The newly elected ruler of the UAE sees Iran, Islamists as a threat to the Gulf’s safe haven

  • De facto ruler elected president after his brother’s death
  • MbZ forged new axis with Israel against Iran, Islamists
  • Perhaps the Gulf’s ‘smartest’ ruler, 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 reshuffle that launched a new anti-Iran axis with Israel created and fought a rising tide of political Islam in the region.

Working behind the scenes for years as a de facto leader, Sheikh Mohammed, 61, transformed the UAE’s military into a high-tech fighting force, which combined with his oil wealth and business status expanded the Emirates’ influence internationally.

Mohammed began to exercise power during a period when his half-brother President Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed, who died Friday, was suffering from bouts of illness, including a stroke in 2014.

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MbZ, as he’s known, was driven by a “certain fatalistic mindset” that Gulf Arab rulers could no longer rely on their main supporter, the United States, according to former U.S. envoy to the UAE Barbara Leaf, especially after Washington expelled Egyptian officials from Egypt. government had left. Hosni Mubarak during the 2011 Arab Spring.

From his power base in the capital Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Mohammed warned then-President Barack Obama “calm and cold” not to support uprisings that could spread and endanger the Gulf dynasty, according to Obama’s memoir , who described MbZ as the “smartest” Gulf leader.

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

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

MbZ supported the 2013 military ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood’s elected president, Mohammed Mursi, and defended Saudi Prince Mohammed bin Salman when he came to power in a palace coup in 2017, touting him as a man Washington could relate to and the only one who was able to open up the kingdom.

Encouraged by warm ties to 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 and grip Yemen’s Iran-aligned regime. Houthis.

The UAE also waded into conflicts from Somalia to Libya and Sudan before overthrowing decades of Arab consensus by forging ties with Israel in 2020, along with Bahrain, in US-brokered deals known as the Abraham Accords and that aroused Palestinian anger.

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


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 so require.

The crisis in Ukraine exposed tensions with Washington as the UAE abstained from a UN Security Council vote condemning the Russian invasion. As an OPEC producer, the UAE, along with oil titan Riyadh, also rejected Western calls for more pumping.

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

With Riyadh, the biggest difference came when the UAE largely withdrew from Yemen when the unpopular war, which killed more than 100 Emiratis, reached a military stalemate.

When Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir renounced a pledge to abandon Islamist allies, Abu Dhabi orchestrated the 2019 coup against him.


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

Like Saudi Arabia, the UAE accuses the Brotherhood of treason after it sheltered members persecuted in Egypt in the 1960s, only to watch them work for change in their host country.

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

Trained in the UAE and the military officer school at Sandhurst in Britain, Sheikh Mohammed’s distrust of Islamists grew after 2001, when two of his compatriots were among 19 hijackers 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 do business with Iran and Turkey as COVID-19 and increasing economic competition with Saudi Arabia shifted focus on development, pushing the UAE towards further liberalization while keeping political dissidents in check held.

MbZ was seen by many diplomats as a modernizer and by many diplomats as a charismatic people. He stubbornly promoted the previously unremarkable Abu Dhabi, which holds the UAE’s oil wealth, by encouraging the development of energy, infrastructure and technology.

As deputy commander-in-chief of the armed forces, he was credited with turning the UAE’s military into 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 makes no bones about it… he wants to know what’s not working right, not just what’s working,” said a source with access to Sheikh Mohammed.

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Reporting by Dubai agency; Written by Ghaida Ghantous; Editing by William Maclean and Dominic Evans and Jon Boyle

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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