The newly elected ruler of the United Arab Emirates sees Iran and Islamists as a threat to the safe haven of the Gulf

  • De facto ruler elected president after death of brother
  • MbZ forged a new axis with Israel against Iran and Islamists
  • Perhaps the ‘smartest’ ruler in the Gulf, Obama wrote

DUBAI, May 14 (Reuters) – United Arab Emirates strongman Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, who was formally elected president on Saturday, led a Middle East realignment that created a new axis against Iran with Israel and fought against a rising tide. of political Islam in the region.

Working behind the scenes for years as the de facto leader, Sheikh Mohammed, 61, transformed the UAE military into a high-tech force, which, along with its oil wealth and status as a trading hub, spread influence. Emirati internationally.

Mohammed came to power at a time when his half-brother, President Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed, who died on Friday, suffered from bouts of illness, including a stroke in 2014.

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MbZ, as it is known, was driven by a “certain fatalistic train of thought” that the Arab rulers of the Gulf could no longer trust their main supporter, the United States, according to the former US envoy to the United Arab Emirates, Barbara Leaf, especially after Washington left Egypt. Hosni Mubarak during the 2011 Arab Spring.

From his power base in the capital, Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Mohammed issued a “calm and cold” warning to then-President Barack Obama not to back uprisings that could spread and endanger the dynastic rule of the Gulf, according to the memoir. of Obama, who described MbZ as the “”smartest Gulf leader”.

A US State Department official working in the Biden administration, which has had strained ties with the United Arab Emirates in recent months, described him as a strategist who brings a historical perspective to discussions.

“It will talk not only about the present, but it will go back years, decades, in some cases, talking about trends over time,” the official said.

MbZ backed the 2013 military overthrow of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood president-elect Mohammed Mursi and defended Saudi Arabia’s Prince Mohammed bin Salman when he rose to power in a 2017 palace coup, touting him as a man Washington could try and the only one able to open up the kingdom.

Buoyed by warm ties with then-US President Donald Trump, the two Gulf hawks lobbied for Washington’s maximum-pressure campaign on Iran, boycotted neighboring Qatar for supporting the Muslim Brotherhood, and launched a costly war to try to break the control of Yemen, allied with Iran. Houthis.

The United Arab Emirates also waded into conflicts from Somalia to Libya to Sudan before upending decades of Arab consensus by forging ties with Israel in 2020, along with Bahrain, in US-brokered deals known as the Abraham Accords that sparked anger. Palestine.

The deals were prompted by shared concerns about Iran, but also perceived benefits to the UAE economy and fatigue with a Palestinian leadership “that doesn’t listen”, a diplomat said.


While diplomats and analysts see the alliance with Riyadh and Washington as a pillar of the UAE’s strategy, MbZ has not hesitated to move independently when economic interests or reasons dictate.

The Ukraine crisis exposed tensions with Washington when the United Arab Emirates abstained in a UN Security Council vote condemning Russia’s invasion. As an OPEC producer, along with oil titan Riyadh, the United Arab Emirates has also rejected Western calls to pump more.

Abu Dhabi has ignored other US concerns by arming and backing Libya’s Khalifa Hafter against the internationally recognized government and engaging with Syria’s Bashar al-Assad.

With Riyadh, the biggest divergence came as the United Arab Emirates largely withdrew from Yemen as the unpopular war, in which more than 100 Emiratis were killed, was mired in a military stalemate.

When Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir reneged on his promise to abandon Islamist allies, Abu Dhabi orchestrated the 2019 coup against him.


Although he says he was drawn to its Islamist ideology in his youth, MbZ has framed the Muslim Brotherhood as one of the most serious threats to stability in the Middle East.

Like Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates accuses the Brotherhood of treason after it hosted persecuted members in Egypt in the 1960s, only to see them work for change in their host countries.

“I’m an Arab, I’m a Muslim, and I pray. And in the 1970s and early 1980s I was one of them. I think these guys have an agenda,” MbZ said in a 2007 meeting with US officials, according to Wikileaks. .

Educated in the United Arab Emirates and at Sandhurst Military Officers School in Britain, Sheikh Mohammed’s mistrust of Islamists increased after 2001, when two of his compatriots were among the 19 hijackers of the 9/11 attacks. September in the United States.

“He looked around and saw that many of the younger generations in the region were very attracted to Osama bin Laden’s anti-Western mantra,” said another diplomat. “As he once told me: ‘If they can do it to you, they can do it to us.'”

Despite years of enmity, MbZ chose to engage with Iran and Turkey as COVID-19 and growing economic competition with Saudi Arabia focused on development, pushing the UAE toward further liberalization while reining in political dissent.

Seen as a modernizer at home and a charismatic man of the people by many diplomats, MbZ doggedly promoted once-low-key Abu Dhabi, which holds the United Arab Emirates’ oil wealth, by spurring development in energy, infrastructure and technology.

As deputy supreme commander of the armed forces, he is credited with making the UAE armed forces one of the most effective in the Arab world, according to experts who say he instituted military service to instill nationalism rather than rights among a wealthy population.

“He doesn’t beat around the bush… he wants to know what’s wrong, not just what’s working,” said a source with access to Sheikh Mohammed.

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Dubai office reports; Written by Ghaida Ghantous; Edited by William Maclean and Dominic Evans and Jon Boyle

Our standards: the Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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