Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, who was formally elected president of the United Arab Emirates on Saturday, oversaw a Middle East realignment that forged a new anti-Iran axis with Israel and opposed a rising tide of political Islam in the region.
Sheikh Mohammed, 61, worked behind the scenes as de facto leader for years, transforming the UAE military into a high-tech force that, combined with the UAE’s oil wealth and commercial hub reputation, boosted Emirati influence abroad.
Mohammed rose to prominence during a period when his half-brother, President Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed, who died on Friday, was sick, including having a stroke in 2014.
According to former US envoy to the UAE Barbara Leaf, MbZ was inspired by a ‘certain fatalistic line of thinking’ that Gulf Arab rulers could no longer rely on their main patron, the US, especially after Washington abandoned Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak during the 2011 Arab Spring.
Sheikh Mohammed gave a ‘cool and chilly’ warning to then-President Barack Obama from his power base in Abu Dhabi, urging him not to promote upheavals that could expand and imperil Gulf dynasty control, according to Obama’s biography, which branded MbZ as the ‘savviest’ Gulf leader.
He is a strategist who offers historical perspective to negotiations, according to a US State Department official serving in the Biden administration, which has had tense relations with the UAE in recent months.
‘He will speak not only about the current, but also about tendencies that have occurred over time,’ the official said.
MbZ backed Egypt’s elected Muslim Brotherhood president Mohammed Mursi being deposed by the military in 2013, and championed Saudi Arabia’s Prince Mohammed bin Salman as he rose to power in a 2017 palace coup, hailing him as a man Washington could deal with and the only one capable of opening up the kingdom.
The two Gulf hawks advocated for Washington’s maximum pressure campaign on Iran, boycotting Qatar for backing the Muslim Brotherhood, and started an expensive war to attempt to break the grip of Yemen’s Iran-aligned Houthis, aided by strong connections with then-US President Donald Trump.
The UAE has also intervened in wars ranging from Somalia to Libya and Sudan, before upsetting decades of Arab consensus by creating ties with Israel in 2020, alongside Bahrain, in US-brokered agreements known as the Abraham Accords, which have enraged Palestinians.
According to one diplomat, the arrangements were motivated by shared fears over Iran, as well as perceived economic benefits for the UAE and frustration with a Palestinian leadership ‘that doesn’t listen.’