DUBAI, United Arab Emirates -- Sheik Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, the president of the United Arab Emirates who oversaw the transformation of a cluster of tiny desert Persian Gulf sheikdoms into a leading oil and business hub with skyscrapers and sprawling shopping malls, died yesterday. He was 86.
Sheik Zayed, one of the richest rulers in the world, forged close ties with the United States during his rule of the country, which is the ninth-largest oil producer.
He was expected to be succeeded by his eldest son, Sheik Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan. The leaders of the seven emirates that make up the country will appoint a president within 30 days. In the meantime, the prime minister -- Sheik Maktoum bin Rashid Al Maktoum -- will be acting president.
Based on Islamic tradition, Sheik Zayed will be buried as soon as possible, probably today.
Sheik Zayed 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.
He became the ruler of Abu Dhabi, the largest emirate, in 1966, four years after the emirate first began exporting the oil it had just discovered off its shores. At the time, the city of Abu Dhabi was a collection of huts clustered around the ruler's fort.
Today, the country -- with a population of around 850,000 Emiratis and 2.6 million foreign expatriates and workers -- is a leading member of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries and the fifth-largest exporter.
Billions of oil dollars were invested to make Abu Dhabi an oasis of high-rises, parks, fountains, restaurants, and manicured flower beds, as well as a haven for wildlife. The country has also sought to diversify its economy, becoming a center for banking and finance.
While the Emirates' wealth grew, Sheik Zayed was known for seeking to maintain the traditions of his Bedouin roots and the personal rule of a tribal sheik. He would hold a daily open court, to let citizens air their concerns, and would try to attend weddings of ordinary citizens when invited.