The newly elected ruler of the UAE sees Iran and Islamists as a threat to the safe haven in the Gulf

The newly elected ruler of the UAE sees Iran and Islamists as a threat to the safe haven in the Gulf

  • De facto ruler elected president after brother’s death
  • MbZ forged new axis with Israel against Iran, Islamists
  • Perhaps the Gulf’s “smartest” ruler, Obama wrote

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

Sheikh Mohammed, 61, worked for years behind the scenes as a de facto leader, transforming the UAE’s military into a high-tech force that, combined with its oil wealth and business hub status, expanded the Emirates’ influence internationally.

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

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MbZ, as he is known, was driven by a “certain fatalistic mindset” that the Gulf Arab rulers could no longer rely on their main backer, the United States, according to the former US envoy to the United Arab Emirates, Barbara Leaf, particularly 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 support insurgencies that could spread and threaten the rule of the Gulf dynasty, according to Obama’s memoir, which MbZ as the “most accomplished” golf guide.

A US State Department official serving in the Biden administration, which has had close ties with the UAE in recent months, described him as a strategist who brings a historical perspective to the discussions.

“Not only will he be talking about the present, but in some cases going back years, decades, and talking about the trends over time,” the official said.

MbZ supported the military ouster of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood president-elect Mohammed Morsi in 2013, and sided with Saudi Arabia’s Prince Mohammed bin Salman when he came to power in a palace coup in 2017, praising him as a man one that Washington could deal with and the only one that could open up the empire.

Emboldened by cordial ties with then-US President Donald Trump, the two Gulf hawks lobbied for Washington’s maximum pressure campaign on Iran, boycotted neighboring Qatar for its support of the Muslim Brotherhood and launched a costly war to try to gain a grip on those with the Muslim Brotherhood Iran ally Yemen to break Houthis.

The UAE also waded into conflicts from Somalia to Libya and Sudan before turning the decades-old Arab consensus on its head by joining with Bahrain in 2020 in US-brokered deals known as the Abraham Accords, drawing Palestinian wrath moved, established connections with Israel.

The deals were fueled by shared concerns about Iran, but also by perceived benefits for the UAE’s economy and fatigue with a Palestinian leadership “that isn’t listening,” 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 act independently when interests or economic reasons require it.

The Ukraine crisis raised tensions with Washington as the UAE abstained in a UN Security Council vote condemning the Russian invasion. As an OPEC producer, the UAE, along with oil giant Riyadh, has also dismissed 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 aligning with Syria’s Bashar al-Assad.

Riyadh saw the biggest disparities when the UAE largely withdrew from Yemen as the unpopular war that left more than 100 Emiratis dead spiraled into a military stalemate.

When Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir failed to live up to his promise to desert Islamist allies, Abu Dhabi orchestrated the 2019 coup against him.


Although he says he was drawn to their Islamist ideology in his youth, MbZ has portrayed the Muslim Brotherhood as one of the greatest threats to stability in the Middle East.

Like Saudi Arabia, the UAE accuses the Brotherhood of treachery after it took in members who were persecuted in Egypt in the 1960s, only to see them lobbying for change in their host countries.

“I am Arab, I am 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 at a 2007 meeting with US officials, according to Wikileaks.

Educated in the United Arab Emirates and at the Sandhurst Military Officers College in Britain, Sheikh Mohammed’s distrust of Islamists increased after 2001, when two of his compatriots were among the 19 kidnappers in the September 11 attacks on the United States.

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

Despite years of enmity, MbZ chose to work with Iran and Turkey as COVID-19 and increasing economic competition with Saudi Arabia shifted the focus to development, pushing the UAE for further liberalization while reining in political disagreements held.

MbZ, seen by many diplomats as a domestic modernizer and a charismatic people’s leader, tenaciously promoted the previously unremarkable Abu Dhabi, which owns the UAE’s oil wealth, by spurring energy, infrastructure and technology development.

As deputy commander-in-chief of the armed forces, he was credited with making the UAE’s military one of the most effective in the Arab world, according to experts, who say he instituted military service to spread nationalism rather than claim a wealthy population to raise.

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

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reporting by the Dubai Bureau; Writing by Ghaida Ghantous; Editing by William Maclean and Dominic Evans and Jon Boyle

Our standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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