Sheikh Khalifa: An icon of tolerance

The late President was a towering example of what a modern leader should be

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Published: Fri 13 May 2022, 8:33 PM

Last updated: Sat 14 May 2022, 12:57 AM

A true moderniser, a liberal reformer and torchbearer of founding father Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan’s rich legacy. The President, His Highness Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, was also a tolerant humanitarian and a man of the people who always had an ear to the ground. His heart was with the average Emirati citizen. It was an emotional bond that will live long after Sheikh Khalifa is gone. The late President was a towering example of what a modern leader should be, and the world’s tallest building in Dubai rightly bears his name for his achievements as President of the UAE for 18 years. As a moderniser, he was responsible for streamlining government ministries and their work.

While Sheikh Zayed built infrastructure, Sheikh Khalifa focused on nurturing communities across the UAE and the world to make them resilient and prepared for modern challenges. Ministerial reforms helped build accountability into the system of governance during his tenure. The Federal National Council was expanded and given more powers during his rule, and indirect elections were held to the legislature. Landmark legislative reforms saw more women participating in government. It stemmed from his vision of making the UAE a more inclusive and community-focused nation that put gender equality at its core. Sheikh Khalifa realised that stepping into his father’s shoes was a great responsibility. The standards were high, but he lived up to them with his vision for development that was inspired by Sheikh Zayed.

When he became President in 2004, there were many uncertainties in store. The country needed a man of wisdom, composure and calm at the helm of affairs in this scenario. And Sheikh Khalifa was just the man for this onerous task. He was down to earth and was a modest but tireless leader. His was an understated style of leadership, and it worked. The new president was also a pragmatic man, but patient, someone who firmly believed in what he had set out to do.

The building blocks of the nation were laid by Sheikh Zayed, the foundations were solid. Sheikh Khalifa’s task was to strengthen the structure of government and make it responsive to the aspirational needs of Emiratis who were growing into their roles as global citizens and slowly making a mark on international affairs. Expats were also keen on coming to the UAE in search of employment opportunities and a better future in the early 2000s, a period of much churn and migration. The President felt government intervention and guidance in all sectors of the economy were essential, much like Sheikh Zayed’s vision. The government’s role could not be ignored in the early development of the nation. It had to become an enabler for private enterprise, set the rules and make it an even playing field. There was also much work to be done to make the administration robust in empowering communities and businesses. Sheikh Khalifa was up to the task and prepared for his mission early in his presidency by travelling across the country, particularly to the northern emirates. It was his way of taking the government to the people and becoming more accessible to business leaders. He succeeded in both and what we see now is the process of diversification from oil that fuelled the country’s early years of growth. Private enterprise is now booming and the country has embraced what is known as the Fourth Industrial Revolution and the knowledge economy. In geopolitics, Sheikh Khalifa had to deal with the fallout of the ‘war on terror’ in the early 2000s and the Arab Spring of 2011 that brought down regimes in Algeria, Libya, Tunisia and Egypt. But the UAE, under Sheikh Khalifa, presented a new model of tolerance in an era strewn with strife. The country now has tolerance and happiness ministers. “The UAE and tolerance are two sides of the same coin and is an embodiment of people’s lifelong endeavour to achieve through history,” he said. In a first, a Catholic Pope visited the UAE in 2019 in a sign of growing rapprochement between the East and the West via the Middle East. This spirit of tolerance has since spread far and wide, and the Abraham Accords with Israel in 2020 doused the flames that threatened the very foundations of modern civilisation. The UAE matched its words with action and funding by rebuilding communities globally. Today, the UAE is the largest donor of humanitarian aid relative to national income, according to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development.

So what is Sheikh Khalifa’s legacy? It is the quality of life in the UAE, and a peaceful and tolerant model for the future this country offers to the world. Like he said: “Preparing for the future — near or far — starts today, not tomorrow.”

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