Sheikh Mohammed Bin Zayed: UAE’s New President and usher in a withering world order

Sheikh Mohammed Bin Zayed

The United Arab Emirates lost its President on 13 May 2022, President Sheikh Khalifa was 73 and
lost the battle to a prolonged illness. President Khalifa had suffered a stroke in 2014 and had
undergone surgery, he had been keeping unwell ever since. The inability of Sheikh Khalifa to
discharge his duties as head of state, paved the way for Sheikh Mohammed Bin Zayed or MBZ as he
is popularly known to act as the de facto head of state. The years of Sheikh Khalifa’s illness saw
MBZ engaging himself on various fronts both at home and on the international stage. Over time,
MBZ became the face of the UAE in international world politics. The election of MbZ to the
highest political office in the country by the federal council, practically changes nothing, just that
the de facto ruler became the official ruler. However, this does not mean that the new President
will face no challenges, instead, his every step now will play a crucial role in the prospects of the
Middle East.

Knowing MbZ:
Sheikh Mahommed bin Zayed was born in Al Ain (then in the Trucial States) on 11
March 1961. His father Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan was the first President of the
UAE and the Ruler of Abu Dhabi, his mother Sheikha Fatima bint Mubarak Al Ketbi
was the third wife of his father. MbZ was 10 years old when the UAE came into
existence and his father became the founding President. Till the age of 18 MbZ was
educated in schools at Al Ain. In 1979, he was sent to the Royal Military Academy
Sandhurst in England. He graduated in April 1979, after completion of a fundamental
armour course, a fundamental flying course, a parachutist course and training on
tactical planes and helicopters. MbZ joined the Emirati armed forces in early 1980 as
a General and would go on to become first the commander of the UAE Air Force
and Air Defense followed by Deputy Armed Forces Deputy Chief of Staff and finally
Armed Forces Chief of Staff in 1993. Throughout his early life and military career,
MbZ was tested and sent on expeditions by his father, MbZ would later recall these
as the greatest learning experiences of his life.

After Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan’s death:
In November 2003, MbZ was appointed the Deputy Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi.
This was also the period of Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan’s illness, the founding President
of the UAE was suffering from a kidney ailment and diabetes. On 2 November 2004
President Zayed died aged 86. The founding President was succeeded by his eldest
son Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed as President and Ruler of Abu Dhabi, while MbZ now
became the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and the Deputy Supreme Commander of
the Armed Forces. Apart from this, MbZ held other key portfolios including the
Chairman of the Abu Dhabi Executive Council, which was responsible for the
developmental planning of the Emirate of Abu Dhabi. He was also the special adviser
to his half-brother and UAE’s President. As Crown Prince, MbZ exercised power on
multiple domestic fronts and played a crucial role in Dubai’s urban development after
his father’s passing. As special advisor to his half-brother and the President, he was
next to the centre of power in the UAE.

Sheikh Khalifa’s illness and becoming the de facto ruler:
President Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed suffered a stroke on 24 January 2014 and soon
thereafter underwent surgery which was reported successful. However, health
complications prevented the President from addressing various concerns of the
state. Therefore, responsibilities of the state and the government now came onto the
shoulders of MbZ although rulings continued to be issued in the name of the ailing
President. From this moment here on, MbZ was viewed as a de facto ruler until his
ascendancy to the Presidency.

Although still unofficial, MbZ was now at the helm and was quick to establish his
impact on the UAE’s foreign relations. MbZ sought closer ties with both the US &
Russia, however closer with the US. MbZ was even accused of meddling with the
2016 UAE elections. He made attempts to reaffirm ties with Turkey after the two
sides seemingly found each other at crossroads. During heightened US-Russia
tensions, MBZ even put forward his willingness to mediate between the two archrivals.                                                                                                                              Under MBZ the UAE has increasingly pledged financial support to countries in
Africa and the Middle East. Since 2015, the UAE under MBZ’s direction has been
ambitiously striving to achieve its strategic goals in Yemen by supporting the Saudi
lead coalition forces. Under MBZ’s leadership, the UAE has been aggressively working
against the Muslim Brotherhood. After the attack on Saudi’s diplomatic mission in
Iran, the UAE scaled back its ties with the Islamic Republic. Later, the UAE
established diplomatic ties with Israel following the signing of the Abraham Accords
in 2020, the move was condemned by Iran, which considers Israel to be the source
of instability in the region. Israel and the UAE are cooperating in multiple fields
including technology, logistics, transportation, finance, agriculture etc. But there have
also been reports of the two colluding against their common enemy – Iran. These
moves show MBZ’s willingness to engage and being favoured by the west as an                                                                                                                                          openminded leader who believes in multilateralism. Nevertheless, there have been
conversations between the Emirati foreign minister and his Iranian counterpart as
the two countries seek to “boost ties”. The UAE has also emphasised on the need to
collectively find a solution to the crisis in Syria and Yemen. MBZ has been termed by
scholars as “the most powerful Arab ruler” given his administration’s cordial
relationships with both the American Presidency and Russian Presidency. Now with
enhanced ties with Israel and Saudi Arabia, he is seen as the key figure to maintain
order in the Middle East.

Scholars have classified the UAE as a rentier state; meaning it makes substantial
income from foreign countries and individuals. This rentier state system is imperative
for political stability in the UAE as the revenues made by the country are in the
direct control of the rulers, who do not levy any taxes on its citizens and initiate
welfare programs and schemes through the revenues generated from the                                                                                                                                 nonrenewable energy sources. Abu Dhabi has the most oil and other natural resources
in the UAE followed by Dubai alone, therefore the royal family of Abu Dhabi prevail
as the most powerful out of all the Emirates. The UAE is the world’s leading carbon
emitter country and has natural reserves for the next 50 years. However, as
Chairman of the Abu Dhabi Council for Economic Development and Abu Dhabi
Investment Authority, MBZ is attempting to diversify UAE’s source of revenues and is
aiming to reduce the country’s reliance on its oil wealth. He has aligned this motive
of his with combating climate change and related crisis too.

“In 50 years when we might have the last barrel of oil, the question is: when it is shipped abroad, will we be
sad? asked MBZ in 2015. “If we invest in the right sectors, I am telling you we will
celebrate that moment” he further added. MBZ’s intentions of diversifying the
economy are now being reflected through the growth of Abu Dhabi’s non-oil foreign
trade. The non-oil foreign trade of Abu Dhabi grew by 15% in one year to $16.7
billion in the first quarter of 2022. Previously in 2018, MBZ had announced a Dh50
billion stimulus package for Abu Dhabi, aimed at bolstering non-oil foreign trade and
exploring new sources of revenue generation. The UAE is also investing in clean
energy and recently opened its first peaceful nuclear power station in August 2020.
The plant will provide clean and renewable energy to the UAE and is intended to
supply 25% of the UAE’s energy needs.

Although MBZ assumes Presidency now, however over the years as a de facto ruler,
he has been successful to build a persona of himself as a calm, patient and visionary
leader. And is considered adept in aligning the UAE and the middle-east with the
trends of the 21st century.

What lies ahead?
The world today is thronged with unprecedented crisis and their inconceivable
implications. The pandemic, followed by the Russia-Ukraine crisis (which in itself is a
fulcrum of dozens of other critical issues), climate crisis and the many regional crises,
especially in the middle east and south-east Asia.

MBZ dealing with all these crisis and his serene approach towards them have
distinguished him as a modern leader. His serenity is not mistaken for weakness,
instead, it is his way of regulating his authority. MBZ has made his intentions clear of
minimal reliance on the west, a harder stance on Iran and greater connectivity in the
middle-east. American attempts to press UAE in voting against Russia in the UNSC
resolution for the Ukraine Crisis proved futile, so was the attempt to push UAE for
pumping more oil to mitigate the oil crisis. Under MBZ’s leadership, UAE approached
Saudi Arabia for better bilateral ties, however, the UAE was instant in withdrawing its
forces from Yemen, when there were heavy losses of Emirati life. On the other hand,
the Emirati government has engaged with Bashr-al-Assad in Syria, backed Khalifa
Haftar against the internationally recognised government and orchestrated a coup
against President Omar Hassan al-Bashir in Sudan. All these developments indicate
the fiery decisiveness of the new President and place him as the most imperative
element in the Arab and middle-eastern order.

MBZ mastered the process to be a global leader in the 21st century, his charisma,
the moderniser element, openness and independent decision-making are the major
reasons behind it. However, MBZ faces several allegations of human rights violation
and authoritarianism. Prominent international organisations such as Amnesty
International have accused him of practising torture, arbitrary detentions and forced
disappearance of citizens and residents. He also stands accused of holding biased
elections, controlling media, limiting free speech and restricting human rights. All
these put his efforts to present himself as an open-minded, visionary leader, in
jeopardy. During many of his visits abroad, MBZ had to face the wrath of
international organisations in forms of protest. The challenge of climate change and
the UAE’s actions towards it is sufficient as of now. However, there is mounting
pressure on the Emirati nation to take greater leaps towards the same. Apart from
this, Iran and the war in Yemen continue to be the greatest impediments on MBZ’s
path to firmly establish himself as the leader of the Arab world. MBZ has also not yet
announced the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and there are speculations of political
strains within the royal family. MBZ has sought to modernise the Emirati army which
is not being received well around the world. The UAE’s engagements with China and
Russia, make it difficult for the west to rely on MBZ.

The west knows MBZ can’t be dictated to their terms. Currently, the newly
inaugurated President enjoys domestic support and has maintained a positive
viewpoint of himself globally. However, maintaining these standards, alongside
pursuing his ambitions on multiple fronts, is the real challenge for MBZ in a rapidly
changing and withering world order.

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