Al Nahyan, Khalifa Bin Zayid (1948–)

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Al Nahyan, Khalifa Bin Zayid

Ruler of the Emirate of Abu Dhabi since 2004, Khalifa bin Zayid Al Nahyan is also the president of the United Arab Emirates.


Shaykh Khalifa bin Zayid Al Nahyan has been president of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and the Emir and ruler of Abu Dhabi since 2004. As chairman of Abu Dhabi's Supreme Petroleum Council, he is also responsible for management of Abu Dhabi's massive share of the country's considerable oil wealth.

Khalifa was born in 1948 in al-Ayn, the most prominent among a cluster of eight villages located in the easternmost reaches of the Emirate of Abu Dhabi in an oasis region that overlaps the border with Oman. He is the eldest son of the late Shaykh Zayid bin Sultan Al Nahyan, who ruled Abu Dhabi from 1966 until his death in 2004 and served as the first president of the UAE upon its founding on 2 December 1971 until his passing in 2004. Shaykh Khalifa's mother, Shaykha Hassa bint Muhammad bin Khalifa bin Zayid Al Nahyan, was from a collateral branch of the Al Bu Falah branch of the ruling Bani Yas tribe. Among his siblings, from different mothers, are Shaykhs Sultan, deputy Prime Minister of the UAE; Muhammad, crown prince of Abu Dhabi and deputy supreme commander of the UAE armed forces; Hamdan, also a deputy prime minister of the UAE; Saif, UAE Minister of the Interior; Abdullah, UAE Foreign Minister; Hamad, Tahnun, Sa'id, and a dozen other half-brothers, many of whom occupy key posts in the UAE or local Abu Dhabi governments.

Abu Dhabi, is by far the largest of the seven UAE emirates and is situated atop more than 90 percent of the UAE's oil and gas reserves. It also has foreign instruments estimated conservatively to be in excess of US$750 billion. Therefore, the overall power and influence of the ruling family and emirate that Shaykh Khalifa heads is without a peer within the confederation.

Shaykh Khalifa received his initial education from the traditional system of learning then long in practice in the oasis setting of al-Ayn where he was born and raised. A core feature of the system was its emphasis upon learning to read and write Arabic, memorization and recitation of the Qur'an, and the study of selected sayings as well as exemplary practices of the Prophet Muhammad. For those born into a ruling household, there was additional emphasis upon understanding and assimilating lessons in leadership learned from one's ancestors, including the broad outlines of Islamic values, moral principles, and the traditions, institutions, and practices associated with one's family, tribe, and society. Prior to 1958, when Shaykh Khalifa was ten years old, no formal school system existed in Abu Dhabi. Shaykh Khalifa spent time at Sandhurst, the British armed forces academy.

Public appointments commenced in 1966 for Shaykh Khalifa when he assumed two posts in al-Ayn, namely ruler's representative in the eastern region of Abu Dhabi and head of the courts department. In the early years after the establishment of the UAE in 1971, this area was sometimes referred to informally as an eighth UAE emirate, owing to its size, population, degree of development, and the extent of its government apparatus relative to most of the other emirates. Being responsible for the day-to-day administration of this multifaceted oasis region with its different tribes, half dozen villages, and its agriculture-based economy's dependence upon perennially scarce sources of water would have tested the capacity for effective leadership of anyone. In Shaykh Khalifa's case, it provided an ideal laboratory within which he was able to learn and practice firsthand the time-honored leadership skills of consultation and consensus essential for the promotion and maintenance of, among other things, political stability, domestic security, and a sense of material well being. Being head of the courts department required that he become steeped in and adept at overseeing administration of the emirate's system of law enforcement and justice in keeping with the body of jurisprudence (fiqh) and sources (usul) of law applied in Abu Dhabi in association with the Maliki school of Islamic legalistic thought, one of four schools of Islamic law recognized among Sunni Muslims worldwide.

In 1969, Shaykh Khalifa was named crown prince of Abu Dhabi and head of the Department of Defense, where he presided over the Abu Dhabi Defense Force (ADDF), later to become the core of the UAE's military. Following the first ADDF Chief of Staff, Shaykh Khalid bin Sultan Al Qasimi, eldest son of the immediate past ruler of the Emirate of Ra's al-Khaymah, there would be a succession of Jordanian chiefs of staff seconded to Abu Dhabi by then king hussein bin talal of Jordan prior to the assumption of this post by Abu Dhabians. Since then to the early twenty-first century, Shaykh Khalifa has maintained a strong interest in the modernization and development of Abu Dhabi's and the UAE's defense establishment.

During Shaykh Khalifa's service as deputy supreme commander, until his accession as ruler of Abu Dhabi and election as UAE president, the UAE armed forces have seen action in various international contexts. In 1976, the military was sent to Lebanon as part of the Arab Deterrent Force, which aimed to defuse the civil war then raging in that country. During the Kuwait Crisis and Gulf War of 1990–1991, the UAE armed forces played an active role, with several hundred Emirati troops taking part in the internationally concerted action to reverse Iraq's aggression against Kuwait. UAE armed forces personnel were also sent to Somalia in 1993 and participated in the multinational force dispatched to Kosovo in 1999.


Name: Shaykh Khalifa bin Zayid Al Nahyan

Birth: 1948, al-Ayn, Abu Dhabi

Family: Married; children, including Sultan bin Khalifa

Nationality: Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates

Education: Local and Sandhurst Military Academy, United Kingdom


  • 1966: Appointed ruler's representative in the eastern region of Abu Dhabi and head of the courts department in al-Ayn
  • 1969: Becomes crown prince/heir apparent (Wali Ahd) of Abu Dhabi
  • 1971: Appointed prime minister of Abu Dhabi and minister of defense and finance
  • 1973: Assumes post of deputy prime minister in the UAE Federal Cabinet
  • 1974: Appointed chairman, Abu Dhabi Executive Council
  • 1976: Appointed deputy supreme commander of the UAE armed forces
  • 2004: Elected to succeed Shaykh Zayid as ruler of the Emirate of Abu Dhabi and as president of the UAE

In 1971, upon the foundation of the United Arab Emirates with his father, Shaykh Zayid bin Sultan Al Nahyan, serving as president, Shaykh Khalifa was appointed prime minister of Abu Dhabi. In 1973, he assumed the post of deputy prime minister of the presidentially appointed UAE Federal Cabinet. In the late 1980s, Shaykh Khalifa became the chairman of Abu Dhabi's Supreme Petroleum Council, assuming administrative control over the emirate's vast oil resources. In this capacity, he sought to diversify the economy away from what had rapidly become, since the export of oil in 1958, its overwhelming dependence upon the extraction and export of hydrocarbons. To this end, he sought to develop an industrial complex at Ruways, a coastal settlement to the north of and west of Abu Dhabi Island. He also oversaw efforts to establish mutually beneficial joint commercial ventures with international aerospace and defense firms in association with a system of economic offsets. In fulfillment of obligations incurred in the course of being awarded lucrative defense-related and other large development contracts, such companies undertook to partner with Abu Dhabians in the strengthening and expansion of such projects as the Abu Dhabi Ship Repair Yard in association with the American firm, Newport News Dry Dock and Shipbuilding. Much later, he would lend his support to the beginnings of what promised to become a burgeoning tourism sector predicated on the need to provide meaningful jobs outside government employment for the country's growing population. In 2007, one of the most high profile projects of this nature took the form of the Louvre Museum in Paris entering into a partnership in Abu Dhabi to construct a world-class museum in Abu Dhabi. Another partnership was also entered into with the Guggenheim Museum.


A source of international goodwill for Shaykh Khalifa and his father has been the Abu Dhabi Fund for Development, established in 1971, originally as the Abu Dhabi Fund for Arab Economic Development. The purpose of the Fund has been to promote economic development, first among select Arab states, and subsequently in numerous other developing countries. Shaykh Khalifa has remained chairman of the Fund. In addition, Shaykh Khalifa has followed his father as chairman of the Zayid bin Sultan Foundation, a charitable organization with capital at more than one billion dollars. The Fund has focused on four areas of assistance for needy recipients in the developing world: hospitals and health care services; financial aid for orphans, widows, and widowers; the building and maintenance of Islamic schools and mosques; and disaster relief. Regarding the latter category, among all international donors in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, specifically in regard to the State of Louisiana in the United States, the UAE stood second to none in the amount of financial assistance provided to alleviate the plight of the hurricane's victims. In these and other endeavors, Abu Dhabi, together with Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, has ranked yearly among the top three of all countries providing foreign economic assistance in the two most important categories of measurement, namely as an annual percentage of its economy's gross national product and the amount of charity per capita.

More broadly, within not only Abu Dhabi but the UAE as a whole, Shaykh Khalifa has long been associated with a degree of generosity and charity that has had no match among the other six UAE emirates. The Department of Social Services and Commercial Buildings, popularly known as the Khalifa Committee, which was so-named to reflect Shaykh Khalifa's role in organizing the program, was formed in 1981 to promote development of the UAE and to demonstrate Abu Dhabi's commitment to sharing its oil wealth. The Department provides low-interest loans to Abu Dhabians wishing to build houses in the country. The project has garnered considerable goodwill from citizens toward Abu Dhabi, the UAE federal system, and particularly toward Shaykh Khalifa and his late father, Shaykh Zayid. Whereas most citizens have remained in the homes they build with these funds, others receiving such loans have subsequently leased their properties to foreign laborers and expatriates. This generates an additional source of private sector income and with it a strengthened middle class, deemed an integral pillar of economic, political, and social stability. All in all, the Khalifa Committee's work has been viewed as but one among many examples of tangible benefits derived from the developing world's most successful confederation and the generosity of its founder and his successor.

During the run-up to the American-led invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq in 2003, Shaykh Khalifa and other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) leaders, together with King abdullah ii of Jordan, President husni mubarak of Egypt, and League of Arab States Secretary General amr moussa, among others, voiced their opposition to the operation and attempted unsuccessfully to play a mediator role by calling on Iraq to comply with UN resolutions. However, once hostilities commenced, the UAE, together with the rest of the GCC countries, Egypt, and Jordan, confronted a strategic dilemma not of their making. On one hand, they could have chosen to oppose the United States openly with a view to altering American policies toward these two issues. On the other hand, they could have assumed a quiet and informal role of tacit, albeit limited, assistance on grounds that their dependence upon the United States for support in deterring and, if necessary, defending against Iran, Iraq, or some combination of the two, left them without any credible alternative. Aligned to this latter argument was the additional rationale that the nature and extent of the many other benefits and advantages they sought to obtain and maintain with Washington mitigated against opting to confront Washington officials. Had they done so, they could have severely damaged their ties to the White House and placed their overall strategic partnership with the United States at risk. Weighed in the balance, most saw the UAE and its fellow GCC members as having wisely opted not to pursue the first option.

On 2 November 2004, when Shaykh Zayid bin Sultan died, Shaykh Khalifa succeeded him as ruler of Abu Dhabi and was elected by his fellow rulers the next day as president of the United Arab Emirates. Immediately upon assuming power, he took care to emphasize his commitment to the UAE system and especially the overall policies and standards of leadership associated with his father. He also noted his strong support for the GCC, at whose annual heads of state summits he had already been representing the UAE several years before his father died.

Shaykh Khalifa was associated with two major developments in 2005, his first year as ruler of Abu Dhabi and UAE president. In the first one, he hosted the GCC's twenty-fourth Annual Ministerial and Heads of State Summit. The summit was notable for the heads of state calling for a Middle East free of nuclear weapons. Given the evolving crisis related to Iran's nuclear development program, this particular summit result was directed most immediately to Tehran in light of its ongoing and substantially accelerated nuclear research and development program; however, it also applied to Israel, which, in contrast to Iran, was already an acknowledged major nuclear power. The meeting was also notable for the palpable anxieties occasioned by the summiteers' alarm at the extent to which Iran had become emboldened as a direct result of the American-led invasion of Iraq. Emblematic of the nature and degree of the apprehension on this front was an observation that circulated among the delegates to the effect of, America attacked Iraq militarily and Iran won—without firing a single bullet or shedding a drop of blood.

In the second development, which pertained solely to the UAE, Shaykh Khalifa announced a limited democratization measure. To this end, he declared that half the members of the already appointed UAE Federal National Council would be elected, whereas the other half, as before and indeed since the UAE was established on 2 December 1971, would be appointed. In so doing, the UAE became the last of the GCC countries to introduce an electoral system as a means of increasing the degree of popular participation in the country's national development and political processes.


Shaykh Khalifa has been deeply influenced by the example of his father, the founding ruler of the United Arab Emirates, who, as noted, was widely respected for his statesmanship and generosity. Shaykh Khalifa has generally followed his esteemed father in his broadly pro-Western stance with regard to global and regional strategic issues and in his commitment to strengthening the UAE as a whole. Sensitive to the Abu Dhabian and broader UAE citizenry's reverence for the memory of his father and that his father's shoes would be exceptionally difficult ones to fill, Shaykh Khalifa has repeatedly underscored his intention to do whatever possible to emulate his predecessor's accomplishments and exemplary role as a leader.

Gestures such as the 2005 changes to the Federal National Council notwithstanding, Shaykh Khalifa and his fellow UAE rulers' movements toward democratization have been viewed, in the eyes of their critics, as, at most, minor and gradualist, and subordinate to a more overarching emphasis upon the need to maintain at whatever cost the prosperity and stability of Abu Dhabi and the UAE. In Shaykh Khalifa's and his colleagues' defense, various rationales have been advanced. In one, Shaykh Khalifa has indicated that he and his fellow leaders' reluctance to engage in radical political change is rooted in the unassailable observation that such change has not been vociferously demanded by the population. Another rationale has made references to the sagacity embedded in an analysis attributed to American political philosopher Thomas Jefferson, who posited, "That government is best that governs least." Yet another rationale has likened the UAE federal experiment to a coat that, in addition to being light rather than heavy, also fits loosely, not tightly, thereby reflecting, in both instances, the wishes of those for whom its manufacture was commissioned and who, since the UAE's inception, have opted to wear it. Regardless of perspective, what is equally undeniable is the fact that the UAE represents the longest and most successful experiment in sub-regional cooperation and integration in modern Arab history.


Shaykh Khalifa is unique among world leaders for three reasons. The first is that he is the ruler of Abu Dhabi, whose citizens, since oil was discovered in 1958, have become among the planet's wealthiest people in terms of income per capita. The second is that he is the president of the United Arab Emirates, unquestionably the developing world's longest and most successful confederation from the time of its establishment on 28 May 1971 to the present day. The third is that, for more than three decades, the government of Abu Dhabi, the Abu Dhabi Fund for Economic and Social Development, and the Zayid Bin Sultan Foundation, over all three of which is Khalifa the single most prominent leader, have annually been ranked among the world's most important contributors to charitable causes as well as providers of humanitarian assistance and other forms of development aid to the world's less fortunate peoples.


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                                           John Duke Anthony