The new Lord of the Emirates.

                      It was officially announced on 13 May 2022 that the ruler of Abū Zabī and the President of the United Arab Emirates aš-Šayh Halīfa ibn Zāyid Āl Nahyān passed away. Regardless of the suspiciously symbolic time, this news came out on Friday, shortly after Ramadan, and at a time of huge changes in the region prompting firm action, it was not a major surprise. Aš-Šayh Halīfa was suffering from poor health for long years and was absent from the public eyes for almost a decade, while his duties were taken over by his ambitious and resourceful half brother, Crown Prince of the Abū Zabī Muḥammad ibn Zāyid Āl Nahyān.

            It has been so long since Muḥammad ibn Zāyid took effective control over the state, and in a much more direct and less consultative fashion than his predecessors that aš-Šayh Halīfa has been practically erased from the public consciousness for years, and that is especially true in the international arena.

            Halīfa ibn Zāyid had no full brothers, unlike Muḥammad ibn Zāyid, the eldest among six full brothers, who by now all occupy key positions in the state. Thus with the election of Muḥammad ibn Zāyid, the new ruler of Abū Zabī as the president of the state a branch of the Āl Nahyān family dies out, while another takes over the state. And likely for long, as Muḥammad ibn Zāyid not only has five already experienced and trusted brothers and four sons, but remarkably none of Halīfa’s sons were ever seriously considered to follow him.

            The transition was smooth, as Muḥammad ibn Zāyid was the practical ruler of the state for nearly a decade, and in all public imagery, he had already taken over his brother’s place. Which would suggest that this change might be meaningful emotionally, but will mean little change for the state and its foreign policy. However, Muḥammad ibn Zāyid as a Crown Prince, active and cunning as he has been, was still just waiting for the power he now got. So this can truly be a beginning of a new chapter, especially in a rapidly restructuring regional environment.


A slowly fading legacy

            As it is proper at every such change, we should first see the legacy the first two presidents of the Emirates leave to Muḥammad ibn Zāyid, the new ruler of the state.

            Aš-Šayh Zāyid, a charismatic and energetic figure to his death was not only a devoted ruler of his home statelet Abū Zabī, still a British colony until 1971, but one of the advocates of independence and a chief negotiator with London. He was the one, who hammered out the details of the British withdrawal and the independence for all British colonies in the Persian Gulf, thus he was one of the main architects of the Gulf order we know today. He had such charisma that he managed to convince most of the local rulers in the area to join a federal state, while continue ruling as largely separate monarchs in their own respective domains. As result, out of the nine British colonies gaining full independence in the Gulf in 1971 seven – originally six, but the next year the Emirate of Ra’s al-Hayma also joined and became the seventh member state – united and created the State of the United Arab Emirates. This became a unique federal monarchy with seven internally largely independent monarchies with their own laws and rules but united in economic, defense, and foreign policy.

            Given the charisma Zāyid had among his contemporaries Abū Zabī quickly became the center of the new state and due to him slowly and gradually federal institutions solidified the union. This prestige was never challenged in his lifetime, even after Dubai became the economic powerhouse of the state. Thus aš-Šayh Zāyid is rightfully respected as the true founding father of the Emirates, largely overshadowing the other Emirati rulers. Even those, who were essential companions. Zāyid is commemorated all over the state, as public places and institutions are named after him, and due to his active and largely supportive foreign policy for all joint Arab matters, he is remembered as a positive figure. He is truly the ruler, who created the still overall positive image of the Emirates, despite all the controversies surrounding it in the last decade, or so.

            In his lifetime Zāyid had seven wives. The first came from the same Āl Nahyān royal dynasty, and thus the children from this marriage had a distinct prestige, as somewhat “purebloods” from within the dynasty. That is how his eldest son from this marriage, Halīfa became his undisputed heir, despite his less charismatic figure. However, it was Zāyid’s third wife, Fāṭima bint Mubārak al-Kutbī – who is still alive -, who gave birth to the six sons – aside from two daughters – who by now took over the state and constitute the by far strongest power block in the entire Emirates. This family lineage and the ways how Muḥammad ibn Zāyid took over the state even before he became the former ruler had been discussed by Panorama earlier.

            Aš-Šayh Zāyid truly was a figure very hard to overestimate. An energetic visionary for his state, who had the determination and will, but also the patience for soft political machinations to fulfill his vision and create one of the most rapidly progressing and most successful modern Arab states. However, as often is the case with such historical figures, he was a man very hard to follow, even though he made his best to reassure the inheritance of his eldest son.

Aš-Šayh Zāyid Āl Nahyān founder and first President of the UAE

            Halīfa, however, who grew up under the overpowering influence of his father, might have been a skilled caretaker, but as a ruler proved to be less charismatic. Despite the customary praising eulogies now in the Emirates, his image was seldom seen in public events for years, and will probably go down in history as a side note barely mentioned. For a long, he tried to follow the policies of his father both internally and internationally, but due to his less visionary rule, the state slowly started to lose that role it had under Zāyid. The other monarchs in the union respected him, but slowly grew more independent – especially Dubai – eventually questioning the pivotal role of Abū Zabī within the state. He also had less fortunate relations both with the United States, as Washington did not take him seriously, nor regarded him as a true ally, and both with his regional allies, as Saudi Arabia was slowly overshadowing it and also failed to prevent the bitter rivalry with Qatar, led by far more ambitious rulers.

Aš-Šayh Halīfa, second President of the UAE

            Halīfa was also less fortunate, as he was already in poor health in 2004 when he took power at the age of 55. His last major venture was the support he lent to Saudi Arabia and Qatar in the so-called “Arab Spring” regional reconstruction, but he failed to see the matter through. He had no chance of repositioning, as in 2014 – or sometime earlier – suffered a serious stroke, which practically paralyzed him. Due to his already weak health, he had been relying on his ambitious brother Muḥammad before, though for some time he tried to balance him out with eldest younger brother Sulṭān, who was also from another branch of Zāyid’s descendants. Sulṭān was even more critical of the pro-Western policies than Halīfa, but his older brother’s weakness was slowly sidelined and passed away in 2019. Thus opening and completely clearing the way for Muḥammad ibn Zāyid‘s succession. Thought it should be remembered that it was aš-Šayh Zāyid, who appointed him Abū Zabī’s Deputy Crown Prince in 2003, and thus he was the rightful heir since 2004.

One of the last official photos with both Muḥammad ibn Zāyid with his older brother Halīfa ibn Zāyid

            Muḥammad ibn Zāyid did his best to slowly remove Halīfa from the public view and especially internationally, and he has done that successfully. So much so, that the very next day of his brother’s death, he was elected as the new president of the state, while the nation officially still mourns the late ruler.


On a new path

            Muḥammad ibn Zāyid had a radically different vision than that of his father and older brother and did his best to undo the policies he viewed as mistakes by his brother. That was true internally, as much as in international policies.

            It was largely due to him that after the 2008-9 economic crisis Abū Zabī secured its dominance over Dubai in all policymaking, including the economy. When we discussed his path to power and how he positioned his brothers to make them his power base, we discussed how he used several occasions, especially the war in Yemen to secure his grip on all rulers of the other smaller emirates, in which he was exceptionally successful.

            Zāyid imagined a state largely passive in international struggles and supportive of the common Arab matters, while also having excellent relations with the West. Halīfa largely continued this policy, though more critical of the West and trying to limit this dependence. Muḥammad ibn Zāyid, however, embraced his excellent personal connections in the West, and especially his strong influence over the Saudi Crown Prince, and envisioned a strong state that can be the leading Arab power. He has been largely successful, balancing his policies, and having excellent relations with Washington, but avoiding a number of open confrontations otherwise deemed too controversial, or risky. This led him to leave the channels open with Syria and slowly pull closer to Iran, but also paved the way for the normalization policy and signing of the Abraham Accords with Israel. The only noticeable setback for him come in early 2021 when Saudi Arabia reconciled with Qatar and ended the four years long economic blockade against it. Which was largely motivated by Muḥammad ibn Zāyid’s policies.

            The result was a slowly decaying influence in the Middle East, as the Emirates was clearly on the back foot, losing on policies against Qatar, influence over Saudi Arabia, the normalization running out of steam, and failing to secure strong connections with the Biden administration. But Muḥammad ibn Zāyid is a character, who is equally resourceful, as his father was. And as such, he well understood these changing realities. This has already led him to visit Turkey in November 2021, an otherwise key ally of the Emirates’ biggest rival Qatar, which visit was recently reciprocated in February 2022. He also made a historic step by being the first Arab leader since 2011 to meet with Syrian President Baššār al-Asad publicly in March 2022. And most telling of all of his skills, in a surprising twist he was willing to antagonize his relations with Washington, as refused to join the Western sanctions against Russia. Much rather he took a position, which can be understood much more as clear support for Moscow at the time of the Ukrainian crisis. He is a true Machiavellian politician with an excellent crew on his side, and by now taking over, aš-Šayh Zāyid’s true heir in the political sense has taken the throne. That in itself is a huge change.

            However, the Emirates of Muḥammad ibn Zāyid is clearly a very different one than that of his father. While Zāyid was more passive on the international front and conciliatory among his fellow monarchs within the union ruling as more of a primus inter pares, his son is heading to strongly centralized rule over an internationally and regionally leading powerhouse.


A real or formal change?

            It could be argued that with Muḥammad ibn Zāyid now formally taking power over not much will change. After all, he was the main adviser and right-hand-man of Halīfa ibn Zāyid since 2004, the practical ruler at least since 2014, and the true puppet master of all Emirati policies – internal or international – ever since his father’s death.

            However, it should be kept in mind that we are assessing a highly traditional thinking society. Therefore there is a clear difference between what a Crown Prince can do, and what a formal ruler can. Especially, when these limitations are met with such overwhelming ambitions Muḥammad ibn Zāyid shows. So far, though he successfully paved his way for power, there was always the theoretical chance for his removal at any given time, if only by some outer power, and his prerogatives clearly had boundaries. These limitations are now removed. So what does this suggest?

            First of all, his personal prestige, but also that of his country is elevated. Representing the Emirates at any international forum he is not an “acknowledged” theoretical leader with no legal backing anymore, but the formal president.

            Even more importantly, he has the legal foundation to arrange changes in the Emirates’ inner ruling system, might even in the constitution, which so far was out of the question for him. And whatever obstacle he might face on the way, he can wait for the right moment to overcome it. At the age of 61, he is the youngest among the seven Emirati monarchs, and with only alive of the state’s founding generation. Meaning he will be there to arrange changes more positively for him at every succession with some likely to be close. He also has a more free hand to personally approve, sign, or create international agreements. And that might lead to some changes in the power structure at home, making him less dependent on his brothers. Though so far the cooperation between the six full Āl Nahyān brothers worked exceptionally well.

            As a ruler overall, Muḥammad ibn Zāyid has a truly free hand to formulate foreign policy as he likes. Thus suggesting an even more active Emirati presence in the near future. And strong leadership is very much needed at this sensitive time.

            That makes the time of Halīfa’s death somewhat curious, or suspicious in this symbolic period. The region is just after Ramadan, always a time of somewhat fresh start in the Arab world. While the international news is full of details of the Ukrainian crisis, which as well has huge implications for the Middle East, there is long-unseen violence in Palestine causing huge uproars all over the Arab world undermining the so far nurtured normalization process. Also recently Turkey started a new chapter in its “Arab Spring” policies launching a new military operation in Iraq, but also signaling readiness for some sort of reconciliation with Damascus and announcing a plan to expel 1 million Syrian refugees to Syria.

            Also, this last week witnessed two remarkable meetings in Tehran. The first by Syrian President Baššār al-Asad, while the second one only days later by Qatari Emīr Tamīm. None of these meetings were detailed by later reports, somewhat suggesting that the two are connected, as Iran is trying to mediate the reconciliation between Syria and Qatar. And Qatar is the last significant Arab state still objecting to the return of Damascus to the Arab forums. If such a reconciliation was to go through by Iranian mediation with no Emirati involvement, Abū Zabī would once again lose an opportunity to influence regional policy.

            These are challenging times for the Persian Gulf’s Arab states, which need vision and skills. Muḥammad ibn Zāyid is the person with the needed amount of ambition for the task. And it shall be seen soon, how active he will be, as the new lord of the Emirates.