Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan had an exceptional sense of duty to his people. This stemmed from a childhood where he learnt responsibility and trust. He understood that a real leader is one who is wholly concerned with the welfare of his people.
Sheikh Khalifa gained rich experience from his father Sheikh Zayed. He acknowledged this debt to his father with pride. In an interview in 1990, he said: “My father was the teacher from whom I learnt everything, following his path and being inspired by his leadership, values and patience.”
Sheikh Khalifa was born in Al Muwaiji Fort, Al Ain, in 1948. His mother Sheikha Hessa bint Mohammad bin Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan was a member of the powerful branch of Al Nahyan family with whom Sheikh Zayed worked tirelessly to begin Abu Dhabi’s long march to prosperity.
Sheikh Khalifa spent his early childhood years in this fort, and he received his early education in the only school built in Al Ain by his father at that time.
What is now the city of Al Ain was then a collection of six scattered villages lacking basic infrastructure such as roads, electricity, or modern means of education. But as Sheikh Zayed always maintained, the best education is the one received in the public majlises (the daily gatherings that take place in the presence of a ruler or senior tribal leader).
Sheikh Khalifa was fortunate to have the benefit of two such public majlises at the time, which were the finest schools for teaching the skills of political leadership. This also kept him close to the tribes, learning their ethos and traits, understanding their aspirations and acquiring management and communication skills.
The first majlis which developed Sheikh Khalifa’s talents was that of his father, Sheikh Zayed, who was recognised by all observers at the time as the most charismatic personality in the region with strong leadership capabilities.
Sheikh Zayed was keen to take his eldest son on most of his daily movements and visits in the area, and so instilled in him from childhood the values of responsibility and trust, bringing him close to the tribes who loved him and whom he loved with equal devotion.
During those formative years, Sheikh Khalifa saw his father’s dedication in bringing prosperity and well-being to the tribes, maintaining security and unity, caring for the environment and preserving heritage. In the company of his father, he was also able to appreciate the qualities of political and communication skills that made a great leader.
The second majlis which honed and complemented Sheikh Khalifa’s leadership skills was that of his grandfather from his mother’s side, Sheikh Mohammad bin Khalifa. The senior Al Nahyan family figure at the time, Sheikh Mohammad was known for his wisdom, knowledge and insight and was respected and admired by all till his death in 1979.
Along with his mother’s attention, Sheikh Khalifa also enjoyed special care and attention from his grandmother Sheikha Salama, who was known for her sophistication, wisdom and perception.
When Sheikh Zayed became Ruler of Abu Dhabi in August 1966, he moved to the city of Abu Dhabi. This was when he appointed Sheikh Khalifa, who was 18 at the time, as Ruler’s Representative in the Eastern Region and the chairman of its legal system.
Given the strategic importance of Al Ain, which was very close to Sheikh Zayed’s heart, this delegation of authority was seen as a mark of the high confidence he had in Sheikh Khalifa. In effect, Sheikh Khalifa followed in the footsteps of his father and continued implementing major development projects in the Eastern Region, especially those designed to improve agriculture through the digging of new wells and the reparation of the old falaj (underground canal) system.
Sheikh Khalifa’s notable success in Al Ain was the stepping stone to his long career in public service that saw him assume his leadership role with ease and skill. Throughout this early phase of leadership, Sheikh Khalifa exhibited the same unique characteristics inspired by his father, based on a modest and open management style.
Sheikh Khalifa always dealt with those who worked with him with dignity and respect, giving them space to take the initiative, skilfully maintaining their trust and motivating them to work harder.
Sheikh Khalifa always showed great trust in the ability of his fellow citizens to commit to the UAE. On Sheikh Zayed’s Accession Day in 1987 he praised Sheikh Zayed’s conviction that the people needed to participate in decision making, pointing out that Sheikh Zayed’s belief in democracy had not changed ever since he had started in public life as Ruler’s Representative in the Eastern Region [in the 1040s].
Earlier in 1984 Sheikh Khalifa had given an interview to the Lebanese magazine Al Sayyad in which he said that the “democratic march in the UAE is aimed at increasing the people’s participation in development, ensuring a better life for our citizens within the framework of Islamic teaching and our own traditions. Our country has known the shura principle for hundreds of years as our ancestors consulted others on national affairs”.
Sheikh Khalifa, a graduate of the Sandhurst military academy, was known for his punctuality and commitment to a strict working day, divided between several official duties and meetings with the general public. He was calm, a good listener and known for his courtesy and modesty, traits that made him popular among his people.
Sheikh Khalifa was passionate about falconry and fishing. He developed this passion from his father. Falconry afforded Sheikh Khalifa the opportunity to introduce young Emiratis to the ways of their forefathers. He always included a group of young Emirati men on his falconry trips abroad.
Open get-togethers (Barzah) involved troupes of falconers that chatted, recited poems about falcons, and praised acts of nobility, generosity and courage. Sheikh Khalifa was fascinated by history and poetry and his majlis frequently hosted leading poets, artists and intellectuals.
Sheikh Khalifa was also interested in other sports, especially football. He frequently inaugurated or attended main events in the sporting calendar. He was also known for his interest in traditional sports, chiefly horse and camel racing. He also honoured sports persons when they achieved success, locally, regionally and internationally.