Dubbing him a “leader of humanity”, the UAE announced the sad demise of President Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan. Sheikh Khalifa bid farewell to the world on May 13, 2022, at the age of 74. It is difficult to encapsulate this man’s legacy in just one article. Born in 1948 in Al Ain, UAE, Sheikh Khalifa was the eldest son of Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan. He worked tirelessly with his father to help found the Emirates in 1971. In his 18 years as president, Sheikh Khalifa transformed the UAE into an inclusive and prosperous country. Having donned many hats before he took the president’s office, the late UAE President was nothing short of a visionary. In the aftermath of his passing, it is an ideal moment to reflect on some of Sheikh Khalifa’s achievements.
Governance of the Emirates
Demonstrating his commitment to the people of the UAE, Sheikh Khalifa introduced an even-handed electoral process. This process allows for half of the members of the Federal National Council to be elected by the citizens. Four of these elections have already been conducted, the last one being held in October 2019. Another testament to his people-based approach to governance is the extensive travel he undertook across the UAE. He aimed to understand better the specific needs of all regions of the Emirates. He also put his findings into several welfarist projects like housing, education, social services, etc.
Upgrading the UAE’s education system
With grand dreams for the UAE’s future, Sheikh Khalifa left no stone unturned in making the country an education hub. In 1975, the adult literacy rate was 58% among men and 38% among women. Today, literacy rates for both genders are close to 95%. Having a wise appreciation for the role of quality higher education in developing the nation’s youth, Sheikh Khalifa sought to establish the finest institutions within the country. Under his leadership, many prestigious universities, from New York University to Sorbonne University, opened campuses in the UAE. Among his many initiatives in education, perhaps the most indicative of his progressive thinking and open-mindedness, is the Khalifa Award. This award aims to help educators explore new methodologies and innovative pedagogical tools, which can further improve the education imparted in the Emirates.
Advocating gender equality
Sheikh Khalifa was also a proponent of the equality of the sexes. Not just by paying lip service to women’s empowerment but by implementing several progressive measures, he became a beacon of hope for the Arab world. Women’s participation in electoral politics rose astronomically under Sheikh Khalifa’s reforms. From the time he introduced elections in the Emirates, women were encouraged to participate in running the country not just as voters but also as candidates. Under his leadership, the UAE today boasts one of the world’s highest female participation rates in politics. Women comprise 50% of FNC members and 28% of the Emirati cabinet. Moreover, women occupy 66% of public sector jobs in the UAE too. In a ground-breaking move that even the supposedly progressive Western democracies struggle with, Sheikh Khalifa also decreed equal wages in the private sector in 2020.
The President’s golden touch on the Arab industry
Sheikh Khalifa also remoulded the Emirati economy from primarily oil-and-gas-based to a highly modern, prolific industry with admirable foresight. Of Sheikh Khalifa’s achievements, diversification of the economy to boost revenue from the tourism industry is perhaps the most ingenious. Today, the UAE is not just a global and regional hub as far as finances are concerned. It is also home to world-class infrastructure, enviable transport networks, and a booming, business-friendly ecosystem. By opening up the country and the economy, Sheikh Khalifa encouraged the growth of many enterprises. To quote economist Scott Livermore, “The UAE is almost unrecognisable from 20 years ago and has developed into a vibrant and dynamic place where individuals and businesses can flourish.”
Leading the UAE towards sustainability and conservation
Without limiting himself to oil rigs and revenue, Sheikh Khalifa also did his bit to fight against climate change. By recognising the perils of hydrocarbon dependence, he put in efforts to emphasise the use of renewable energy. Despite being OPEC’s third-largest producer, under Sheikh Khalifa’s guidance, the UAE also grew into one of the leading countries in developing hydrogen. In 2009, he hosted the International Renewable Energy Agency in Abu Dhabi, which seeks to explore sustainable forms of energy use. His commitment to reducing the UAE’s carbon footprint is evident in his many planet-friendly feats. The most impressive of these is that in 2021, the UAE became the first-ever Middle Eastern country to declare its goal to reach ‘net-zero emissions’ by 2050.
His love for the environment and wildlife, too, was known to all. Apart from introducing conservation and environmental studies into the school curriculum, Sheikh Khalifa also worked toward making environmentalism a vital point of the developmental agenda. He tried to increase the UAE’s green cover, develop water resources, protect and preserve fisheries and livestock, and promote marine conservation.
A man whose matchless contributions took UAE to sky-rocketing heights in less than two decades, Sheikh Khalifa was the ideal binary of a futurist and a traditionalist. Indeed, Sheikh Khalifa’s many achievements served as a rejoinder to the orientalist Western gaze right until the end. Therefore, he shall remain as much the pride and joy of every Emirati as is the remarkable 828m tower that shares his name.