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

  • The de facto ruler was elected president after the death of his brother
  • Bin Zayed formed a new axis with Israel against Iran and the Islamists
  • Obama writes that Gulf ruler may be ‘smarter’

DUBAI (Reuters) – Emirati strongman Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, who was formally elected president on Saturday, has led a realignment of the Middle East that created a new anti-Iranian axis with Israel and fought an escalating wave. Political Islam in the region.

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

Mohammed began exercising power during a period when his half-brother President Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed, who died on Friday, suffered bouts of illness, including a stroke in 2014.

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Mohammed bin Zayed, as he is known, was driven by a “certain fatalistic line of thinking” that the rulers of the Persian Gulf could no longer count on their main supporter the United States, according to former US envoy to the UAE Barbara Leaf, especially after Washington abandoned Egypt. Hosni Mubarak during the Arab Spring 2011.

From his base in the capital Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Mohammed issued a “calm and cool” warning to former President Barack Obama not to support uprisings that could spread and jeopardize the rule of the Gulf dynasty, according to Obama’s memoirs that described Mohammed bin Zayed as the “smartest” Gulf leader.

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

“He’ll talk not just about the present, he’ll go back years and decades, and in some cases, talk about trends over time,” the official said.

Mohammed bin Zayed supported the military overthrow of elected Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood president Mohamed Morsi in 2013, and also defended Saudi Prince Mohammed bin Salman when he rose to power in a 2017 palace coup, describing him as a man Washington can deal with and the only one capable of opening him. Even the kingdom.

Encouraged by warm relations with then-US President Donald Trump, the 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 break the grip of Iran-allied Yemen. Houthis.

The UAE also plunged into conflicts from Somalia to Libya and Sudan before upending decades of Arab consensus by establishing relations with Israel in 2020, along with Bahrain, in US-brokered deals known as the Ibrahim Accords that angered the Palestinians.

The diplomat said these agreements were motivated by shared concerns about Iran but also marked benefits for the UAE’s economy and fatigue from the “not listening” Palestinian leadership.

Tactical thinker

While diplomats and analysts see the alliance with Riyadh and Washington as one of the pillars of the UAE’s strategy, bin Zayed did not hesitate to act independently when interests or economic reasons dictate.

The Ukraine crisis exposed tensions with Washington when the UAE abstained from a vote in the United Nations Security Council to condemn the Russian invasion. As an OPEC producer, along with oil giant Riyadh, the UAE has also rejected Western calls to pump more.

Abu Dhabi has ignored other American concerns by arming and supporting Khalifa Haftar in Libya against the internationally recognized government and engaging with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

With Riyadh, the biggest rift came when the UAE largely withdrew from Yemen, as the unpopular war, in which more than 100 Emiratis have been killed, is mired in a military stalemate.

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

stability above all

Although he says he was drawn to their Islamist ideology in his youth, Mohammed bin Zayed has portrayed the Muslim Brotherhood as one of the most serious threats to stability in the Middle East.

Like Saudi Arabia, the UAE accuses the Brotherhood of treason after harboring persecuted members in Egypt in the 1960s, only to see them work for change in their host countries.

Mohammed bin Zayed said in a 2007 meeting with US officials, “I’m an Arab, I’m Muslim, and I’m a native. And in the 1970s and early 1980s, I was one of them. I think these guys have an agenda.” .

Educated in the Emirates and Military Officers College at Sandhurst in Britain, Sheikh Mohammed grew increasingly distrustful of Islamists after 2001, when two of his countrymen were among the 19 hijackers in the September 11 attacks on the United States.

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

Despite years of hostility, MbZ has chosen to engage with Iran and Turkey as the COVID-19 virus and growing economic competition with Saudi Arabia shift the focus to development, pushing the UAE toward further liberalization while maintaining a lid on dissent political.

Regarded as an insider and a charismatic man by many diplomats, MbZ has doggedly promoted Abu Dhabi, which had previously held the oil wealth of the United Arab Emirates, by stimulating development in energy, infrastructure and technology.

As deputy commander-in-chief of the armed forces, he has been credited with transforming the UAE army into one of the most effective military forces in the Arab world, according to experts who say he set up military service to instill nationalism rather than entitlement among the affluent population.

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

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Prepare reports by Dubai office. Written by Ghaida Ghantous. Editing by William MacLean, Dominic Evans and John Boyle

Our criteria: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.