Among his many qualities, one President Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed is certain to be remembered for was his openness to new ideas. The man who stewarded the UAE through a defining chapter in its history – one in which its population more than doubled, and its cities became global metropolitan centres – was famously most at home in the intimate atmosphere of the majlis, hearing from his people. As a young man, he attended the majlises held by his father, the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, often. Such gatherings are not only the backbone of the UAE's political traditions, deeply rooted in its culture, but also sustain the bonds of trust between the country's leaders and its population.
Today, the UAE has one of the highest levels of public trust in government in the world, according to this year's Confidence Index, published by Edelman, a public relations company. It is part of a plethora of evidence of the impact Sheikh Khalifa's tenure as the UAE's president had on the nation he led. With his death on Friday, that same nation will be in mourning over the loss of a man so fundamental to shaping its modern culture and its direction for the future.
"Man is mortal, but his work is not," Sheikh Zayed once said. Just as Sheikh Khalifa carried his father's ambitions for the UAE forward, the country's leadership will surely carry forward his own vision.
Sheikh Khalifa's initiatives were many. Among the most significant, and true to his nature, was one in 2005 to reform the UAE's Federal National Council to involve public elections for half of its seats. By 2011, the number of Emiratis given the right to vote for FNC elections had increased 20-fold, to 130,000.
A keen conservationist, he also created the country's environment ministry, which has since grown under his leadership to become the Ministry of Climate Change and Environment. Over the past few years, the UAE has become an environmental leader in the region, restoring wildlife habitats, demarcating huge swathes of land for natural parks, experimenting with cutting-edge techniques to boost sustainable agriculture and operating the Gulf's first nuclear power plant.
Other transformations, too, will come to redefine the UAE for future generations. The country’s economic diversification and expanded industries, including space, were part of Sheikh Khalifa’s vision for the future of the UAE. Today, the country has the region's highest portion of women in government and is one of the safest countries in the world. Under Sheikh Khalifa, the UAE saw unprecedented numbers of women enter higher education, the labour force, the police and the armed forces.
An oft-quoted saying by Sheikh Zayed is that "a country without a past has no present or future". For so many years, Sheikh Khalifa was the bedrock of the UAE's present, and the steadfast, guiding hand of its future. He will rest as a most cherished part of its past – his example the standard-bearer for the extraordinary values the country represents today, and a lodestar for where it intends to go. And for now, during these days of mourning, the nation will reflect on his legacy and be grateful for his leadership. As Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed said: “The people of the Emirates are united in grief as we mourn the loss of our leaders and President, Khalifa bin Zayed”.