UAE Mourns the Death of Its Founding Father

ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates -- Millions mourned Wednesday the death of Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahayan, the ruler who transformed the United Arab Emirates from a desert country into one of the few development successes in the Arab world.

Zayed, who led this OPEC member country since its founding in 1971, died Tuesday in his early 90s after a long illness. He will be buried Wednesday in a low-key funeral confined only to family and government delegations, officials said.

UAE newspapers dedicated their pages to paying tribute to the man who ruled "with vision" for 33 years.

"Farewell our father, our Sheikh and sage of the Arab world," said al-Khaleej newspaper in its banner headline.

Saudi Interior Minister Prince Nayef told Al-Arabiya television: "Sheikh Zayed was rare among his kind. He made great contributions to his country and the Muslim and Arab world."

Grief engulfed the UAE where life came to a standstill with businesses closed. Koranic prayers blared from loudspeakers and thousands of people converged to mosques to say prayers.

An estimated 50,000 nationals took to the streets to pay final tribute to Sheikh Zayed and view his procession as it passes through the capital, Abu Dhabi, on its way to the cemetery.

Sheikh Zayed, who received a kidney transplant in 2000, used oil income to transform seven mostly poor and feuding sheikhdoms into modern cities with strong economies. The country of 4 million people has one of the world's highest per capita incomes and expatriates make up over 85 percent of the population.

Sheikh Zayed's death caused grief among his people who held him in high esteem and in the Arab world where his traditional generosity, moderation and diplomacy won him a prominent place.

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said in a condolence statement: "Sheikh Zayed was a model of generosity, wisdom and leadership. The whole world knew him as a man of development, justice and civilization."

UAE officials expected a smooth transfer of power. Sheikh Zayed's eldest son Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed al-Nahayan automatically took over as ruler of Abu Dhabi.

Under the constitution, Vice President and Prime Minister Sheikh Maktoum bin Rashid al-Maktoum, ruler of Dubai, will act as president until the federal council, which groups rulers of the seven emirates, meets within 30 days to elect a president.