The United Arab Emirates’ President Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al-Nahyan died aged 73 on Friday, state media said, after battling illness for several years.
Sheikh Khalifa’s rule since 2004 saw his country’s meteoric rise on the international scene.
“The Ministry of Presidential Affairs condoles the people of the UAE and the Islamic world… on the passing of Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al-Nahyan on Friday, May 13,” the official WAM news agency said.
The ministry announced a 40-day period of mourning and a three-day suspension of work in all ministries and the private sector beginning Friday, including flags to be flown at half-staff.
The late head of state was rarely seen in public since a stroke in January 2014, and the country has largely been ruled by his half-brother Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, known colloquially as MBZ.
MBZ, who led the country’s normalization process with Israel in 2020, is expected to ascend to the presidency of the small Gulf nation.
Israeli leaders expressed their condolences to the UAE over the president’s death.
“Sheikh Khalifa’s legacy and tremendous deeds are greatly admired in Israel,” Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said in a statement. “The State of Israel stands alongside the United Arab Emirates at this difficult time.”
President Isaac Herzog called the Emirati ruler’s death “a great loss for our friends in the UAE and for the whole region.”
“Sheikh Khalifa’s bold leadership contributed so much to the advancement of the UAE and its people and to the growing partnership between our countries and is a great legacy for his successors,” he said.
Sheikh Khalifa took over as the UAE’s second president in November 2004, succeeding his father as the 16th ruler of Abu Dhabi, the richest of the federation’s seven emirates.
He has rarely been seen in public since 2014, when he had surgery following a stroke, although he has continued to issue rulings. The cause of death was not immediately released.
The UAE, a former British protectorate that was founded in 1971, has gone from desert outpost to booming state in its short history, fueled by its oil wealth and Dubai’s rise as a trading and financial center.
The Arab world’s second-biggest economy behind Saudi Arabia has also begun to wield growing political influence, filling a space ceded by traditional powers such as Egypt, Iraq and Syria.
The country of 10 million also joined military campaigns in Libya and Yemen and broke ranks with much of the Arab world to establish ties with Israel in 2020.
The bearded Sheikh Khalifa had cut a frail figure on his occasional public appearances, while his brother hosted world leaders and led diplomatic forays abroad.
“The Emirates has lost its virtuous son and leader of the ‘stage of empowerment’ and the trustee of its blessed journey,” Mohamed bin Zayed tweeted on Friday.
“His stances, achievements, wisdom, generosity and initiatives are in every corner of the nation… Khalifa bin Zayed, my brother… may God have mercy on you and grant you access to paradise.”
Sheikh Khalifa, who had no formal higher education, led the UAE as Dubai emerged as a tourism and trade hub and Abu Dhabi pumped oil as a key OPEC player.
He came to the rescue of Dubai when it was hit by the global financial crisis in 2009, extending a multi-billion-dollar lifeline to the debt-laden emirate.