Sheikh Khalifa: A humble President who cared about his people

The late leader empowered the population and strengthened the country


Anjana Sankar

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Published: Tue 17 May 2022, 7:30 PM

Last updated: Fri 20 May 2022, 4:21 PM

It was a regular weekend in the UAE. A group of Western expats was camping in the Liwa desert — in the Western (Al Gharbia) region of Abu Dhabi — when they saw a convoy of half-a-dozen four-wheelers whiz past them and disappear over a sand dune.

A few minutes later, to their surprise, one of the cars returned and drove straight back towards them. A man in a white flowing kandura, the traditional Arab attire, rolled down a window and asked one of the expats to follow him to where the convoy was parked a few hundred metres away.

Seated in a car was Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the second President of the UAE. The stunned expat later told his friends how the former Ruler of Abu Dhabi had asked about their well-being, and even offered them some fresh fruits.

“He wanted to check whether they were happy and safe. He was showing care and attention to his people in a quiet, modest way,” recollected Peter Hellyer, author and historian.

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And he did it without any fuss. “He didn't like fuss,” said Hellyer.

Remembering one of the incidents that showed Sheikh Khalifa’s attitude to public life, Hellyer said an important foreign ambassador in the UAE had once gone to meet him in Al Ain.

“He was sitting on the floor with a few friends, chatting and waiting for the ambassador. There was no formality, no pomp, no splendour. He was always kind and generous and liked to keep a low profile.”

The President, who passed away at the age of 73 on May 13, leaving the mantle to his brother, His Highness Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, is fondly remembered by Emiratis as well as expats as a man who cared less about the limelight and more about the welfare of his people.

As the eldest son of the country's revered Founding Father and first President Sheikh Zayed (pictured below left), the young Sheikh Khalifa learned the basic lessons of public life and leadership by watching the patriarch and accompanying him on his trips and meetings.

Growing up in Al Ain and Al Buraimi, he saw Sheikh Zayed, who governed Al Ain region at that time, hold majlises and have long interactions with Emiratis and tribal leaders.

"My father is my teacher," he once said in a 1990 interview. "I learn something from him every day, follow his path and absorb from him his values, and the need for patience and prudence in all things."

Early years

Sheikh Khalifa was born on September 7, 1948, at the Al Muwaiji Fort in Al Ain, when the UAE as a country did not even exist. He was named after his great grandfather, Sheikh Khalifa bin Shakhbout.

He was only 18 when he was appointed the Ruler’s Representative in the Eastern Region after Sheikh Zayed became the Ruler of Abu Dhabi and moved to the capital. In 1969, while the emirate was still a British protectorate, he was appointed the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi.

At the age of 57, when he succeeded Sheikh Zayed in 2004, Sheikh Khalifa had evolved into a seasoned statesman.

On the first UAE National Day after he became the President in 2004, Sheikh Khalifa spoke about his deep sadness at the passing away of his father. But the bereavement and sadness also came with a deep sense of responsibility to continue his legacy.

“Sheikh Zayed's values and style of leadership will remain the beacon which will continue to guide us as we strengthen our federation and maintain the achievements and gains that the country has made in various spheres of developments," he had said.

His legacy

Sheikh Zayed used the country’s oil wealth to build a modern state in which both Emiratis and residents from overseas enjoyed a high standard of living. Sheikh Khalifa continued his father’s "open door policy" where people from all nationalities and religions could coexist in peace.

Under Sheikh Khalifa, nationwide development projects worth over Dh40 billion were implemented. Education, healthcare and women’s empowerment became focal areas. Schools, universities and hospitals were built to improve the quality of life in the emirates.

One of the greatest legacies of Sheikh Khalifa was his keen interest in providing free housing and financial support for Emiratis. Hessa Al Kaabi, an Emirati author who wrote 50 years under Sheikh Zayed’s Shadow, told Khaleej Times how her grandmother was moved to tears when she received the keys to a new house on Sheikh Khalifa’s directive.

“She felt it was a dream. She was living in a small, overcrowded house in Al Ain and had no means to build a big house,” said Al Kaabi who works as an HR professional in a government department in Abu Dhabi.

“They could not believe that their ruler cared so much. The new house was big, it had furniture and all other amenities including air conditioners,” said Al Kaabi.

'A patient man'

Unlike many Arab leaders, not much is known about Sheikh Khalifa’s private life. Acquaintances said that he was passionate about falconry and enjoyed fishing. The most common impression he left behind was that he was patient, kind and a keen listener.

In an interview, Sheikh Mohamed once said that his elder brother Sheikh Khalifa was a patient man.

“He doesn’t get angry easily and has a high tolerance when dealing with people. However, for him, the red line was corruption; he doesn’t tolerate it.”

The final years of his Presidency saw him less on public platforms because of ill health. In a moving tribute, Sheikh Mohamed said that “the late UAE leader was the heart of our family and the guardian of our nation”.

His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, said Sheikh Khalifa’s “giving to the country was unlimited, and he was preoccupied with enhancing citizens’ well-being.”

Building relations on the global stage

While the people in the UAE showered him with love, Sheikh Khalifa’s stature on the international stage also grew. He continued to build a sound foreign policy based on the principles of sovereignty, respect and bilateral cooperation.

In a rare interview with Al-Roeya newspaper in 2009, he told Saudi journalist and current Saudi ambassador to the UAE, Turki bin Abdullah Al Dakheel, that the UAE’s foreign relations are based on “respecting neighbours, staying away from polarisation and standing by the righteous", Arab News reported.

Britain’s Queen Elizabeth (pictured below), whom he had met on an official visit to the United Kingdom (UK) in 2014, was among those who paid their respects. In a message, she said she was “saddened” to hear of the death of the President of the UAE.

Photo: Wam
Photo: Wam

"Your distinguished brother devoted his life to serving the people of the United Arab Emirates and his relationship with its allies and friends. He will be long remembered by all who work for regional stability, understanding between nations and between faiths, and for the conservation cause,” she wrote to Sheikh Mohamed.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi echoed a similar sentiment in his condolence message. He called Sheikh Khalifa “a great statesman and visionary leader” under whom India-UAE relations prospered.

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