At the age of 61, the world-renowned Sheikh Mohammed Bin Zayed became the third president of the United Arab Emirates (UAE). After the death of his elder brother Sheikh Khalifa Bin Zayed, on May 13th, the UAE’s Federal National Council elected him to lead the country that he devotedly participated in making one of the most powerful actors in the region, during the past decade. Even more, Sheikh Mohammed Bin Zayed’s ascendance to the peak of power marks the beginning of a new era, not only for the UAE, but more broadly for the Gulf region, and consequently, the entire Middle East.
Many observers are wondering about what to expect from the new president of the UAE. But this is the wrong question to ask. No big shifts in the UAE’s domestic or foreign policy are expected to occur upon the change of the country’s leadership. Sheikh Mohammed Bin Zayed has always been in charge. He is the man who, publicly or discreetly, engineered most of the impressive reality of today’s UAE. From a Bedouin desert where people could not aspire for more than day-to-day living, the family of Zayed Al-Nahyan created a coveted country with a vision and mission that exceeded its geographic borders and limited space. At least for the past 15 years, Sheikh Mohammed Bin Zayed has been at the center of the decision-making circle that built on Sheikh Zayed’s legacy and continued the path to UAE’s growth.
The general stability of the economic and political system, and the lack of competition among the ruling families of the sister Emirates that comprise the federal state, will save Sheikh Mohammed a lot of time in selecting and appointing the co-leaders who will act as pillars of support to his rule. That includes the royals who will replace him in the positions of the Crown Prince and the Deputy Minister of Defense. As soon as he gets done with that, the new President will have the time and the space needed to focus all his efforts on enhancing and accelerating his foreign policy vision, in the region and beyond.
The core theme of the UAE’s foreign policy, under the leadership of Mohammed Bin Zayed, could be summarized in three key points. The first is about fighting against all forms of religious extremism. That is not limited to jihadist organizations, such as the Sunni Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State terrorists (Daesh), the Shiite Houthis in Yemen, and Hezbollah in Lebanon. It, also includes political Islamist organizations, like the Muslim Brotherhood and their flanks and sympathizers in the Gulf. As the UAE’s chase of Islamist organizations is expected to intensify under Sheikh Mohamed's leadership, that may renew the rivalry between the UAE and its neighbor Qatar which adopts a contrary policy of supporting Islamists of all types.
The second point that defines UAE’s foreign policy is about reaching out and enhancing ties with the non-Arab countries of the Middle East; namely Turkey, Israel, and Iran. Over the past three years, in particular, the UAE has been valiantly active in breaking one political taboo after another, starting from signing the Abraham Accords with Israel, in 2020, up to fixing broken ties with Iran and Turkey, following the hasty withdrawal of the United States from Afghanistan last summer.
The third key point in UAE’s foreign policy vision is about continuously boosting the defense power and armament capabilities of the UAE military. That is mainly through pouring large investments into acquiring high-end weapons from the United States and Europe. In 2020, the UAE signed a deal with the former U.S. Administration of President Trump to acquire the advanced F-35 fighter jets and other weapons for 23 billion dollars. When the following Administration of President Biden delayed the fulfillment of the deal, the UAE moved on with making another deal with France to purchase 80 pieces of its trademark Rafale fighter jets for 19 billion dollars.
Any other movement by the UAE on the world stage is motivated by one or more of these particular three key points. That includes the UAE’s firm stance, in conformity with Saudi Arabia’s position, towards the Russia-Ukraine war, despite several pleas by Western leaders for the Gulf countries to side with the West against Russia. The UAE and Saudi Arabia are not necessarily supporting the Russian offensive, by refusing to side with the West. They voted against the Russian invasion of Ukraine in the United Nations Security Council. However, they cannot side with the West if the West is not helping them fulfill their foreign and defense policy goals.
In that sense, the right question to ask is not about what Sheikh Mohammed Bin Zayed is expected to do as president. That we can easily derive the answer for. However, one should ask how the world should prepare to deal with a tenfold more powerful UAE under the leadership of the staunch and invincible Mohammed Bin Zayed.
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