DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — The rulers of the United Arab Emirates on Saturday unanimously appointed Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan of Abu Dhabi as president of the autocratic nation, signaling unity and stability in this key oil-rich country. energy that houses western militaries.
The ascension of Sheikh Mohammed, 61, was expected after the death on Friday of his half-brother and UAE president, Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, at the age of 73.. The transition of power marks only the third time the US-allied nation of seven emirates has selected a president since becoming an independent nation in 1971.
Under Sheikh Mohammed, who has been the nation’s de facto leader since Sheikh Khalifa suffered a stroke in 2014, the UAE had sought to project power militarily across the region by joining a Saudi-led war. Saudi in Yemen.
But since the coronavirus pandemic lockdowns, Sheikh Mohammed and the United Arab Emirates in general have sought to recalibrate their approach by largely withdrawing from the war and seeking diplomatic détentes with rivals. The UAE also diplomatically recognized Israel, which shares Sheikh Mohammed’s longstanding suspicion of Iran. However, ties with the US have strained in recent years, something Washington hopes to address with Vice President Kamala Harris leading a delegation to Abu Dhabi on Monday.
The state news agency WAM described the vote at Al-Mushrif Palace in Abu Dhabi as unanimous among the leaders of the country’s hereditarily ruled sheikhs, which includes the skyscraper-studded city of Dubai.
“His assumption of the responsibility of the presidency represents a new historical era and a new birth,” said Dubai’s ruler, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum. “We look forward to the acceleration of development aimed at consolidating global sovereignty and pioneering the Emirates.”
There was only one death of a president before Friday in the country’s history, in which Sheikh Khalifa took over from both him and Sheikh Mohammed’s father, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, after his death in 2004. Sheikh Zayed, whose name adorns a major highway linking the Emirates and whose face appears everywhere in the nation, is still widely seen as the country’s founding father.
The UAE as a whole is observing a three-day mourning period, in which businesses across the country will be closed and performances in honor of Sheikh Khalifa will be halted. All electronic billboards featured the image of the late Sheikh in Dubai on Friday night as flags flew at half-staff. A broader 40-day mourning period will continue beyond that.
The Sultan of Oman was one of the first leaders to visit Sheikh Mohammed on Saturday night. Others are expected in the coming days, including French President Emmanuel Macron and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Sunday. Harris will also meet with Sheikh Mohammed.
Sheikh Mohammed had served as the de facto president of the United Arab Emirates since a stroke in 2014 caused Sheikh Khalifa to disappear from public view.
Known by the acronym MbZ, Sheikh Mohammed cultivated ties with the West that have proven valuable to Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates that controls tens of billions of dollars in wealth pools from its oil and gas deposits. A 2004 US diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks referred to him as “charismatic, intelligent and very comfortable in the West.” He hosted then-President George W. Bush in 2008 at his desert estate, a tour complete with Bedouin tents and falcons.
The country is home to some 3,500 US troops, many at Abu Dhabi’s Al-Dhafra Air Base, from where drones and warplanes have flown missions to fight the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria. Dubai is also the US Navy’s busiest port of call abroad. Both France and South Korea also maintained a military presence here.
The Pentagon said US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin spoke with Sheikh Mohammed on Saturday, saying he “looks forward to strengthening the important defense partnership that expanded” under the late president and “deepen close ties.” between countries.
Sheikh Mohammed trained at the British Military Academy in Sandhurst and is a helicopter pilot. His first military approach saw the United Arab Emirates join Saudi Arabia in their bloody years-long war in Yemen that is still going on to this day. Sheikh Mohammed has had a close relationship with neighboring Saudi Arabia’s own upstart crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman. However, the Emirates have largely withdrawn their troops from Yemen.
Sheikh Mohammed has also long been suspicious of both the Muslim Brotherhood and Iran, likely mounting a campaign against Islamists in the United Arab Emirates after the 2011 Arab Spring and urging the West to take a harder line toward Tehran over concerns about its nuclear program and its support for paramilitary groups throughout the region. The recognition of the United Arab Emirates to Israel in 2020while opening up new businesses and tourism, it also serves as a cover in dealing with Iran.
However, since the coronavirus pandemic, the UAE under Sheikh Mohammed has sought to rehabilitate ties with Iran and Turkey, which has backed Islamists in the region. A quartet of Arab nations, including the United Arab Emirates, have also abandoned their boycott of Qatar over a diplomatic dispute over its support for Islamists, although relations between Abu Dhabi and Doha remain frosty.
“The smooth transition of power in the UAE reflects the sobriety of institutional work and the advanced level of governance mechanisms and their stability,” said Anwar Gargash, a senior Emirati diplomat.
But tensions have arisen in recent years between Sheikh Mohammed and the US, long a guarantor of security in the Persian Gulf in general. Then-President Barack Obama and the world powers that reached a nuclear deal with Iran in 2015 embittered the Emirates. The chaotic US withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021 under President Joe Biden worsened concerns about US withdrawal from the region.
Sheikh Mohammed became embroiled in special counsel Robert Mueller’s report on then-President Donald Trump and Russian interference in the 2016 US election.. The chairman of Trump’s 2017 inaugural committee was arrested in 2021 on charges alleging that he secretly conspired to influence US policy for the benefit of the United Arab Emirates..
A planned US sale of advanced F-35 fighter jets to the United Arab Emirates also appears stalled in part due to US concerns about the Emirates’ relationship with China. Meanwhile, the United Arab Emirates has been careful not to alienate Russia as Moscow wages war against Ukraine..
But Biden offered a warm statement on Saturday saying he wanted to “congratulate my old friend” on “his election.”
“UAE is an essential partner of the United States,” Biden said. “I look forward to working with Sheikh Mohammed to build on this extraordinary foundation to further strengthen the ties between our countries and peoples.”
Follow Jon Gambrell on Twitter at www.twitter.com/jongambrellAP.