Hardly a ruler in waiting

Architect of the United Arab Emiratesʹ assertive foreign policy approach is the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi: he it is who ultimately makes the decisions, in consultation with several of his brothers and the ruler of Dubai. Report by Matthias Sailer

By Matthias Sailer

The UAE is a federation of seven emirates formed in 1971. Its highest decision-making body, the Federal Supreme Council, determines the nation's basic political principles. Its members are the seven rulers of the individual emirates, each of which belongs to its respective royal family.

But this formal institution does not reflect the actual distribution of power. The true balance of power corresponds to an emirate's wealth. For example Abu Dhabi, which owns around 95 per cent of all UAE oil and gas reserves, is by far the most powerful emirate, followed by Dubai, the influence of which stems first and foremost from its role as an economic and trading centre in the non-oil sector.

But since the financial crisis of 2008/2009, Dubai has seen its political clout with respect to Abu Dhabi significantly reduced. At that time, a number of state companies were mired in debt and the Emirate of Dubai had to step in with 20 billion U.S. dollars to save them from insolvency. Politically speaking, the other smaller emirates play an increasingly less significant role, because they are too heavily dependent on Abu Dhabi's support.

These days, as a result, the tone of the UAE's foreign and security policies is set by the royal family of Abu Dhabi – in other words, the political power of the autocratically-led UAE is concentrated in the House of Nahyan.

According to the constitution, President Khalifa bin Zayed Al-Nahyan is the nation's most powerful man. But Wikileaks documents from 2009 reveal that the U.S. ambassador to the UAE at the time, Richard Olson, suspected that Khalifa only had the last word in decisions with great financial implications and in those affecting oil policies.

The real ruler of the Emirates

This is still the case today and is evident from the fact that Khalifa still chairs both the Supreme Petroleum Council, which sets and regulates oil-related policies, as well as the most important sovereign wealth fund, the Abu Dhabi Investment Authority. In all other areas, the ambassador described Khalifa's half-brother, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al-Nahyan (MbZ), as the person at the helm of the UAE. Following President Khalifa's stroke in January 2014, MbZ's influence has increased still further.

United Arab Emiratesʹ flag and a billboard showing Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al-Nahyan in Abu Dhabi (photo: Reuters/Ahmed Jadallah)
A concentration of power: these days the tone of the UAE's foreign and security policies is set by the royal family of Abu Dhabi – in other words, the political power of the autocratically-led UAE is concentrated in the House of Nahyan

MbZ began his career in the military. Following graduation from Sandhurst military academy (1979), he held numerous military command posts. He was appointed Armed Forces Chief of Staff in 1993 and also became the most important security adviser to the then President. In 2005, he took over the position of Deputy Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces.

This position is significant, because although the ruler of Dubai holds the defence ministry portfolio, this is primarily symbolic in character and Abu Dhabi essentially has the final say in military matters. This is the only official title that MbZ has on a national level – he is neither a member of the Federal Supreme Council, nor of the cabinet.

But just how powerful MbZ already was in the 1990s is evident from the fact that his signature is to be found on numerous billion-dollar arms deals agreed during this period. Especially pronounced is MbZ's wish for close co-operation with the West and the U.S. in particular. Following the 9/11 attacks, he presented himself to Washington as pioneer in the fight against Islamist terrorism but also against any non-violent form of political Islam. Some observers describe him as downright fanatical in this regard.

Over the years, MbZ has perpetually consolidated his power, by assuming many other important economic and political positions and positioning confidantes and allies in key committees. In this endeavour, MbZ has a big advantage within the royal family, because with five full brothers he has a broad power base against his numerous half-brothers. Unlike half-brothers, full brothers grow up in the same household, which is why they are usually particularly close.

Close family ties

These brothers have taken on key economic and political posts and thereby further cemented their shared power base. His brother Abdallah bin Zayed has been Foreign Minister since 2006, Hazza bin Zayed was head of the intelligence service and served as national security adviser from 2006 to 2016. Ambassador Olson described the UAE secret service as one of the closest partners of the U.S. in the Middle East.

After Hazza, his brother Tahnoun was appointed to the post of National Security Adviser in 2016. Since early 2017, his deputy has been MbZ's son Khalid, responsible in recent years for operations against Islamist opposition members. Another full brother is Mansour bin Zayed. He is primarily responsible for drawing up the economic aspects of the UAE's foreign policy.

But although MbZ may consult his brothers, one thing is clear: as a key adviser to the Crown Prince puts it – "MbZ is the boss". This was evident, for example, at a meeting between the brothers MbZ, Hazza, Tahnoun and Mansour with the Russian President Vladimir Putin in late 2015. According to a leaked email on the meeting from the UAE Ambassador in Moscow, after a general presentation Putin had a one-to-one meeting for one hour with MbZ, while the other brothers waited. MbZ briefed them afterwards.

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al-Nahyan (photo: Reuters)
MbZ is the boss: apart from the Supreme Petroleum Council and the most important sovereign wealth fund, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al-Nahyan (MbZ) directs all UAE policy. Following President Khalifa's stroke in January 2014, MbZ's influence has increased still further

After the meeting, Mansour bin Zayed gave the UAE ambassador instructions on the co-ordination with the economy and energy minister, which provides evidence of their technocratic function, whereas Mansour operates on a strategic level. The same email also mentions a meeting between the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and MbZ, which took place on Mansour bin Zayed's "yacht", which emphasises the closeness of the brothers, in this case MbZ and Mansour.

This hierarchy has also been evident in previous years. According to another leaked document, U.S. Ambassador Olson also reports on a meeting between himself, a representative of the U.S. Treasury and Hazaa bin Zayed on severing sources of funding to the Taliban. When the U.S. financial adviser suggested extending the co-operation between the UAE and the U.S. to the Afghan government, Hazza offered to bring the subject up with the Crown Prince. So although Hazza was responsible for this area and able to express a recommendation, the final decision still lay with MbZ.

MbZ has the last word

Exchange between the brothers is often informal, for example evenings in the gym, or on the sidelines of frequent semi-formal meetings with other individuals. Each of the brothers has his own areas of responsibility, but they consult with MbZ over the important questions.

In this process, an adviser to the President says that although the aim is to find consensus, this does not always work out, which is why MbZ sometimes takes decisions that are contrary to the will of his brothers. In 2015, a high-ranking adviser to the Crown Prince said of his boss in quite general terms: "He is a military person and behaves like one. If someone is good, he supports him. If not, he exchanges him." But, he continues, in fundamental areas such as security there is usually agreement.

The co-operation with Mohammed bin Rashid Al-Maktoum, the ruler of Dubai and Prime Minister of the UAE, is similar. One adviser says MbZ and Mohammed bin Rashid are in hourly contact. A Wikileaks document describes an episode in the immediate aftermath of the killing of a Hamas leader in Dubai 2010.

In response to a request from the U.S. Ambassador in Abu Dhabi for a comment on the incident, a spokesman replied: "the UAE's public posture was being discussed between Dubai Ruler Mohammed bin Rashid and Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed". And here too, the same still applies: MbZ has the last word. A member of one emirate royal family even went as far as to say that although Abu Dhabi may contact Dubai, this is usually when the decision has essentially already been taken.

Matthias Sailer

© Qantara.de 2018

Translated from the German by Nina Coon