DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — The rulers of the United Arab Emirates unanimously named Abu Dhabi’s Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan as the autocratic nation’s president on Saturday, signaling both unity and stability in this important energy-rich country, the western military houses.
The rise of Sheikh Mohammed, 61, was expected following the death of his half-brother and UAE President Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan on Friday at the age of 73. The transfer of power is only the third time this US-allied nation of seven sheikhdoms has elected a president since becoming an independent nation in 1971.
Under Sheikh Mohammed, who has been the de facto leader of the nation since Sheikh Khalifa’s stroke in 2014, the UAE had sought to militarily project power across the region as it joined a Saudi-led war in Yemen.
But since the coronavirus pandemic lockdowns, Sheikh Mohammed and the entire UAE have sought to recalibrate their approach, largely withdrawing from the war and seeking diplomatic détente with rivals. The UAE has also diplomatically recognized Israel, which shares Sheikh Mohammed’s longstanding distrust of Iran. However, relations 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.
State news agency WAM described the vote at Abu Dhabi’s Al Mushrif Palace as unanimous among leaders of the country’s hereditary ruled sheikhdoms, which include the skyscraper-studded city of Dubai.
“His assumption of responsibility for the presidency marks a new historical era and a new birth,” said Dubai’s ruler, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum. “We look forward to accelerating development aimed at consolidating the Emirates’ global sovereignty and pioneering work.”
There had been only one presidential death in the country’s history prior to Friday, with Sheikh Khalifa taking over after his death in 2004, both his and Sheikh Mohammed’s father, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan. Sheikh Zayed, whose name adorns a major thoroughfare that connects the Emirates and whose face can be seen across the nation, is widely regarded as the country’s founding father.
The UAE as a whole is observing a three-day period of mourning, with shops shutting down across the country and performances in honor of Sheikh Khalifa halted. All electronic billboards showed the image of the late Sheikh in Dubai on Friday night as flags flew at half-mast. In addition, there will be a broader mourning period of 40 days.
The Sultan of Oman was among the first leaders to visit Sheikh Mohammed on Saturday night. More 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 has been the de facto President of the UAE since a stroke in 2014 led to Sheikh Khalifa disappearing from public view.
Known by the acronym MbZ, Sheikh Mohammed maintained connections with the West that proved valuable to Abu Dhabi, the UAE’s capital, which has tens of billions of dollars in wealth funds from its oil and gas reserves. A 2004 US diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks described him as “charismatic, savvy, and very much at ease in the West.” He received then-President George W. Bush at his desert estate in 2008, a visit complete with Bedouin tents and falcons.
The country is home to around 3,500 US troops, many at Al-Dhafra Air Base in Abu Dhabi, from where drones and warplanes have flown missions to counter the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria. Dubai is also the US Navy’s busiest port of call overseas. France and South Korea also maintained a military presence here.
The Pentagon said US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin spoke to Sheikh Mohammed on Saturday and said “he looks forward to strengthening the important defense partnership that has expanded under the late president” and “the strong ties” between the countries to deepen.
Sheikh Mohammed was educated at the British Military Academy in Sandhurst and is a helicopter pilot. His military approach saw the UAE join Saudi Arabia in their bloody, year-long war in Yemen, which rages to this day. Sheikh Mohammed had a close relationship with the crown prince of neighboring Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman. However, the Emirates have largely withdrawn their troops from Yemen.
Sheikh Mohammed, too, has long been suspicious of both the Muslim Brotherhood and Iran, organizing a campaign against Islamists in the UAE likely after the 2011 Arab Spring and urging the West to take a harder line on Tehran over concerns about its nuclear program and support are pursuing paramilitary groups across the region. The UAE’s recognition of Israel in 2020while opening up new trade and tourism, it also serves as a hedge in dealing with Iran.
However, since the coronavirus pandemic, the UAE under Sheikh Mohammed has sought to restore ties with Iran and Turkey, which have supported Islamists in the region. A quartet of Arab nations including the United Arab Emirates also dropped their boycott of Qatar over a diplomatic row over its support of Islamists, although relations between Abu Dhabi and Doha remain icy.
“The smooth transition of power in the UAE reflects the sobriety of institutional work and the advanced level of government mechanisms and their stability,” said Anwar Gargash, a senior UAE diplomat.
But in recent years tensions have arisen between Sheikh Mohammed and the US, which has long been a guarantor of security in the wider Persian Gulf. Then-President Barack Obama and world powers reaching a nuclear deal with Iran in 2015 angered the Emirates. The chaotic American withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021 under President Joe Biden increased concerns about US withdrawal from the region.
Sheikh Mohammed found himself embroiled in Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report on then-President Donald Trump and Russian interference in the 2016 American election. The chairman of Trump’s 2017 founding committee was arrested in 2021 on charges of secretly conspiring to influence US policy in favor of the United Arab Emirates.
A proposed US sale of advanced F-35 fighter jets to the UAE also appears to have stalled in part due to American concerns over the Emirates’ relationship with China. Meanwhile, the UAE has been careful not to alienate Russia as Moscow wages war on Ukraine.
But Biden issued a heartfelt statement Saturday saying he wanted to congratulate “my longtime friend” on “his election.”
“The 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 and further strengthen the bonds between our countries and peoples.”
Follow Jon Gambrell on Twitter at www.twitter.com/jongambrellAP.