldest succeeds to power.

Although thoughts on the UAE’s future succession are to an extent pure speculation, it would appear that Sheikh Mohammed will select as Crown Prince the person who would have the skills, public acceptance, and vision to carry on with his principal objectives: (1) deepening the centralization of the Federation under Abu Dhabi; (2) ensuring that the Al Nahyan family assumes the mantle of the Ruling Family for all of the UAE and not just Abu Dhabi; and (3) guaranteeing that the “Bani Fatima,” the sons of Fatima bint Mubarak al Ketbi (the favorite wife of Sheikh Zayed), control the family.

This argues in favor of selecting a brother as Crown Prince, but which brother? Most observers believe that Sheikh Tahnoon bin Zayed, Sheikha Fatima’s fourth son, is probably the most competitive for the job. Sheikh Mohamed appointed him as national security advisor for the UAE in 2016. In recent years, he has been the point man for virtually all high-profile UAE international initiatives, such as visits to Iran, Qatar, and Turkey; receiving important foreign visitors, such as U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan; and, apparently, managing the return of Syria’s President Bashar Al Assad to legitimacy in the Arab world.

In the meantime, a long list of foreign dignitaries has passed through Abu Dhabi, paying their respects for the death of Sheikh Khalifa. Sheikh Khalifa deserves their every respect; during his life, he was polite, intelligent, modest, honest, and generous. May God rest his soul.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.

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Ambassador Patrick Theros is a Strategic Adviser for Gulf International Forum. Previously he held positions as Political Advisor to the Commander in Chief, Central Command; Deputy Chief of Mission and Political officer in Amman; Charge D’affaires and Deputy Chief of Mission in Abu Dhabi; Economic Counselor in Damascus; and U.S. Ambassador to the State of Qatar. In a career spanning almost 36 years, he also has served in diplomatic positions in Beirut, Managua, Dharan and Abu Dhabi, as well as in the Department of State. During that period, he earned four Superior Honor Awards. After retirement Ambassador Theros served as President of the U.S. Qatar Business Council in 2000-2017.

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