The United Arab Emirates began 40 days of mourning yesterday following the death of the wealthy Gulf state's founding president, who helped transform seven backwater Gulf states into the world's ninth-largest oil producer and a high-tech commercial crossroads of gleaming skyscrapers.
Sheik Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, one of the richest rulers in the world according to Forbes magazine, died Tuesday at the age of 86. He was credited with forging close ties with the US and the West during his rule of the country, which stretched back to its 1971 founding after winning independence from Britain.
Sheik Zayed is expected to be succeeded by his eldest son, Sheik Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, as Emirates president. Sheik Khalifa, who has been crown prince of Abu Dhabi, the wealthiest of the seven emirates, since 1969, automatically becomes ruler of Abu Dhabi following his father's death.
The leaders of the seven emirates that make up the Emirates will appoint the new president within 30 days. In the meantime, the prime minister -- Sheik Maktoum bin Rashid Al Maktoum, a close relative of Sheik Zayed -- will serve as acting president. During the president's illness, Sheik Maktoum has been the public face of the Emirates.
Condolences have been flooding in from around the world following the death of Sheik Zayed, who had been ailing for several years and largely out of public eye. He had a kidney transplant in August 2000.
US Secretary of State Colin Powell said he was "saddened" by Sheik Zayed's death, describing the late leader as a "friend" and "symbol of benevolent and wise leadership characterized by generosity, tolerance, and avid pursuit of development and modernization."
Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah and Palestinian President Yasser Arafat were among numerous Arab leaders who expressed remorse for the loss of Sheik Zayed, whose rule led the unification of the seven tiny emirates on the eastern edge of the Arabian Peninsula -- once a backwater relegated to fishing from traditional dhow boats and diving for pearls in the Gulf waters.
"His death is a big loss for the Arab and Islamic nations and to humanity," Oman's Foreign Minister Youssef bin Alawi told Dubai-based Al-Arabiya TV.
Kuwait's information minister, Mohammed Abul-Hassan, credited Sheik Zayed with helping Kuwaitis who fled to the Emirates after Iraqi president Saddam Hussein ordered his forces to invade Kuwait in 1990, a move that led to the US-led 1991 Gulf War.
Alluding to the Emirates' incredible economic growth, Abul-Hassan said Sheik Zayed was an "example to be followed in his ability to turn the impossible into a truth."
The Emirates' top decision-making body, the Supreme Council, declared a 40-day official period of mourning would begin yesterday.