Arab leaders and other dignitaries prayed Wednesday over the body of United Arab Emirates President Sheik Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan (search), paying final respects to a man who transformed his desert country into an oil and business hub.

Outside the Sheik Sultan bin Zayed Mosque, thousands of Emiratis lining the streets set aside Qurans they were reading and put down posters of Sheik Zayed to say the prayers.

Afterward, men in their traditional white robes mobbed the van carrying Sheik Zayed, who died Tuesday at 86, away for burial.

Many streets in the capital were closed to traffic for the brief and modest prayer service, which was televised live nationally and on Arab satellite stations that broke away from U.S. election coverage.

A cause of death has not been released for Sheik Zayed, who led the unification and modernization of the seven tiny emirates on the eastern edge of the Arabian Peninsula.

After Wednesday prayers, his body was taken to Zayed Grand Mosque, one of the world's largest, for burial.

Later, Sheik Zayed's eldest son, Sheik Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan (search), was chosen to succeed him as UAE president, the official Emirates news agency WAM reported.

The decision was taken by the Supreme Council — which comprises the leaders of the seven constituent emirates, their brothers and their crown princes, WAM said.

Sheik Khalifa, crown prince of Abu Dhabi (search) since 1969, automatically became ruler of the largest and wealthiest emirate upon his father's death. The Supreme Council vote made him president of all seven emirates.

He is seen as a competent administrator and an expert on oil, but he lacks his father's charisma. Sheik Khalifa was president of the Supreme Petroleum Council, which devises oil policy for the Emirates, and was deputy supreme commander of the armed forces.

He was born in 1948 in the oasis of Al Ain, where his father was provincial governor, and attended Britain's Sandhurst military academy.

Businesses were shut Wednesday and flags flew at half-staff as the Emirates began 40 days of mourning for Sheik Zayed, who was among the world's wealthiest rulers and was remembered fondly by many as a generous patriarch.

"Sheik Zayed was not just the president of the UAE, he was our father, our guide and our leader," said Humaid Issa al-Ali, a 46-year-old gas company manager. "Thanks to him, we live the way we do today, in prosperity and peace."

The president, who had a kidney transplant in 2000, had been ailing for several years and was largely out of the public eye.

In homage to the respected leader, Iraq, Bahrain and the Palestinian Authority also declared three days of mourning. Jordan declared Wednesday a day of mourning.

The funeral was attended by Arab dignitaries, including Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah (search), Jordan's King Abdullah II (search) and Iraq President Ghazi al-Yawer (search), as well as leaders from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Algeria.

Condolences also came from the United States, Britain, Germany and other nations.

Prince Charles, Prince Andrew and British Defense Secretary Geoff Hoon left Britain on Wednesday for the United Arab Emirates to offer their condolences.

Sheik Zayed became the ruler of Abu Dhabi in 1966, four years after the emirate first began exporting the oil it discovered off its shores.

He was credited with forging close ties with the United States and the West during his rule, which stretched back to its 1971 founding after winning independence from Britain.

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 (search), the world's ninth-biggest oil producer and fifth-biggest oil exporter.

The country also has sought to diversify its economy, becoming a center for banking and finance.