De-facto ruler no more — UAE’s new president is ambitious, sophisticated
One of the world’s richest men and arguably the most powerful political player in the Arab world has ascended to the presidency of the Middle East’s most dynamic Islamic state. Crown Prince Mohamed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, 61, was appointed on Saturday as the ruler of the oil-rich United Arab Emirates, after the death Friday of Sheikh Khalifa, his elder half brother.
Known colloquially as MBZ, Crown Prince Mohamed’s rise bolsters his family’s rule over the strategically located Gulf state, where he is expected to continue his ambitious but pragmatic economic and foreign policies for the former British protectorate.
Operationally, not much will change. MBZ has been the de-facto ruler of the UAE since Khalifa, who had taken over in 2004, suffered a stroke and retired from public life in 2014. Until then, Khalifa was overseeing the UAE’s push to diversify away from fossil fuel production and toward becoming a financial and tourism hub.
MBZ’s policies as the proxy ruler, however, have been remarkably more muscular compared to his brother: anti-Islamist, security-focused, even interventionist, but with a strong economic program, propelling the tiny UAE to punch above its weight in regional and global affairs.
“MBZ has been de-facto in charge for many years and will not feel a need to seize the moment and introduce mass change,” says Eurasia Group analyst Ayham Kamel. “He is working deliberately with a vision for the UAE. His powers will expand and he will feel more empowered but the policy direction will not change much.”
Military man. A graduate of the UK Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst, MBZ’s formative years were spent in the Emirati special forces. His career in defense has shaped his politics: with him as the deputy supreme commander, the UAE’s military has transformed into one of the most potent ones in the region, is among the world’s biggest arms buyers, and has adopted an activist security doctrine.
Under MBZ’s watch, Emirati jets have conducted airstrikes in Libya to support his favored factions in the civil war, while Emirati commandos have carried out joint anti-terror missions with the Americans in Somalia, fought alongside Egypt to thwart militants in the Sinai Peninsula, and even participated in the controversial Saudi-led campaign against Houthi rebels in Yemen.
Diplomatically, MBZ has paved the way for the Arab world by normalizing ties with Israel. Indeed, former CIA officer and Brookings Institution fellow Bruce Riedel says “MBZ has been the architect of the relationship with Israel” to create a new, anti-Iran axis in the Middle East. He also pushed for a regional embargo against Qatar (now lifted), bankrolled the al-Sisi regime in Egypt, and supported the rise of his highest-profile protégé, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, aka MBS.
Diplomatic heavyweight. With MBZ in charge, the UAE has become “increasingly independent of the Saudis, who formerly dominated Gulf policies,” says Riedel. Moreover, the Emiratis have also emerged as major players beyond the Gulf region by filling the vacuum left by the decline of traditional Arab powers like Egypt, Iraq, and Syria.
“Under MBZ, the UAE has really expanded its geopolitical sphere of influence,” says Kamran Bokhari, director of analytical development at the Newlines Institute. “From South Asia, where they have a say in Pakistan’s political economy; to North Africa, where they are supporting anti-Islamist factions in Libya and Tunisia; to a recently reestablished relationship with the Assad regime in Syria." They're also turning around a bad relationship with Turkey and taking the lead in the Arab world to forge ties with Israel, he adds.
“We're talking about a real strategic push by the UAE to have this kind of influence,” says Bokhari, noting how incredible that is given the size of the UAE.
True, but the UAE is also very rich — to the tune of some $420 billion in annual GDP, with a population of just under 10 million. Also, the ruling dynasty is especially well-off: by some assessments, MBZ is the richest man in the world because he controls sovereign wealth funds worth over $1.3 trillion, more than any other country, and his family rules over 6% of the world’s proven reserves of crude oil.
This leverage has allowed MBZ to take some rare liberties: Just before the 2016 US elections, he skipped an official lunch at the Obama White House to lobby then-candidate Donald Trump instead. More recently, after the Americans were slow to respond to Houthi drone attacks on the Abu Dhabi port, MBZ responded by refusing to come to the phone a few weeks later when President Joe Biden called for lower oil prices, (after that snub, he got an apology from Secretary of State Antony Blinken for America’s “late reaction”).
Even with the war in Ukraine, the UAE has not jumped on the anti-Russian bandwagon; instead, the Emiratis have abstained multiple times from voting against Russia at the UN, making their neutral position clear.
In the hierarchy of contemporary Arab politics, MBZ ranks higher than MBS. While MBS remains toxic due to his role in the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi as well as the bloody campaign in Yemen, his mentor MBZ has maintained a remarkably well-curated and low profile.
His capital boasts NYU and Sorbonne campuses, and even a branch of the Louvre. Emirati endowments also fund Washington’s finest think tanks. When dignitaries visit the UAE, MBZ impresses them with his accomplishments — like a third of his ministers being women, and the world’s tallest building — while ignoring controversial issues such as stifling dissent or the high-tech surveillance of his own citizens.
But MBZ is as practical as he is ambitious. Though it has shown public displeasure about the resumption of the Iran nuclear deal, the UAE has maintained a backdoor dialogue with Tehran. And when reputational and political costs get high — as they did when a UN panel flagged war crimes in Yemen — MBZ responded by drawing down from the conflict, letting the Saudis bear the brunt of the damage, showing that he’s more statesman than an ideologue.
"Recent shifts in the UAE’s foreign policy outlook are rooted in a fundamental principle: the nation’s economic interests will drive its foreign policy,” said Afshin Molavi, a senior fellow at Johns Hopkins University’s Foreign Policy Institute. “This shift includes an attempt to normalize relations with countries often seen as adversaries, a retreat from robust regional intervention, and an emphasis on a foreign policy that serves the UAE’s economic interests above all else.”