image Photo: Reuters, Israeli Pres. Herzog's Spokespersons Office

Israel mourns death of UAE President

Israeli President Isaac Herzog was among world leaders who descended on the United Arab Emirates (UAE) yesterday to offer condolences to new leader Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan on the death of his half-brother President Khalifa bin Zayed, in a show of support to a key regional player.

By Erin Viner

UAE President Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan passed away 13 May at the age of 73. His brother Sheikh Mohammed was named the country’s third president by a federal supreme council the following day.

“On my behalf and that of the Government and citizens of Israel, I express my condolences to my friend Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan and to the Government and people of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) on the passing of His Highness,” stated Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, adding that, “Sheikh Khalifa’s great legacy and deeds were appreciated by many in Israel.”

“The State of Israel stands alongside the UAE and its people at this difficult time,” said Bennett in a communiqué issued by the Prime Minister’s Foreign Media Advisor.

The UAE, along with Bahrain, upended decades of Arab consensus by signing the landmark Abraham Accords to normalize relations with the Jewish State in 2020, thus creating a new anti-Iran axis in the 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. His life’s work pushed the Middle East to new horizons of prosperity and cooperation,” said Israeli President Herzog ahead of attending the funeral. He was accompanied by a delegation representing the Government of Israel that included Regional Cooperation Minister Issawi Frej and Communications Minister Yoaz Hendel.

During his visit, which lasted a few hours, the Israeli leader extended his condolences to his incoming UAE counterpart, whom he referred to as his “friend.”

“In a global reality of wars, interests, and conflicts—friendship has truly great value, and it is measured also, and perhaps in particular, in moments of sorrow and pain,” said President Herzog ahead of his departure, adding that, “The partnership between our countries is an asset for us and for the whole region, and it has been built and is still being built by bold and ground-breaking leaders, of whom the late Sheikh Khalifa was one.

“Sheikh Khalifa’s passing is a great loss for his nation, and I believe and hope that his legacy—a legacy of peace, a legacy of friendship between the nations of this region, a legacy of progress and prosperity—will lead to flourishing and the continued development, progress, and peace of the Middle East,” he added.

After landing in Abu Dhabi, Herzog congratulated Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed on assuming the role of UAE President, asserting, “You are continuing the path of your brother, by generating a dramatic change following the Abraham Accords which you signed alongside the State of Israel and other countries. I believe that together we will advance and strengthen the peaceful relations thriving between us and our nations.”

The new ruler of wealthy Abu Dhabi emirate, Sheikh Mohammed (known as MbZ), has long been a driving force in Middle East politics. He is credited with having steered the Western-allied Gulf state, an OPEC oil producer and regional business hub, for years; championing Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the West as he rose to power and combating political Islam, seen as a threat to Gulf dynastic rule, around the region.

As Gulf states increasingly question the regional commitment of traditional security guarantor the United States, MbZ has deepened ties with Russia and China. Strains in US-Emirati ties have been particularly noticeable over the Ukraine conflict due to refusal by the Arab Gulf nations to side with Western allies to isolate Moscow.

Abu Dhabi has also moved to engage with Iran and Turkey after years of enmity, as the UAE aims to increase national financial economic growth amid rising regional competition and a global push away from hydrocarbons – considered the lifeblood of Gulf economies.

Among other world leaders who travelled to the UAE to pay their respect was French President Emmanuel Macron, whose country holds lucrative business and military ties with the UAE. Macron told Sheikh Mohammed in Abu Dhabi that the UAE could “count on France’s friendship” and discussed the Ukraine conflict, said the Élysée Palace.

Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson and German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier arrived in the UAE yesterday, as well.

US President Joe Biden, whose administration has had fraught ties with the UAE and Saudi Arabia, will be represented by Vice President Kamala Harris, who will arrive today.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken released a statement expressing warm congratulations to MbZ, who he described as “an important partner and valued friend” during his time as Crown Prince.” Washington’s top diplomat added, “We look forward to working closely together to build on the extraordinary partnership between the United States and the United Arab Emirates that grew under His Highness Sheikh Khalifa’s presidency, and continuing our dialogue to advance a more peaceful and secure region and world. We wish the people of the UAE continued prosperity and advancement under His Highness Sheikh Mohamed’s leadership.”

Several Arab leaders paid their respects on Saturday. Saudi Arabia’s Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud, whose father King Salman entered hospital a week ago, sent a delegation.

In the first such a visit since 2017, Qatar’s Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani also visited and met with Sheikh Mohammed. Doha and Abu Dhabi had been for years locked in a bitter rivalry over the role of political Islam in the Muslim world. The UAE, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Egypt have maintained an economic boycott against Qatar since 2017 over its close ties with Iran and allegations that it is a major sponsor of terrorism – including financial support of Hezbollah; although the rift was partially resolved last year.

Qatar is aligned with several of Israel’s worst enemies – the Islamist Palestinian terror group Hamas,  the Islamic Republic of Iran and Tehran’s proxy Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Despite Abu Dhabi infuriating Ramallah by forging relations with Jerusalem, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas also travelled to the UAE.